Shavuot: An Agricultural Holiday
Shavuot is an agricultural holiday set during the wheat harvest. It marks the day a new year’s wheat harvest may be eaten (Leviticus [Vayikra] 23:14, 16). Prior to that day, only the previous year’s crop may be consumed. The entire crop must be consecrated to Adonai first. The firstfruits offering fulfill this requirement.
Names for Shavuot
The Feast of Shavuot is known by a number of different names, each reflecting a different aspect of the festival. These include:
- Shavuot: Shavuot is the Biblical name for the holiday, and the plural form of the Hebrew word “shavua,” meaning “weeks.” Thus, the name Shavuot emphasizes the counting of the weeks.
- Pentecost: Pentecost is a Greek word meaning “fiftieth.” Thus, the name Pentecost emphasizes the counting of days.
- Feast of Weeks (Exodus [Sh’mot] 34:22; Numbers [B’midbar] 28:26; Deuteronomy [D’varim] 16:10).
- Feast of Firstfruits [of the wheat harvest] (Exodus [Sh’mot] 34:22).
Bikkurium.1 Bikkurium is Hebrew for “firstfruits.”
- Feast of Harvest (Exodus [Sh’mot] 23:16)
- The Atzeret, or conclusion to Passover.
- Season of the giving of the Torah (Romans 9:4)
- The Day of the Revelation of Elohim at Mt. Sinai
- Yom Kahal, or Day of the Assembly (Deuteronomy [D’varim] 18:16)
The Temple ceremony
According to Leviticus (Vayikra) 23:17, the children of Israel were to wave two loaves of bread baked from the flour produced by the new crop of wheat. This is in addition to the animal sacrifices of verses 18-20, and the sacrifices listed in Numbers (B’midbar) 28:26-31. The commandment to wave the two loaves required that they be made with leaven.
These loaves were made of wheat, whereas the sheaf waved before Adonai at the Firstfruits of the barley harvest, during the week of Unleavened Bread, was made from barley. Like the barley, the wheat had to sift through thirteen sieves (or whatever number was necessary to make the flour fine enough) before being used to bake the two loaves. The flour was said to be so fine that a man could shove his arm into a barrel of it and none would stick to his skin.
Fine flour is made from crushed wheat. This process alludes to the refinement our faith endures as we are conformed to Messiah’s image. We can also see the Messiah in that, as wheat is planted in the ground, so Messiah Yeshua was planted in the womb of His mother Miriam. And as wheat, when it grows and is ready for harvest, then beaten and refined, so was Yeshua beaten and refined for our sins. We might also consider the fine flour an indication of Messiah’s purity, or the refinement of his followers.
What is the significance of leaven in the loaves, and why two of them?
The loaves appear to represent two groups: Jews and non-Jews brought together as one in Messiah Yeshua. The leaven indicates neither group is without sin, even though they are new creations in Messiah. In Leviticus (Vayikra) 23:19, and Numbers (B’midbar) 28:30, a sin offering accompanied both loaves. The sin offering demonstrates that both groups are imperfect and sinful; hence, both loaves are leavened.
At the Feast of The Unleavened Bread, no leaven could be eaten. That festival foretells the sacrificial offering of the sinless one, Messiah Yeshua. Shavuot, on the other hand, alludes to the birth of the congregation of believers, both Jewish and Gentile. Neither group is without sin, symbolized by the leaven in the two loaves.
Ruth and Boaz represent this grafting of Jew and Gentile as one people. The spring harvest was the setting of the later half of book of Ruth (Ruth 3:2). Boaz represents Israel, while Ruth represents the Gentile nations, who would later be grafted into the true olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:16-24). The Book of Ruth (Rut) is traditionally read at Shavuot. In Ruth (Rut), we learn a valuable lesson: if Gentiles want to join themselves to the Elohim of the Jews, they must also embrace the Jewish people as their own (Ruth [Rut] 1:16).
Shavuot marks the beginning of the period of time farmers would bring their firstfruits offerings to the Temple. Deuteronomy (D’varim) 26:1-15 describes the ceremony that surrounds the firstfruits offering brought by individuals. Farmers from all over the land would bring their wheat to the Temple in baskets decorated with leaves and flowers.
