Shavuot is unique among the three pilgrim festivals as described in the following table and explained in the following partgraphs.
|Reason (in Torah)
|Miracles in desert
|Sukkah, Four species
In Israel, Shavuot is only one day as opposed to Passover which is 7 days and Succoth which is also 7 days with the eight day Shemini Atzeret a separate holiday.
In addition the dates of Passover and Succoth are fixed to the fifteenth of their respective months, Nissan and Tishrei. By contrast Shavuot is not fixed to a given day of Sivan; rather it occurs fifty days after the start of Passover. With our fixed calendar Shavuot always occurs on the sixth of Sivan. However when the Sanhedrin determined the new month, Shavuot could occur on the 5th, 6th, or 7th of Sivan because the months of Nissan and Iyar could be either 29 or 30 days.
The Torah provides an historical reason for Passover namely the swift exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:3) and for Succoth (Leviticus 23:43), “I caused the children of Israel to dwell in Succoth when I took them from the land of Egypt”. By contrast the Torah describes Shavuot as an agricultural festival without historical context (Leviticus 23:16-21 and Deuteronomy 16:9-10).
Hashem commands specific personal mitzvoth on Passover (Seder – Exodus 13:8 and eating matzo – Exodus 12:18) and on Succoth (Sukkah – Leviticus 23:43 and four species – Leviticus 23:40). By contrast Hashem did not command a specific personal mitzvah on Shavuot. Although the torah commands resting on Shavuot this command applies equally to the other pilgrim festivals.
Of course there are many approaches to explain the uniqueness of Shavuot. This article will focus on primary texts, Torah and Talmud. It is interesting to note that despite Shavuot being mentioned several times in the Torah, namely Exodus 23:16, Exodus 34:22, Leviticus 23:16-21, Numbers 28:26, and Deuteronomy 16:9-10 none of these verses mention the reason for this holiday. In fact all of these verses indentify Shavuot as an agricultural festival marking the end of the grain harvest and beginning of the fruit harvest. For this reason Shavuot is a one day festival to allow the farmers to continue their work until completing the fruit and vegetable harvest before Succoth. However the agricultural aspect does not explain the other differences.
Receiving of the Torah
Shavuot also commemorates receiving of the Torah on the sixth of Sivan. (Rabbi Yose holds that the Torah was given on the seventh of Sivan. Both opinions hold the Torah was given on Sabbath and the Israelites left Egypt on Thursday 15 Nissan 2448. They argue over the first day of Sivan, Monday according to the Rabbis and Sunday according to Rabbi Yose (Shabbat 86b). In any event the majority view is the sixth of Sivan.) This approach explains all of the differences listed above. One day observance of Shavuot is sufficient, as a symbol, because in reality Torah must be studied every day of the year. Shavuot does not fall on a specific date to teach that Torah cannot be acquired at a specific date. Rather it is a gradual process, climbing a ladder rung by rung, reflected in the counting of the 49 days of the Omer. The written Torah does not provide an historical reason for Shavuot because Hashem wants the Jews to assiduously study the oral law, especially the Talmud, to find this reason. In a similar manner Hashem did not command a specific, personal mitzvah for Shavuot to allow each Jew to find his own meaning and practice for Shavuot, based on his character and intense study.
The Talmud (Shabbat 87a) expounds the verses in Exodus 19:1-14, according to the Rabbis, to develop the following timeline:
|Verse Exodus 19
|Arrival at Sinai – גזרה שוה
|Message from Hashem – kingdom of priests, holy nation
|Message from Hashem – set boundaries around mountain
|Message from Hashem – separate from wives for 3 days
|16 – 19
|Giving of Torah – third day
The Talmud employs a גזרה שוה on the word הזה to link Exodus 12:2 (first day of Nissan) to Exodus 19:1 to establish that the Israelites arrived at Sinai on the first day of Sivan. From this derivation we can see that Hashem gave the Torah on the sixth of Sivan. In addition without the Talmud we would not have known, neither that the Israelites arrived at Sinai on the first day of Sivan nor how many days elapsed between arrival and the three days of separation.
