Sometimes I need a little motivation to move my various God-related projects forward. So, thank you, Lord, for Shavuot, which takes place this week. Just the motivation I need.
Shavuot (“Pentecost” in English-ified Greek) is one of the 7 Biblical holy days, still observed by Judaism to this day. Or at least, Judaism observes the commandments that don’t require the Jerusalem Temple to be rebuilt. More on that in a moment.
Traditionally, Judaism sees Shavuot as the time when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai; the giving of Israel’s constitution and the foundation for all Judeo-Christian societies that followed.
It also plays an important role in the New Testament, where during Shavuot the early believers were in Jerusalem for this feast when God’s spirit fell on the disciples and the early community of believers grew by the thousands.
Christians consider it the birth of the Church.
Despite Shavuot playing a crucial role in early Christianity, Christians don’t actually celebrate it; it seems many Christians look at Pentecost as a one-time event, rather than the recurring, yearly holy day the Scriptures call for.
(Odder still, Pentecostal Christians don’t actually celebrate Pentecost! So I guess we cannot call them Shavuotals, as Dry Bones points out. )
The Messianic world absorbs and appreciates both old and new sides of Shavuot. As this Messianic sees it, old and new complement each other: the Torah given to ancient Israel, and God’s spirit given to his people in Jerusalem. The first a constitution for God’s people, the latter a guide and comfort for God’s people. Beautiful symmetry in that.
Messianics have much to be grateful for!
(Thank you, Lord, for the giving of your Torah and your Spirit, which persists to this day among those who love you!)
My friend and Messianic scholar J.K. McKee has outlined the summary of Shavuot traditions.
The challenge when considering Shavuot today, either as Messianic Believers, or simply as a member of the Jewish community, is that much of it is focused around being a harvest festival with animal sacrifices. Without a doubt, Shavuot is intended to be a time when we are to go before God and rejoice. Simply being alive and healthy are adequate reasons enough for us to go before the Lord. But, much of this was intended to be done in Jerusalem at the Temple. How are we to celebrate Shavuot today?
Indeed, examining the 4 Shavuot commandments in the Torah shows a Temple-centeredness.
Appear in Jerusalem for Shavuot
(…and Passover and Sukkot!)
“Three times a year all your men are to appear in the presence of Adonai your God in the place which he will choose — at the festival of matzah, at the festival of Shavuot and at the festival of Sukkot.
- Deuteronomy 16:16
This one really is Temple-centric! The other week I showed that the Torah demands an interpretation, citing this verse as a great example: what does it mean to “appear before the presence of the Lord”? Where is “the place that God will choose”?
From the context of broader Scripture and from Judaic writings, we know that the place God chose is Jerusalem (II Chronicles 33, to cite one of many examples), and to “appear before the Lord” meant to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem and bring an offering.
McKee notes that we also have extra-biblical confirmation that this is indeed how ancient Israel kept Shavuot:
“Those [who come] from nearby bring figs and grapes, but those [who come] from afar bring dried figs and raisins. And an ox walks before them, its horns overlaid with gold, and a wreath of olive [leaves] on its head. A flutist plays before them until they arrive near Jerusalem. [Once] they arrived near Jerusalem, they sent [a messenger] ahead of them [to announce their arrival], and they decorated their firstfruits. The high officers, chiefs, and treasurer [of the Temple] come out to meet them. According to the rank of the entrants, they would [determine which of these officials would] go out. And all the craftsmen of Jerusalem stand before them and greet them, [saying], ‘Brothers, men of such and such a place, you have come in peace’”
Mishna Bikkurim 3:3.
So the first Shavuot commandment is one that really can’t be carried out today. Yes, we could go to Jerusalem, but the Temple is not yet rebuilt. We can’t “appear before the Lord”, at least not in the same way the Torah intends.
Celebrate on Shavuot
(…and on Passover and Sukkot)
Maimonides extracts an additional commandment from the text of Exodus 23:
Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to Me….Unleavened Bread…Shavuot…and Sukkot.
This is one we can keep today – celebrate before the Lord! Shavuot was a time of giving the best of one’s harvest as an offering to God at the Temple.
Without the Temple, we can at least celebrate before God and give thanks with praises and prayer, the fruit of our lips.
Rest on Shavuot
Do not work on Shavuot
On that day you are to proclaim a holy gathering and do no regular work. This is to be a lasting ordinance for all generations to come, wherever you live.
Following his usual mode of interpretation, Maimonides derives 2 commandments from the “do no regular work” source text: rest on Shavuot, and do no prohibited labor on Shavuot.
Interestingly, Maimonides does not list “proclaim a holy gathering” as a commandment. I’m guessing he figured it is already a commandment in the form of “appear before the Lord at the place he chooses”, the commandment discussed above.
God makes a point to say Shavuot is both eternal and global. This has implications for this generation; many of us live outside Israel. Yet God says, “wherever you live”. Still others say our religion is enlightened and the old Law obsolete or otherwise no longer binding. Yet God says, “this is a lasting ordinance for all generations to come.”
Bring additional Shavuot offerings
On the day of firstfruits, when you present to the Lord an offering of new grain during the Festival of Weeks, hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. Present a burnt offering of two young bulls, one ram and seven male lambs a year old as an aroma pleasing to the Lord. With each bull there is to be a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with oil; with the ram, two-tenths; and with each of the seven lambs, one-tenth. Include one male goat to make atonement for you. Offer these together with their drink offerings, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its grain offering. Be sure the animals are without defect.
This one, I feel, Maimonides does not do proper justice. As with many of the sacrifice commandments, he skims over all details, lumping them all into the catch-all “bring additional offerings on Shavuot.”
Looking at the text, we’ve got these Shavuot harvest offerings:
- 2 young bulls
- 1 ram
- 7 male lambs
- 10 grain offerings of fine mixed flour
- 1 male goat
- Drink offerings to coincide with all the offerings
All the animals offered were without blemish, and this was in addition to the daily sacrifices.
These would be sacrifices offered by the priests in the Temple, as I understand it, and not by each person. However, each person did bring grain offerings from the harvest, as we read earlier in the Mishna.
Bring 2 loaves as a wave offering
From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the Lord. Present with this bread seven male lambs, each a year old and without defect, one young bull and two rams. They will be a burnt offering to the Lord, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings—a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.
In addition to the special Shavuot offerings of grain, bulls, lambs, and drink offerings, Maimonides adds another commandment for the two loaves as a wave offering to God, offered alongside the animal offerings.
Why two loaves?
Thinking out loud here, there may be a link to the previous feast, Passover. At Passover, we eat unleavened bread for 7 days. After which, we count the omer up to the 50th day, which is Shavuot. Enter the two leaven loaves, signifying a restoration. A harvest.
Messiah’s arrival may inform our understand here. The two loaves may symbolize the giving of the Torah and the Spirit. Both are waved before God as a pleasing offering.
A joyful chag to you, fine Kineti reader! And a rest-filled shabbat.