Now that the Jewish world follows a standardized, pre-calculated calendar, it is no more difficult to ascertain the date of Shavu‘ot than those of any other annual festivals. Like Passover, Sukkot or Rosh Hashanah, the Feast of Weeks always falls on the same date every year—the sixth day of the third Hebrew month, the month that came to be known as Sivan.
And yet, in comparison to those other holidays, the Torah is tantalizingly unclear about the scheduling of Shavu‘ot, which is never assigned a conventional calendar date.
Of the few passages in the Torah that speak of this festival, the most detailed is the one in Leviticus 23, part of an extensive survey of religious holy days or “holy convocations.” After speaking about Passover, it describes a rite of waving a sheaf (‘Omer) of grain, traditionally understood to be barley, “on the morrow of the sabbath” along with the offering of assorted sacrifices. From this point, scripture commands to count seven weeks, forty-nine days, and on the following day we are to proclaim a festival marked principally by an offering of two loaves of bread as an expression of thanksgiving for the first fruits of the wheat harvest.
A straightforward reading of the passage seems to imply that the sheaf-waving ceremony that initiates the fifty-day count should begin after the conclusion of the seven-day Passover festival (that is, following the 21st of the first month). This occasion would not be attached to a particular calendar date, but presumably falls on the first Sunday (“morrow of the Sabbath”); and the concluding celebration—the familiar name “ḥag shavu‘ot / feast of weeks” does not appear in this passage—would accordingly be observed on a Sunday seven weeks afterwards.
The Torah’s other main reference to the date of Shavu‘ot, in Deuteronomy 16, is less specific about when to commence the count leading up to the holiday: “begin to number the seven weeks from such time as thou beginnest to put the sickle to the grain.”
Taken in its simple sense, this text seems to be saying that the crucial date varies with the specific conditions of the agricultural crops: whenever (and perhaps, wherever) the grain completes it ripening so that it is ready to be harvested (“put the sickle”), that is when you are to start counting the fifty days. The Deuteronomy version of the text does not allude to the “morrow of the Sabbath,” nor does it mention the sheaf-waving at the start or the wheaten-loaf offering on the concluding festival. That ceremony is designated here as a pilgrimage festival (ḥag), a term that is not found in other relevant texts. For that matter, while it speaks of counting seven weeks, it does not mention the fiftieth day; and if read in isolation, it could be understood as establishing the observance of the Feast of Weeks on the forty-ninth day of the count, not after its completion.
The practice of the rabbis, inherited from the oral tradition of the Second-Temple Pharisees, was to start the counting not on a Sunday, but on the “morrow” of the first day of Passover—which is a “sabbath” in the sense of a day on which one must refrain from certain kinds of labour. According to the rabbinic lunar calendar, this is a fixed date (the sixteenth) in the first month and can fall on any day of the week.
Notwithstanding all the exegetical difficulties that are provoked by this odd reading of the scriptural passages, it has a notable advantage over the more literal readings: the date of Shavu‘ot always falls on the sixth day of third month—allowing it to be celebrated as the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Otherwise, that momentous date, arguably the most crucial in Israel’s sacred history, would have been left without any commemorative festival.
Other ancient Jewish sects, however, observed a different calendar, consisting of 364 days, in which (since that number is evenly divisible by seven) the holidays fall on the same day of the week every year—and never on a Saturday. For them, the counting always began on a Sunday (the one following the end of Passover; that is: 26th day of the first month) and concluded on a Sunday (the 15th of the third month).
In light of all these confusing indications about when to begin and end the calculation of the dates of what might in fact be two different holidays, we might perhaps appreciate a puzzling formulation introduced in of one of the earliest known interpretations of the Bible, the “Book of Jubilees.” The author of this work believed that the Feast of Weeks had been introduced after the flood in order to commemorate the new covenant between God and Noah, a dispensation that now permitted the eating of meat, which had hitherto been prohibited.
The text in Jubilees states that “it is the feast of weeks and the feast of first fruits: this feast is twofold and of a double nature: according to what is written and engraven concerning it, celebrate it.”
A similar statement equating the feast of weeks with the feast of first fruits is found in the Dead Sea “Temple Scroll.” That document, furthermore, inserts two additional festivals, each preceded by its own seven-week counting process—in honour of the harvests of the olive oil and the grape, respectively.
It has been plausibly suggested that the odd reference to the “twofold” and “double nature” of the holiday in Jubilees might have been intended to to preclude an opposing interpretation, one that preferred to distinguish between two separate festivals that were to be celebrated on different dates–(1) the first-fruits day with the wheat-loaf offering, and (2) the pilgrimage festival commemorating the conclusion of the harvest season—even though both of those holy days were preceded by similar (but not quite identical) seven-week counts.
The author of the book of Jubilees might thus have been reacting to an interpretation of the Torah—from an otherwise unknown sect among the many that proliferated during the Second Temple era—who fulfilled the Deuteronomy precept on a different day from the Leviticus ritual, fifty days after the “sickle is put to the grain”—whenever that stage of ripening happens to occur in a particular year’s agricultural growth.
In a lost rabbinic midrash that was preserved only in citations by a medieval Karaite commentator and first published in 2002, the author makes a considerable effort to reject an interpretation according to which the waving of the ‘Omer sheaf takes place (as per the Pharisaic and Rabbinic view) on the second day of Passover, but the fifty-day count leading to Shavu‘ot does not commence until the Sunday that falls during the Passover week.
This suggests—though it is hardly proves the point conclusively—that the authors of that midrash were aware of an actual school for whom the rejected interpretation was not merely hypothetical, but was actually followed in practice.
This scenario of multiple Jewish communities, all claiming loyalty to the same Torah and yet celebrating the scriptural festivals on different dates, is one that may be problematic for some Jews. Perhaps there is some solace in the realization that the situation we have been describing arose during the time of the Second Temple, a bygone era that was notorious for its profusion of fanatical sects.
Nevertheless, anyone who has been in modern Israel during the Shavu‘ot season may have witnessed a comparable variation in how different communities experience the festival. Tots who attend non-religious institutions will likely be dancing about with their heads adorned by paper crowns decorated with first fruits, celebrating the agricultural abundance of their homeland. The heads of children from religious kindergartens, on the other hand, will be decorated with images of the ten commandments or Torah scrolls.
It’s almost as if they were observing completely different holidays.
And truly, there might be too many themes to squeeze into a single day’s celebration.
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