Furthermore without the oral law we would not even know the proper day to observe Shavuot. The Torah, in Leviticus 23:15, commands the counting of the Omer starting “From the morrow of the rest day”. Following the literal meaning of the verse one would start counting on the day following Shabbat in Passover. This means that Shavuot would always fall on Sunday! In fact the Sadducees, a Jewish sect during the second temple who only accepted the written Torah and rejected the oral law, observed Shavuot on Sunday. They reasoned that Moses was a lover of Israel and he knew that Shavuot is one day (in Israel). Therefore he established the holiday after the Sabbath so that the Jewish people could enjoy themselves for two days (Menachot 65a). The Talmud dispels this notion; by countering that if Moses loved his people why were they in the desert for 40 years? Rabbi Ishmael (Menachot 65b) proves that the “rest day” of Leviticus 23:15 refers to Passover and not the Sabbath by means of a scriptural comparison called היקש. Just as the two loaf offering of Shavuot (Lev. 23:17) occurs at the beginning of its festival so does the Omer offering (Lev. 23:10) occur towards the beginning of Passover, in fact one day after the start of Passover. At the time of the temple, the first day of Passover could fall on any day of the week. Therefore the Omer could be offered on any day of the week and not necessarily on Sunday, thereby disproving the contention of the Sadducees. The written Torah did not indicate the date of the giving of the Torah because Hashem wants the Jews to assiduously study the oral law, both to clarify the written law and expound upon it to find additional meanings and instructions.
Additional Meaning – Two, Leaven, Wheat
Following this line of reasoning, one may ask what additional meanings could be ascribed to Shavuot, seeing that we are not commanded upon a specific, personal mitzvah. We can examine the communal, temple offerings which are unique to Shavuot and compare them to other grain offerings to provide clues of Hashem’s perspective of Shavuot. The Torah commands the Israelites to bring a communal offering of two leaven loaves of wheat on Shavuot to be eaten by the priests (Lev. 23:17). Communal grain offerings, whether daily, weekly on Shabbat, or on holidays, consist of flour and oil which are then burned completely on the altar (Numbers 28:5,9 etc). The Omer offering (Leviticus 23:10) similarly consists of flour and oil but only a fistful of grain is offered on the altar with the rest eaten by the kohanim (priests).
Only two communal grain offerings consists of loaves, the show bread of twelve loaves (Leviticus 24:5-9), representing the 12 tribes and the two loaves on Shavuot corresponding to two forms of the Torah, written and oral, which Hashem gave to the Israelites on Shavuot. Both of these loaf offerings are eaten by the kohanim.
The Shavuot offering is unique in that this is the only communal offering of leaven. In fact all grain offerings, both communal and personal, are unleavened (Menachot 52b) except for the communal Shavuot and personal thanksgiving offerings (Lev. 7:13). This implies that even though we study torah every day, we give a special thanks to Hashem on Shavuot for the giving of the Torah. In fact the Talmud Pesachim 68b recounts that Rabbi Yosef, who was blind, would make a special meal on Shavuot and declare, “If not for this day of on which the Torah was given how many Yosefs would be in the market?” It is only due to the importance of Torah study, especially the oral Torah, that he became a leader of the Jewish people, and he therefore had a special obligation to rejoice on this day.
In addition to thanksgiving, leaven has the connotation of expansion and growth indicating that one should grow in his Torah studies. In fact by examining the word leaven, חמץ, we can derive additional meanings to this theme. By rearranging the letters we obtain צמח which means growth. In addition the gematria of חמץ is 138 which is the same as the word לקח (teaching) as in Proverbs 4:2 ,כי לקח טוב נתתי לכם, (For I have given you a good teaching), implying growth through Torah. In addition by rearranging the letters of לקח we obtain חלק which means portion or share, implying a direct connection with Hashem as in Deuteronomy 32:9 כי חלק ה עמו (For Hashem’s portion is his people). Similarly the blessing on a Torah scholar שחלק מחכמתו ליראיו (shared of his knowledge to those who revere him) emphasizes sharing of divine knowledge with Israel, leading to a life in the world to come, כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא (Sanhedrin 90a).
