Yael Eckstein | May 24, 2023
In this excerpt from her book, Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Yael discusses the history and meaning of Shavuot, which begins this year at sundown on Thursday, May 25, and explores what both Jews and Christians can learn from this holiday known as the “Festival of Harvest.”
Shavuot – Practicing Gratitude
An imperfectly written letter straight from my heart is more meaningful than the most eloquent Hallmark card. So, too, a prayer of gratitude straight from the heart, no matter how lacking it may be, is accepted by God and is beloved to Him.
Certainly, God does not need anything from us. Undoubtedly, there is nothing that we could ever give to God that would fully express our gratitude for everything that He has given to us. However, God is not concerned with our physical gifts to Him. He loves the sentiments of gratitude behind those gifts. It does not matter how little or how much we have to offer, rather it is the recognition of the goodness that God has provided that makes the gifts meaningful. In the Christian Bible, Paul also taught that our heart is the key in bringing God our gifts, “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have” (2 Corinthians 8:12).
The Festival of Harvest
In the Jewish faith, the principle of gratitude is intricately woven into the holy day known as Shavuot, one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in the Bible. In Leviticus 23, the Bible instructs us to observe the holiday of Shavuot seven weeks after Passover. Shavuot, appropriately, means “weeks,” as it marks the conclusion of counting these specified weeks. (In old Greek and Latin, this same festival became known as Pentecost. Pentecost means “fifty,” and like Shavuot, refers to the fifty days between Passover and the following holiday).
On this holiday, also called the “Festival of Harvest,” we are directed to, “Celebrate the Festival of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field” (Exodus 23:16). The Hebrew word for “firstfruits” is bikurim, which gives the holiday its third biblical name, Yom HaBikurim, the “day of firstfruits” (Numbers 28:26). Bringing to God the firstfruits — meaning the best of the harvest — is a tangible expression of our thankfulness and gratitude.
A Trip Back to Temple Times
Judaism’s Oral Tradition provides a beautiful description of what bringing the firstfruits looked like in Temple times. When an Israelite saw the first emergence of one of the seven species of the land — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranate, olives, or dates, as designated in Deuteronomy 8:8 — he tied a string around it, designating it as his firstfruits. On Shavuot, these firstfruits were presented to God at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (or before Temple times, at the Tabernacle).
With great pomp and pageantry, the people traveled to Jerusalem with their firstfruits in a basket on their shoulders along with an ox adorned with gilded horns and a crown of olive tree branches to lead the way. Festive music and singing accompanied the joyful procession. When the pilgrims bearing fruit entered the city of Jerusalem, the city’s artisans, officers, and governors greeted them saying, “Our people [of such and such a place], enter in peace!”
Once at the Temple, the firstfruits were given to the priests, and the pilgrim recited a prescribed biblical passage from Deuteronomy 26:5–10, remembering the past difficulties that the nation of Israel encountered from the time of the Patriarch Jacob until they settled in the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). The ceremony concluded with giving thanks to God for the land and the fruit of the land and rejoicing in God’s goodness: “Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household” (Deuteronomy 26:11).
The Lessons of Shavuot
Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews were no longer able to observe this ritual, and Shavuot took on a different significance. Today, Shavuot is observed primarily as the day upon which Israel received the Torah on Mount Sinai 3,000 years ago. According to tradition, God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel on the 6th day of the Hebrew month Sivan, the same day as Shavuot. Accordingly, the focus of Shavuot today is on Bible study, including the widely held custom to stay up all night studying the Bible.
It is true that we can no longer give God our firstfruits literally, but through all-encompassing Bible study, we can give God the best we have to offer Him spiritually as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. We give ourselves to God by studying His Word, dedicating our lives to His purposes, and by recognizing that He alone is the source of all blessings.