Farmers would identify firstfruits by tying reed grass around an early ripening fruit and declare it firstfruits. At harvest time, these fruits would be separated to be taken to the Temple in Jerusalem. Bands of pilgrims would make the trek to the holy city, led by an ox with its horns overlaid with gold and a crown of olive leaves on its head. Flutists played before them until they arrived at the Temple Mount. At this point, the owner of the fruit carried it on his shoulder into the Temple courtyard. While the basket was still on his shoulder, he would recite Deuteronomy (D’varim) 26:3, “And you shall go to the one who is priest in those days, and say to him, I declare today to YHVH your Elohim that I have come to the country YHVH swore to our fathers to give us.” Afterward, he would take the basket down from his shoulder, and would wave it with the priest, while the priest recited Deuteronomy (D’varim) 26:5-10. When finished, the owner would set the basket by the altar, prostrate himself toward the Holy of Holies, then leave. The ox would later be sacrificed.
A number of Messianic typologies can be observed here:
By declaring his early ripening crops as firstfruits before any of the other fruits had ripened, the farmer was making a declaration that Elohim would be faithful and provide the rest of the harvest. In the same way, Yeshua became the firstfruits of those to be resurrected, declaring his followers would also share in that glory.
The ox symbolizes Yeshua, who as a lamb led to slaughter, became the supreme sacrifice. At the same time, he is our leader, leading the way to the New Jerusalem.
The ox’s horns remind us of the authority Yeshua has over our lives, as horns are symbols of authority.
The crown of olive leaves on the ox’s head reminds us of Yeshua’s kingship. It also reminds us of the crown of thorns he endured on our behalf (Matthew [Mattityahu] 27:29)
The word for flute in Hebrew is “Halil,” from the root “חלל” which means, to die while being pierced. Interestingly, the flutist also led the procession. He too alludes to Messiah, since He is the pierced one — the One who suffered a torturous death of crucifixion, yet now is alive and leading us to everlasting joy.
Giving the Torah on Mount Sinai
According to the account in Exodus (Sh’mot) 19, the children of Israel came to Mt. Sinai on the third day of the third month, or Sivan 3. That same day, Moses met with Elohim on top of the mountain. Elohim instructed Moses to have the people ready three days later, on Sivan 6. Exodus (Sh’mot) 19 reads as follows:
“In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on the same day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai. For they had departed from Rephidim, had come to the Desert of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness. So Israel camped there before the mountain. And Moses (Moshe) went up to Elohim, and YHVH called to him from the mountain . . . And YHVH said to Moses (Moshe), ‘Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever.’ So Moses (Moshe) told the words of the people to YHVH. Then YHVH said to Moses (Moshe), ‘Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day YHVH will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.’”
Exodus (Sh’mot) 20 records the events of that day. This chapter contains the Ten Commandments
What happened on this day on Mount Sinai? The rabbis said Elohim spoke the Ten Commandments in the seventy languages (of that time) in the world.8 They derive this position from Exodus (Sh’mot) 20:18 which says, “Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the Shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off.” The word for thunderings in Hebrew is “kolot”, and the word is pluralized. Scripture tells us that Elohim’s voice sounds very much like thunder (John [Yochanan] 12:29). In fact, the Hebrew word “kolot” can also mean voices. To state the obvious conclusion, the people witnessed the voices of Elohim.”
In recounting the events on Mount Sinai, Moses (Moshe) stated in Deuteronomy (D’varim) 4:12, “YHVH spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; only a voice.” Commenting on this verse, the rabbis said the people actually saw Elohim’s voice in the form of a fiery substance.
The outpouring of the Ruakh HaKodesh in Jerusalem
An event similar to the Mount Sinai occasion occurred on Shavuot 1500 years later in Jerusalem. The book of Acts records that 120 of Yeshua’s disciples were gathered in the Temple11 on this festival day when tongues of fire rested on each of them, and they spoke in other languages as a result of being filled with the Ruach HaKodesh12 (Acts 2:1-4).
Just as the Torah was given as a covenant on Mount Sinai on Shavuot, so the New Covenant was also inaugurated on Shavuot. One major difference is that the Torah is written on the hearts of the New Covenant participants. Previously, it had been written on tablets of stone.
Parallels between Shavuot on Sinai and Zion
Shavuot marks the day Elohim entered into a covenant relationship with His people. At the first Shavuot, He instituted the Mosaic covenant from Mount Sinai wherein He gave the Torah in written form. At the Shavuot in Jerusalem, He established the New Covenant from Mount Zion in which He wrote the Torah on the hearts of Yeshua’s followers.
