By: Rivka C. Berman, Contributor
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With a market basket of symbols, customs and inner meanings, the holiday of Shavuot arrives on the 6th of Sivan, June 6th and 7th, 2008. A quick look at Shavuot’s many names helps explain this festival. Two names closely associate the holiday with Temple rites in ancient Jerusalem: Shavuot and Chag Hakatsir. While modern day practice is enriched by viewing Shavuot through its third name, Zman Matan Torateinu.
Shavuot - Pentecost
Shavuot in Temple Times
On Shavuot a different sort of ritual was performed with the first of the wheat. Unlike all other gift offerings that were accompanied by matzah, Shavuot featured a two-loaf bread offering (in addition to a roundup of bulls, rams, and goats). Fine flour with a sourdough starter formed the basis for the square loaves. Kohanim, who served in the Temple, would consume the bread after it had been waved in different sections of the Temple.
Why a Bread Offering?
Chag Hakatsir – The Harvest Festival
"Three times of year you should keep a feast for me…and the feast of the harvest, the first fruits of your labors which you have sown in the field." (Exodus 23:13-16)
The three major holidays mentioned referred to in these verses have agricultural ties. First Passover is celebrated in the spring, when the earth awakens from its winter dormancy. Next is Shavuot when the first fruits and grains would be harvested. Finally, Sukkot is observed when the fully ripened bounty would be gathered. These holidays would find the farmer alternately thanking and beseeching God for a successful planting season. Setting a festival amid the feverish planting, harvesting, gathering called every farmer to acknowledge God’s hand in nature.
Shavuot, along with the other two festivals, was a time of oleh regel (literally, going up on foot). Women and children, young men and old would troop into Jerusalem to observe the holidays together. In ancient times, Shavuot really must have been an incredible celebration.
First Fruits Ceremony at the Temple
So many people descended upon Jerusalem during the shalosh regalim, the three festivals, that archeologists have found what they think were massive hotel-like structures among the Temple mount rubble.
The fruits, known as bikkurim, were the first produce of the season. As soon as farmers noticed signs of ripening, they would tie reed strings around the first fruits as a marker and declared them "bikkurim." Though rabbis advised farmers to give one-sixtieth of their crops as bikkurim, farmers gave according to their means.
Historic accounts describe the bikkurim procession. Traveling by district, villagers would march accompanied by music until they reached the Temple Mount. Runners would advise Temple officials of the group’s imminent arrival. A welcoming committee, proportional to the size of the group would be sent to greet the olim, those who came up to Jerusalem.
Before entering the Temple courtyard, villagers would take few moments would be to rearrange the produce that had gotten jostled along the way. Then all baskets would be hoisted onto the shoulders of their owners. Kohanim, Temple priests, would help each person say the bikkurim prayer. (Deuteronomy 26:3-10) The kohen would wave the fruit in a prescribed manner. All fruits and most of the baskets were presented to the kohanim as gifts. (Leviticus 23:17-20)
First Fruits Today
-To give of ourselves. Giving away a first fruit is a true gift. Farmers worked and worried about drought, blight, flies, rots and worms. They toiled. Sweat mixed with tears, soil and debt. To let these first fruits go to the Temple took a measure of self-sacrifice. To give first fruits (your time, your energy, your love) is a holy act.
-Equality. Everyone was obligated to bring bikkurim, from the impoverished subsistence farmer to the king. Everyone had to feel the weight of the fruit on their shoulders.
Zman Matan Torateinu
– The Anniversary
of Receiving the Torah
Based on some scriptural hints, the rabbis equated Shavuot with Zman Matan Torateinu, the time of receiving the Torah. (The rabbis created Chanuka and Purim, too.) Many of Shavuot’s observances reflect this understanding of the holiday.
Mazor Guide to Shavuot, Pentecost, brings you much more about the holiday, its meaning and its traditions... See the links below.
MazorGuide Recommended Reading
- ArtScroll Edition
The ArtScroll Series presents the comments of the classic giants of ancient and contemporary times in a logical, comprehensible manner, like a master teacher on an exciting voyage of intellectual discovery.
To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life
Mazor Guides: Wealth of Information and Resources
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