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Shavuot—The Festival of Weeks, the Holy Temple, and the Land of Israel

25 May, 2012

Although it has fewer days than Passover or Sukkot, the other two “pilgrimage holidays,” during which the Israelites would ascend to Jerusalem to visit the Holy Temple, Shavuot is an equally important festival.  Literally translated as the “festival of weeks,” Shavuot (also known in English as the Pentecost) comes at the end of counting seven complete weeks from the holiday of Passover.  The counting itself is a daily obligation (Leviticus 23:16), marking the days between the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:31-42) to the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20) that occurred seven weeks later.

But the 50 days (7 full weeks) between Passover and Shavuot, marking two emotional highs in the story of redemption, also represents an agricultural passage. It is called counting the omer. An omer is a measure of barley. Traditionally, the day after Passover marked the first day of the barley harvest. Barley was brought to the Temple, where it was used in an offering that was waved in the air by one of the priests (Leviticus 23:10-11).

The end of the counting of the omer, Shavuot, is the beginning of the wheat harvest. Wheat ripens at the end of the spring—as opposed to barley which ripens at the beginning of the spring. In the Temple offering for the holiday were  the first two loaves of bread baked with wheat reaped, threshed and ground from the new harvest (Leviticus 23:15-17). In Hebrew, Shavuot also called chag hakatzir, the holiday of reaping.

Shavuot is tied to the Land of Israel in other ways. Barley and wheat farming were vital part of ancient Israel’s economy. This is described in the book of Ruth (see Ruth 2), which is read in synagogue on the holiday.

When the Holy Temple existed, Shavuot was the also holiday of “first fruits.”  People came from all over Israel with the first offerings of the seven species (Deuteronomy 8:8) as tributes to God. The first fruits were then donated to the priestly tribe, whose work in the Temple meant they did not farm land themselves. These first fruits were given in a basket, along with a recitation that recalled the trials of enslavement in Egypt and the miraculous rescue.

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.  But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor.  Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.  So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)

Although the Temple offerings have ceased, we can still feel the soaring joy of Shavuot. How? Beyond recalling the awe and excitement of receiving the law at Mount Sinai, we also have come into our land after generations away from it. Just as the bearer of first fruits began his offering, we too can invoke God’s promises to us, as it is written in Deuteronomy 26:3: “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

 
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