Today is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. It is said so often that Shavuot is “lesser known” that maybe it is now better known for being lesser known.
Its low profile outside the Jewish communities doesn’t mean it is insignificant, or that a host of meanings and traditions aren’t attached.
Shavuot began as an agricultural celebration. The name literally means Festival of Weeks, one of the three pilgrimage holidays, along with Passover and Sukkot. The Bible commands the counting of the omer, the days from the second day of Passover. After seven weeks, on the fiftieth day, a grain offering is to be made at the Temple. As a harvest celebration, Shavuot is also known as the Day of the First Fruits. If you’re into borrowing food traditions, Shavuot is a dairy holiday, and cheese blintzes and cheesecake are always appropriate.
Shavuot also celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah, the central event in Jewish life. Some make the case that dating this event on Shavuot is biblical. But attaching this event to the holiday seems more a matter of tradition than biblical precision. After the destruction of the Temple, agricultural pilgrimages ended. This new tradition arose, a tradition that remains at the heart of the modern Shavuot celebration. Among the observances, some people gather and stay up all night reading the Torah, along with other scripture and literature.
There is a holiday calendar mashup surrounding Shavuot. Shavuot and Christian Pentecost often fall within a few days of each other—this year Shavuot starting on the evening of May 14 and Pentecost on Sunday May 19.
There are some holidays on the Jewish and Christian calendars that based on history and theology have a real and important relationship, such as Passover and Easter. There are holidays that may coincide on the calendar but have little to do with one another. And then there are Shavuot and Pentecost, which have an usual relationship.
To begin with, the holidays share the same name, sort of. As a festival marking seven weeks, Shavuot became known as Pentecost among Greek-speaking Jews, because it marks the “fiftieth” day from the second day of Passover.
Pentecost is a major feast on the Christian liturgical calendar. It represents the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and others, on the fiftieth day (Pentecost) after Easter. It is often considered the birthday of the Church.
It is relatively straightforward to deal with the nexus between the events of Holy Week and Passover. There is evidence in the Gospels, and the weight of opinion is that the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal. But the dueling Pentecosts, and the attempts to harmonize them, have caused nothing but confusion.
It is certain that the Jews of Jesus’ time would have celebrated the agricultural holiday of Shavuot. But beyond this, we have Christians who try to make the case that Christian Pentecost is “historically and symbolically” related to Shavuot, though it isn’t clear exactly how. On the other side, there are a few Jewish writers who claim that the name Pentecost was unknown to Jews, even Greek speakers, and that the name was given to Shavuot by Christians.
Finally, there is this coincidence. In Reform Judaism, youth confirmation is often held on Shavuot, in recognition of the giving of the Torah. In many Christian denominations, youth confirmation is held on Pentecost, in recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit.
If you take a big picture view, you can probably connect the dots and come up with a relationship between Shavuot (Pentecost) and Pentecost. This is especially tempting when the two holidays coincide so closely. But they are two distinct holiday, and harmonizing is a stretch.
As far as Shavuot traditions, maybe the most heart-lifting is reading the Book of Ruth. Separate from its religious meaning, this is a great piece of literature, a short story about unyielding devotion, commitment and loyalty to family—and one of the first and most famous to affirm the family of women. It is the touching antidote to every caustic mother-in-law joke that has ever been told.
In Ruth, the mother-in-law Naomi loses her husband, as her daughters-in-law lose theirs (above, Chagall’s Naomi and Her Beautiful Daughters). Seeming to have little else in common than her sons, Naomi urges them to leave and get married again. One does leave, but Ruth refuses, in words that are sometimes used to signify the power of Ruth’s conversion of faith, but that are a much more universal expression of devotion as solid as that of any marriage:
She then decided to come back from the Plains of Moab with her daughters-in-law, having heard in the Plains of Moab that God had visited his people and given them food. So, with her daughters-in-law, she left the place where she was living and they took the road back to Judah.
Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. May God show you faithful love, as you have done to those who have died and to me. God grant that you may each find happiness with a husband!’ She then kissed them, but they began weeping loudly, and said, ‘No, we shall go back with you to your people.’
‘Go home, daughters,’ Naomi replied. ‘Why come with me? Have I any more sons in my womb to make husbands for you? Go home, daughters, go, for I am now too old to marry again. Even if I said, “I still have a hope: I shall take a husband this very night and shall bear more sons,” would you be prepared to wait for them until they were grown up? Would you refuse to marry for their sake? No, daughters, I am bitterly sorry for your sakes that the hand of God should have been raised against me.’
They started weeping loudly all over again; Orpah then kissed her mother-in-law and went back to her people. But Ruth stayed with her. Naomi then said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. Go home, too; follow your sister-in-law.’
But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you and to stop going with you, for wherever you go, I shall go, wherever you live, I shall live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I shall die and there I shall be buried. Let God bring unnameable ills on me and worse ills, too, if anything but death should part me from you!’