According to the Rabbis, Shavuot, like the other festivals of the Jewish year, has a specific date on the calendar; it is celebrated each year on the sixth day of Sivan. However, a cursory glance at the table of festivals in Leviticus chapter 23 reveals that Shavuot stands out from the other festivals ordained in that chapter – Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot:
4 These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time: 5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a Passover offering to the Lord, 6 and on the fifteenth day of that month the Lord’s Feast of Unleavened Bread… 7 On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations…
9 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 10 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. 11 He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the Sabbath….
15 And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the Sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: 16 you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. 17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread…as first fruits to the Lord. …21 On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations…
24 … In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts…
27 Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement…
34 … On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days…
The Feast of Unleavened Bread is celebrated on the fifteenth of the first month, Nisan; Rosh Hashanah on the first day of the seventh month, Tishrei; Yom Kippur on the tenth of that month; and Sukkot on the fifteenth of that same month. Shavuot, by contrast, is a day without a date; it is celebrated fifty days after another day without date, the day following the Sabbath of the barley harvest, on which the Omer, a sheaf of barley, is offered to God in the Temple along with other sacrifices. The day of the Omer offering itself is not a festival, but fifty days afterwards, which the Torah assures us will coincide with the first wheat harvest, Shavuot is celebrated as a pilgrimage festival. It is the only festival in the list without a fixed date.
Second Temple Jews were uncomfortable with the fluidity of the date of the Feast of Weeks. The Rabbis reinterpreted the phrase “the day after the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11), the day on which the Omer sheaf is to be offered, to mean the day after the sacred occasion mentioned in verse 7, the first day of Passover, which, like the weekly Sabbath, is a day on which work was prohibited. Thus Shavuot is celebrated according to the Rabbis each year on the sixth of Sivan, fifty days after the Omer offering, which itself is invariably offered on the sixteenth of Nisan, the second day of Passover.
According to the Rabbis, this calculation was that of the Second Temple sect known as the Pharisees, considered the forebears of the Rabbis themselves. A rival Second Temple sect, the Boethusians, disputed this calculation, interpreting the phrase “the day after the Sabbath” as referring not to the day after the first day of Passover (Mishnah Menhaot 10:3), but to a Sunday (Mishnah Hagigah 2:4). Until recently the Boethusian position has been interpreted as referring to the Sunday of the Passover week itself. Recent scholarship, however, has interpreted the Boethusian position in light of the position of the book of Jubilees and the Qumran documents, according to which the Sabbath in question is the Sabbath following the entire Passover week. According to the solar calendar employed in the communities responsible for these documents, this Sabbath inevitably falls on the twenty-fifth of Nisan, and the following Sunday is always the twenty-sixth of Nisan. (According to this calendar, Nisan, the first month, always begins on a Wednesday, the day the sun was created; and thus the first day of Passover, the fifteenth of Nisan, is always a Wednesday, and the Saturday after Passover is always the twenty-fifth of Nisan.) The Omer is thus invariably offered, according to these Second Temple Jews, on the twenty-sixth of Nisan, and Shavuot is invariably celebrated on Sunday, the fifteenth of Sivan.
It is unlikely that either of these dates bestowed upon Shavuot during the Second Temple period – the sixth or fifteenth of Sivan – accurately reflects the original meaning of the biblical text. If the Omer was consistently offered on the sixteenth or twenty-sixth of the first month, Nisan, and if Shavuot invariably fell fifty days later, on the sixth or fifteenth of the third month, Sivan, why wouldn’t Leviticus give the correct date, as it does for the other festivals? The impression one gets from Leviticus is that there are festivals that occur on specific days of the year – Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, but the offerings of the first fruits of the barley and wheat harvests are not among them: these are celebrated on the Sunday of the harvests themselves, on whichever calendar date they happen to fall each year. The day on which the first fruits of the wheat harvest is offered, Shavuot, is a sacred occasion on which work is prohibited and pilgrimage is made to the Temple, just like Passover and Sukkot, but unlike them, it does not take place on specific date. It takes place fifty days after the Sunday of the barley harvest.
A comparison of the festival calendar of Leviticus 23, in which Shavuot is uniquely “dateless”, with the festival calendars of Exodus 23, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 16, reveals that Leviticus 23 is unique in providing calendar dates for Passover and Sukkot. In the other lists of festivals, all three pilgrimage festivals are celebrated in accordance with the cycle of nature, rather than on specific dates. Exodus 23 has us celebrate Passover “at the set time in the month of the milky grain” (verse 15), Shavuot upon the appearance of “the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field”, and Sukkot “at the end of the year” (verse 16); the times of celebration of these festivals according to Exodus 33 are similar. In Deuteronomy 16 the three festivals are likewise dateless: Passover is observed in the month of the milky grain (verse 1); Shavuot seven weeks after “the sickle is first put to the standing grain” (verse 9); and Sukkot at “the ingathering from your threshing floor and vat” (verse 13).
Thus Exodus and Deuteronomy would have us celebrate all three pilgrimage festivals in accordance with the cycles of nature, while Second Temple Jews gave specific dates for all three festivals. This can easily be explained as a result of urbanization: city dwellers would not necessarily know “when the sickle is first put to the standing grain” or when the ingathering from the threshing floor and vat takes place. Nor would they see the festivals primarily as opportunities to give thanks for these agricultural blessings. Historical explanations of the festivals – Passover as a celebration of the Exodus, for example, and Shavuot as a celebration of the Giving of the Torah – also helped gave rise to the association of specific dates with each of these festivals.
Two questions remain to be answered; however:
If the Omer offering celebrates the barley harvest, and Shavuot the wheat harvest, why not have each celebrated independently? Even if the wheat harvest naturally follows seven weeks after the barley harvest, why celebrate one in terms of the other? Why should the celebration of the first fruits of the wheat harvest take place seven weeks after the barley harvest and the Omer offering, and not, say, the first Sunday after the wheat harvest? And why do Leviticus, Deuteronomy and the Rabbis insist that counting the time passed from the Omer offering to Shavuot be part of the observance?
Why does Leviticus 23 give calendar dates for Passover, Sukkot, and other festivals, but retain the agricultural timing for the Omer offering and Shavuot?
I believe the Torah anticipated the move from an agricultural to an urban community, but wished nonetheless to highlight the fact that a farmer’s worship of God is worship at its purest. The dependency that a farmer feels as he thanks God for the barley harvest and awaits the wheat harvest, wondering whether it will follow, as it ought to, fifty days later – literally counting the days in anticipation, and celebrating his relief when the wheat does grow in as it should with an outpouring of joy – is the sense that all of us should try to have when we worship God, even as we buy flour and bread year round in the supermarket.
Counting the days from the barley harvest to the wheat harvest, like a farmer, is a true religious experience. Something of this experience is lost in the city: the dates of most of the festivals were turned into calendar dates. But Leviticus wanted us to remember that these calendar dates originally reflected a farmer’s anxiety and a farmer’s relief, a farmer’s dependency on God and a farmer’s love of God, and retained the farmer’s dating of two of the agricultural occasions: the Omer offering and the Shavuot festival. And even when the Rabbis translated the times of the Omer offering and Shavuot into calendar dates, they wanted us to remember that they were originally dates in the natural cycle of the farmer’s year, which he counted day by day and week by week in expectation, without recourse to any artificial calendar. That is why they have us count like a farmer, echoing the farmer’s anxiety and hope that God will grant us an adequate wheat harvest when expected, and experiencing a farmer’s joy when the count is completed successfully. It is this experience that gives the name to the festival: the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot.
Moshe Benovitz is professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.