Shavuot Part 2: Jewish Tradition
Jewish tradition regarding Shavuot has become very ingrained not only among the Jewish people, but also among followers of Jesus (both Jews and Gentiles.) We can only speculate the basis for this tradition because even biblical scholars cannot agree. Nor is there agreement regarding when this tradition began. I tend to agree with the majority of Jewish religious who contend it began in70 AD after the destruction of the Temple.
Biblically Shavuot was to be a celebration of thankfulness for God’s faithfulness to give Israel a second harvest. It’s good to consider the difference between the first two harvests of Israel. The first harvest, after Israel came into the land of Israel was completely God’s grace, as Israel only reaped crops that they had not sown. But for this second harvest, the people had to both sow and reap. So with the truth in mind, let’s compare the truth what the Jewish tradition says about Shavuot:
- Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jews. The Talmud tells us that God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jews on the sixth night of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Shavuot always falls 50 days after the second night of Passover. The 49 days in between are known as the Omer..
- The Torah was given by G‑d to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai more than 3300 years ago. Every year on the holiday of Shavuot we renew our acceptance of G‑d’s gift, and G‑d “re-gives” the Torah.
- Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people, and occurs on the 50th day after the 49 days of counting the Omer.
Even some followers of Jesus (Messianic believers) perpetuate this same tradition:
- Just as Passover celebrates physical freedom of the Israelite’s redemption from bondage in Egypt, Shavuot celebrates spiritual liberation through their experience of God’s presence and revelation at Sinai. In the Passover exodus, God brought a people out from among the nations. At Sinai on that first Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks, or later, Pentecost, God created a nation set apart for Himself. He revealed Himself and how to live as a redeemed community, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). The presence of God on that day was attended with great supernatural events: “the mountains shook violently, the ram’s horn blew louder and louder, there were flashes of lightning, smoke rose upon the mountain and God spoke in the thunder (Exodus 19:18,19).
- The people also celebrated the giving of the Law. This ritual paralleled Israel’s history, which began with deliverance from Egypt on Passover and concluded when they received the Law.
Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish follower of Jesus and a biblical scholar explains:
Jewish tradition has it, that on the 2nd of the third month, or Sivan, Moses had ascended the Mount (Exodus 19:1-3), that he communicated with the people on the 3rd (Exodus 19:7) reascended the Mount on the 4th (Exodus 19:8), and that then the people sanctified themselves on the 4th, 5th, and 6th of Sivan, on which latter day the ten commandments were actually given them (Exodus 19:10-16).
There is some wisdom in this tradition. If Shavuot is the anniversary of God’s giving the Torah to Israel, then the holiday completes the cycle of Israel’s redemption that began on Passover.
- …as the dedication of the harvest, commencing with the presentation of the first omer on the Passover, was completed in the hank-offering of the two wave-loaves at Shavuot, so that the memorial of Israel’s deliverance appropriately terminated in that of the giving of the Law.
The rabbis remind us that our redemption from slavery was for the purpose of living holy lives in accordance with the Torah’s instructions. I admit that it would be so like God that if on the same day God gave the Torah, He gave the Holy Spirit but there is no supporting biblical evidence. I find it more than curious that the dates of two important events in Israel’s history are not specified. God is so detailed when it comes to dates, but for the giving of the Torah and the birth of Jesus, the Bible is silent. And when the Bible is silent, religious traditions shout.. There are other traditional beliefs that result in modern day customs and rituals:
- Israel fell asleep when God gave them the Torah rather than staying awake and preparing themselves to receive it.
- King David was born and died on Shavuot.
- The people eat dairy products because they hadn’t been given the regulations regarding kosher.
Let’s consider if there is any truth to these traditions.
- The actual location of Mt. Sinai is disputed, but every suggested mountain is at least 7,500 feet (2,285 meters) high, definitely not climbable in one day much several times in several days.
- Even a cursory reading of Exodus 12-40 reveals that receiving the Torah was a long process. We know for sure that the people had to sanctify themselves for three days before Moses went up to the Lord the first time. And we also know for sure that Moses was on the mountain for 40 days when God actually began to write on the tablets. But Moses made many trips delivering God’s message to the people and then the people’s response to God. I counted at least nine times Moses went up and down and there are gaps when we cannot discern his movements. So to celebrate “the receiving of the Law” on Shavuot is just an unfounded tradition.
- During the 40 days Moses was on the mountain, the people were building a “god” more to their own liking by building a golden calf.
- When I bought the picture below, I said to the store clerk, “This is a bit of revisionist history. The people weren’t sitting orderly, they were dancing around the golden calf.”
- The clerk said to me, “Yes they were orderly, we just need to read between the lines.”
- David’s birth and death are not recorded in Scripture.
- Actually the Torah does not give rules regarding kosher. The interpretation of “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” is uncertain. Rules regarding kosher preparation of meat and eating are all given in the Talmud.
So the question, which begs to be asked and answered, is, “Are religious traditions valuable?” I suggest they have value when they do NOT mask or distort truth. Sometimes a tradition gives a sense of community and that can be valuable, but far too often this same sense of community brings pride and separation from others. Again, tradition can give us a sense of identity and roots, but as followers of Jesus, our roots and identity needs to be in Him. Through His death, burial and resurrection, He has given us a future that far transcends our past.
 Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21