On Mt. Sinai, the Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone by the “finger of Elohim” (Exodus [Sh’mot] 31:18). On Mt. Zion, the Torah is written on tables of the heart by the Spirit of Elohim (2 Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 8:10).
Both were accompanied by many languages (tongues) and by fire (Exodus [Sh’mot] 19:16-18, 20:18; Acts 2:1-4).
Shavuot on Mount Sinai is sometimes considered the day Judaism was born. Shavuot in Jerusalem can also be viewed as the beginning of the Messianic Community.
A wedding betrothal
On the original Shavuot on Sinai, Israel in a sense became betrothed to Elohim (Jeremiah [Yirmeyahu] 2:2). The prophet Ezekiel (Yechezk’el) in chapter 16 also compares the covenant between Elohim and Israel at Sinai to the wedding vows between a husband and wife. In verses 8 and 9 he states,
“‘Again I passed by you, looked at you and saw that your time had come, the time for love. So I spread my cloak over you to cover your private parts and entered into a covenant with you,’ says Adonai Elohim, ‘and you became Mine. Then I bathed you in water, washed the blood off you, and anointed you with oil.’”
In rabbinical thought, this verse speaks of Elohim taking Israel as a wife. The bathing in water refers to Israel’s immersion in a mikvah prior to their marriage to Elohim at Sinai13 (Exodus [Sh’mot] 19:10-11). In fact, the Torah can be viewed as a “ketubah,” “a formal written document spelling out the terms of a Jewish wedding contract.”14
In Judaism, a Biblical wedding consists of two stages: betrothal, Hebrew “Erusin,” and consummation, Hebrew “Nesu’in.” This idea derives from Deuteronomy (D’varim) 24:1; “when a man takes a wife and marries her.” the betrothal is initiated with the ketubah, the marriage contract. The ketubah is so legally binding that one cannot escape from it without a divorce. Seen in this light, the Torah is given at Sinai is the ketubah.
In Exodus (Sh’mot) 19:5-7, Elohim made a marriage proposal to Israel:
“‘Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel. So Moses (Moshe) came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which YHVH commanded him.”
Scripture records Israel’s response in verse eight: “All that YHVH has spoken, we will do.” Their reply proved the nation accepted Elohim’s marriage proposal.
The betrothal at Sinai foreshadowed the coming betrothal of New Covenant participants with Messiah. Those who follow him have entered into the betrothal stage of marriage to Him. In Hebrews 8:6, we find that the New Covenant, like the covenant at Sinai, was established as Torah.15 In this New Covenant, Elohim writes His ketubah on our hearts, and gives us His Ruach HaKodesh as a guarantee of His coming (2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:14), and of His taking us to Himself to be His special treasure. Revelation 19:7-9 provides a picture of the eventual consummation of the marriage between Messiah and His bride, the Kahal.16 There, we find the great “marriage supper of the lamb,” and everyone who follows Yeshua is invited to participate.
A number of Jewish traditions arose to give meaning and purpose to the festival of Shavuot.
In many Orthodox communities, men stay up all night studying the Torah on Shavuot.
Since the setting for the book of Ruth (Rut) occurs during the spring harvest season, Ruth (Rut) is usually read.
Many Jewish communities eat dairy products on this day. In several places, Scripture likens itself to milk (Job [Iyov] 21:24; Song of Songs [Shir-HaShirim] 4:11; Hebrews 5:12-13; I Peter [Kefa] 2:2).
As a reminder of the harvest aspect of the holiday, some Jewish communities spread grass on the floor of the synagogue and on the windowsills in their homes. They also decorate their homes and synagogues with baskets of fruit, plants, flowers, and other greenery.
For the first night of Shavuot, the family table is typically set with the finest dishes and linens. In such a home, the woman of the house would light the holiday Shabbat candles, reciting the Yom Tov17 and Shehechianu18 blessings. Afterward, the father would recite the Kiddush (the blessing over the wine) followed by the Ha’Motzi (the blessing over the Challah). Finally, the family would enjoy a traditional holiday dinner containing a number of dairy dishes, such as cheese blintzes and cheesecake.
Second century believers’ traditions
A number of early believers’ traditions relating to Shavuot are known today. Even though they come from a culture in the very early stages of separating itself from its Jewish roots, we can nevertheless gain much insight through them. Much of their practice probably derived from the teachings of the Jewish apostles in the previous century. In fact, a surviving fragment from a bishop dated around 170 AD appeals to apostolic origin for several Shavuot customs.19
Shavuot was seen as a season, rather than a single day, lasting the entire 50 days, beginning with the counting of the Omer and concluding on the feast day itself. In other words, when one spoke of Shavuot or Pentecost, he really meant the entire 50 days.
