Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the single most important event in Israel’s history: the giving of the Torah (the first five books in the Hebrew Bible) to Moses at Mount Sinai. Although it is not as well known among non-Jews as Passover or Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, it is one of the three major festivals often called “pilgrim” festivals because all Jewish males were required to observe them at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
More than 3,000 years ago, after leaving Egypt on the night of Passover, the Jews traveled to the Sinai desert. There, they experienced divine revelation as God gave the Jewish people His Law. In Deuteronomy 4:10–13, Moses reminded the people of that experience:
“Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb [Sinai] . . . You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the Lord spoke . . . He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.”
Shavuot is the culmination of the seven weeks between Passover and the giving of the Law. Indeed, the very term Shavuot means “weeks.” Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after the first day of Passover, it is sometimes known as Pentecost, which is a Greek word that means “fifty.” Jesus’ followers were in Jerusalem celebrating Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to them, and so, many churches today celebrate Pentecost as the birth of the church.
The two holidays, Passover and Shavuot, are linked by more than just their proximity. The Exodus from Egypt, which Passover celebrates, marked the beginning of physical freedom for the Jewish people. But Shavuot is a reminder for the Jews that physical liberation was incomplete without the spiritual redemption represented by receiving God’s law. Shavuot is also called Atzeret, meaning “the completion,” because together with Passover it forms the completion of a unit. Jews gained their freedom from Egypt on Passover in order to receive the Torah on Shavuot.
The earlier celebrations of Shavuot were more agricultural in nature and motif. In ancient times, sheaves of barley (the winter crop) were brought to the Temple each day, starting on Passover until Shavuot, the beginning of the harvesting season 50 days later. Farmers looked forward to Shavuot with great anticipation. When it finally arrived, the people would bring their first fruits to the Temple amid great pomp and ceremony. They rejoiced before God and thanked Him for their material blessings.
With the destruction of the Second Temple and the forced separation of the Jewish people from their land, the centrality of the harvest motif diminished. Instead, the theme of the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai gained dominance—a theme continued today.
Many Jews today celebrate Shavuot by staying up the entire night studying and learning the Torah. At synagogue services on Shavuot morning, the Ten Commandments are read and the people reaffirm their commitment to treasure and obey God’s Law. According to a well-known Jewish Midrash (the oral traditions that eventually were written down), God initially offered the Torah to each of 70 nations, who would not accepted it without first asking what it was about. After hearing the commandments, each nation had some excuse for not accepting them. God finally turned to the nation of Israel, who said “kol asher diber Adonai na’aseh,” which means “all that the LORD says we will do.” Unlike the other nations, Israel chose the Torah before knowing its contents (Exodus 19:8).
Today, after the reading of the Ten Commandments during Shavuot, Jews reaffirm their commitment to God, to the Torah, and to their faith, by repeating those same words: “All that the LORD says we will do.”
The book of Ruth is also traditionally read on Shavuot morning because of its link to the harvest season (when the story takes place) and because of Ruth’s acceptance of the Jewish faith and God. Ruth was a brave, non-Jewish woman, whose love for God and the Torah led her to convert to Judaism. Ruth has a further connection to Shavuot because she was the great-grandmother of King David who, according to tradition, was born and died on Shavuot.