Since all communal grain offerings are of wheat except for the omer offering which is barley, the significance of wheat on Shavuot must be in contrast to the omer. According to the Talmud Sotah 14a, barley, which is used for animal feed, represents the animal side of human nature. By contrast wheat, typically consumed by humans, represents knowledge (Talmud Berachot 40a). In fact, Rabbi Yehuda states that the tree of knowledge was a wheat stalk. Based upon this understanding, the Zohar(3:98b) links the barley, omer offering to the wheat offering of Shavuot as a progression from physical freedom at Passover, through the exodus from Egypt, to spiritual freedom at Shavuot through the giving of the Torah at Sinai. As stated in Avot 6:2 true freedom belongs to one who engages in the study of Torah. The following table summarizes the differences between grain offerings of Shavuot and those of the community.
|Torah – written and oral
|Thanksgiving and expansion
|Knowledge (spiritual freedom) compared to omer (physical freedom)
Even though Hashem did not command any specific, personal mitzvoth on Shavuot, many have the custom to:
- Stay up Shavuot night and study Torah.
- Eat dairy foods.
It is interesting to note that both of these customs are neither mentioned in the Talmud nor in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.
The Zohar(3:97b) mentions the first custom and is noted by the later authorities including Mishnah Brurah (Orach Chaim 494:1). The night of Shavuot is an ideal opportunity to study Torah because this a time of divine inspiration and revelation. In addition, the study at night prepares one for the symbolic receiving of the Torah in the morning, reflected by the Torah reading of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-14). The haftarah for the first day of Shavuot, Ezekiel’s vision of the celestial chariot (Ezekiel 1:1-28), similarly follows the theme of inspiration and revelation.
The code of Jewish law (שלחן ערוך) mentions this custom in Orach Chaim (494:3), according to Ashkenazi Jewry. In fact some Sephardic Jews are lactose intolerant and eat pastries with honey to symbolize the sweetness of Torah (Psalms 19:11 and Song of Songs 4:11). Even though there are many reasons for this custom this article will list a few which are mentioned by the major halachic codifiers. (The reader can find many other reasons online. For example Rabbi Isaac Rice on YU Torah online provides 28 reasons for this custom!) https://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/879148/rabbi-isaac-rice/28-delicious-reasons-for-eating-milchigs-on-shavuos/
The following reasons are found in the code of Jewish law אורח חיים chapter 494 and its commentaries:
- We eat a dairy meal at first and then a meat meal, requiring two loaves of bread corresponding to the two loaves of Shavuot (רמא 494:3).
- Since the Torah was given on Shabbat the Israelites could not slaughter fresh meat nor use previously improperly slaughtered meat, they eat dairy (משנה ברורה 494:12).
- The Torah is compared to milk and honey – Song of Songs 4:11 (משנה ברורה 494:13).
- Milk represents a transformation from death to life and from impurity to purity as a woman passes from her cycle to pregnancy. Similarly during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot the Israelites were transformed from slavery to spiritual freedom מגן אברהם 494:6.
- The angels rejoiced when Modes broke the tablets because they felt the Torah belongs to them and not man. However Hashem countered that the angels, when visiting Abraham, appeared to eat meat with milk (Genesis 18:8). To show our worthiness to the Torah we eat separate dairy and meat meals באר היטב 494:8.
- A hint to dairy (חלב) is found in the opening letters of the following phrase taken from Numbers 28:26, which describes the mussaf offering on Shavuot חדשה לה בשבעתיכם ערוך השלחן 494:5.
The following reasons are based upon the text of the Torah:
- The נזירות שמשון says the גמטריה of חלב is 40, corresponding to the 40 days on הר סיני.
- On Shavuot Hashem judges the trees for fruit (Rosh Hashanah 16a). Twice in the Torah (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26) the verse commands the mitzvah of first fruit before the mitzvah of mixing meat with milk. The Targum Yonatan on Exodus 34:26 explains the punishment for not separating meat and milk will result in a poor crop. Hence we eat separate dairy and meat meals, to observe this law scrupulously at the beginning of the fruit harvestחתן סופר עה”ת (שבועות).
The uniqueness of Shavuot and its hidden meanings can be explained by delving into the oral Torah, which is the message of this holiday.