Shavuot – a celebration of receiving the Torah and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness
Photo Credit: KUL Heschel Center
Shavuot is a time of thanksgiving for the first fruits of the spring harvest. It is also a time of a great gratitude to God for His Covenant of love, for receiving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments. It is a time of spiritual rebirth and the awakening of the desire to hear God’s voice who speaks to us in His Word – writes in her commentary for the Heschel Center of the Catholic University of Lublin, the superior of the sisters of the Community of the Beatitudes in Emmaus-Nicopolis, Israel, Sr. Eliana Kuryło CB, a tutor of ancient Hebrew at the Biblical Institute of Toulouse. Celebrated on the 6th of Sivan, Shavuot is one of the three main Jewish Pilgrimage Festivals.
Shavuot – the Festival of Weeks
Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Shalosh Regalim) during which Jews used to come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. This festival is called the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: שבועות [shavuot], literally weeks), because God commanded His people that seven weeks after the end of Passover, an offering of the first harvest of wheat should be offered to Him.
7 weeks, 49 days and 49 grains of omer offering
The Festival of Weeks was an agricultural festival and is also be called the Festival of Harvest or the Festival of First fruits. In Israel, the Passover marked the beginning of barley harvest. Seven weeks later, the wheat harvest would take place around Shavuot time. At the time of the festival, in addition to the daily food and libations offerings, two loaves of bread made of the new wheat flour were also brought as an offering.
Seven weeks are in fact 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. During each day of that period one grain of wheat is counted. 49 grains correspond to one sheaf of wheat cut during the first harvest of the season or omer – a grain offering that was used to brought to the Jerusalem Temple.
The number of grains that make up the omer and the number of days between the holidays was and is counted according to the commandment found in Leviticus 23:15-16: “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD.”
49 levels of spiritual impurity and God’s faithful love
Counting grains of wheat for 49 days has yet another dimension. Jewish tradition speaks of 50 levels of spiritual impurity. Once you reach the last one, there is no coming back. After two hundred years in Egyptian bondage, the Hebrews sunk to the 49th level of inner impurity. This is precisely when God called Moses and sent him to his people in order to remind them that He still remembered the Covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
God could not allow for the last spark of goodness and faithfulness to be lost in the sons of Israel. He led His people out of slavery, and less than three months after leaving Egypt, He gave them the Torah and the Ten Commandments as their inheritance, as the eternal signpost to prevent them from spiritually falling to such a low level ever again.
The time of the giving of the Torah and the Covenant
The festival of Shavuot is associated with receiving of the Ten Commandments by Moses on Mount Sinai. This event is also interpreted as the receiving of the entire Torah and God sealing the Covenant with the sons of Israel.
At Sinai, God allowed every woman and man present to hear His voice. At the same time, each individual had to decide how much he or she wanted to allow God to be truly present in their lives. This is one of the lessons of this festival – to remember that the Covenant and God’s presence are the bond of unity of the entire people of Israel. God and His Law also gives spiritual growth, internally enriches, strengthens and guides everyone every day.
Greenery and flowers
There is a custom to decorate one’s home with greenery and flowers during Shavuot. This serves to recall Mount Sinai, which was surrounded by foliage, as it is written (Exodus 34, 3): “Even the flock and the cattle may not graze facing that mountain.” The fruits ripening in Israel at that time remind of the future day of God’s Judgment, when we will have to give an account of the fruits that our lives and deeds have brought. It serves as a motivation for a greater spiritual effort, revival in prayer and a time of inner renewal.
Not to miss God’s visitation
On the night of Shavuot, synagogues organize all-night Torah reading and study. According to the Midrash, one of the reasons for reading the Torah all night is that the Hebrews overslept on the day that it was given. The sun had already risen, God’s Presence was manifest on Mount Sinai, yet the people were still sleeping. Moses went through the camp to arouse them; he cried: “Arise from your sleep! The groom [God] has already arrived. He seeks His bride [Israel]!” Remembering this story, the early scholars wanted to make reparation for Hebrews having overslept and almost missing God’s Revelation. The custom was taken up later on by Jews from all walks of life.
This story, as well as the whole festival of Shavuot, awakens the desire not to miss the moment of God’s visitation in our lives and arises in us the longing and readiness to hear God’s voice speaking to us in His Word.
About the author
Sr Eliana Kuryło CB – an English teacher and translator by education, a tutor of ancient Hebrew at the Biblical Institute in Toulouse. She led Bible workshops at the student chaplaincies in New Zealand and Toulouse, France. She has been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue for many years. She is currently the superior of the sisters at the Community of the Beatitudes in Emmaus-Nicopolis, Israel.