During the season of Shavuot, weeping, fasting, and kneeling were discouraged. The Apocryphal Acts of Paul (180 AD) states, “While Paul was in prison, the brethren, since it was Pentecost, wept not, neither did they bow the knee, but they stood and prayed rejoicing.”20 In other words, the season of Shavuot was to be a period of great joy.
Tertullian (190 AD) spoke of the joy of this season resulting from Yeshua’s resurrection being proven over and over among his followers and from the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh being poured out on his disciples.21
A major theme of Shavuot for second century believers was forgiveness. The reason is that the number 50 was viewed symbolically as representing forgiveness. Every fifty years on Jubilee, all debts were canceled and slaves were set free. Also, fifty days after leaving Egypt, Adonai showed He forgave the Israelites for their sins of idolatry and rebellion by giving them the Torah.
Another custom surrounding Shavuot was immersion. The 50-day season of Shavuot was seen as the ideal time to be immersed. A likely reason for favoring this time of year was the reminder of the outpouring of the Ruach HaKodesh during this season.
Shavuot represents the giving of the Torah of Adonai, written not on tables of stone, but on the fleshly tables of the heart, with the Spirit of the living Adonai (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
The event in Jerusalem on Shavuot amounts to a reversal of Babel (Genesis [B’resheet] 11:9). At Babel, Adonai confused the peoples’ language for misusing their unity for wicked purposes. At Jerusalem, Adonai caused people whose different languages separated them to understand each other as they praised Adonai, which is the proper use of unity.
In a similar vein, we can say that revival is a major theme of Shavuot. Certainly, we could say that when Adonai poured out His Ruach HaKodesh on Yeshua’s followers, they were revived. As believers, we need to seek Adonai daily for the reality of Shavuot to be present in our lives.
Shavuot is a glimpse of the Jubilee. The Jubilee cycle consists of seven weeks of seven years each. Every seventh year is a Sabbatical year in which the land lays fallow and debts are canceled (Leviticus [Vayikra] 25:3-4; Deuteronomy [D’varim] 15:1-2). Thus, the Jubilee liberates the oppressed. As in the Jubilee year, the land was to lie fallow to provide produce free of charge to the poor, so at the Feast of Shavuot, the poor and strangers are invited to partake of the festivities. “Thus, the feast served not only to honor the Adonai of Israel, but also to recognize the bond of unity that existed among the members of the covenant community.” 22
The sanctification of the firstfruits consecrates the entire harvest. Therefore, the firstfruits serve as a replacement for the whole. Rabbi Shaul seemed to be saying this when he wrote, “Now if the Challah offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole loaf” (Romans 11:16). In this same fashion, Yeshua and those who were resurrected with Him (Matthew [Mattityahu] 27:52-53) became replacements for the whole harvest of righteous souls to be resurrected on His return (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 51-53; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16). Thus, they became the guarantee and the assurance for the rest of us who have yet to experience that glorious destiny that awaits us.
“The meaning of the Feast of Pentecost (Shavuot) is lived out every day in our life as our inward being is renewed daily by Adonai’s Spirit (2 Corinthians 4:16). As we receive the fruits of the Spirit, we bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in our life, namely, ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Galatians 5:22). These, in turn, enable us to become the firstfruits of Adonai.”23
About The Author
Rabbi Amnon and Rebbetzin Lynette Shor are international conference speakers on prophetic subjects, the Middle East conflict, Biblical holidays, and Jewish cultural life. Rabbi Shor has appeared on many radio and television programs which include CBS, CBN, TBN, and Jewish Voice. He has also worked with Promise Keepers as the international liaison to Israel and the Middle East, and with the Road to Jerusalem Ministry as global spokesman.
Rabbi Amnon Shor, was born in Israel to an orthodox Jewish family. His grandfather Zachariah was a Rabbi in the local synagogue. Rabbi Shor learned the Old Testament and the Jewish Law from early childhood. After his service in the Israeli Army, where he fought the Egyptian Army in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he set out to see the world working for EL-AL Israel’s Airlines , where he met his wife of 41 years Lynette. They have three children and seven grandchildren.