Microsoft word - the pentecost before pentecost.doc
Father Murray Watson – St. Peter’s Seminary, London, Ontario
Ask an average Catholic what the word “Pentecost” conjures up in their minds, and
you’re bound to hear a lot about tongues of fire and speaking in tongues. You might hear something about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the sacrament of Confirmation or “the birthday of the Church”. Some might even mention the fiery red vestments worn for Mass on the feast day. Most Christians can recall at least part of the Pentecost story told in Acts 2. But how many Christians would think to link Pentecost with the process of harvesting grain—or with Judaism? Pentecost has become such a thoroughly Christian event in people’s minds1 that we often forget that, long before there was the “fire-and-tongues” kind of Pentecost, there was already a Jewish festival by the same name—a Jewish festival harvest festival that is perhaps better known by its Hebrew name: Shavuot.
Like its Christian counterpart, the Jewish annual calendar of feasts and
commemorations is a rich range of celebrations of Jewish history, God’s interventions and His continuous providence in the life of the Chosen People; as the German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once noted, “the Jew’s calendar is his catechism”. It includes feasts of great joy and merry-making (such as Hanukkah [The Festival of Lights] and Purim, which commemorates Queen Esther’s courageous actions which saved the Jews from destruction under King Ahasuerus), but also times of profound mourning, repentance and sadness (including Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement], Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day] and Tisha B’Av, which recalls the destructions of the Jerusalem Temple).
From the available Biblical and historical evidence, it seems that Shavuot is the feast
with the most ancient roots. It seems to have originated as a celebration to mark the end of the spring grain harvest in Israel—a process that began with the barley harvest around Passover, and ended with the cutting of the wheat seven weeks later (and hence one of its other names: the Feast of Weeks [shavuot is the Hebrew word for weeks]). The book of Deuteronomy commands: “You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the festival of weeks [Heb hag shavu‘ôt] for the LORD your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the LORD your God. Rejoice before the LORD your God—you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you—at the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Dt 16:9-11). Exodus 23:16 seems to refer to the same festival when it says: “You shall observe the festival of harvest [Heb hag ha-katzîr], of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the
1 In fact, an entire Christian denomination has called itself “Pentecostals”—the people of Pentecost.
field.” At the beginning of this fifty-day period, the farmers would bring the first sheaf of grain they had harvested, called the ‘omer, and would present it, initially at a local sanctuary, and later at the Jerusalem Temple, in a spirit of prayerful thanksgiving for God’s blessing and the earth’s bounty. In Leviticus 23:9-21, we find the directives governing this offering, and the ceremonies to accompany it: the priest is to lift up (“wave”) the first sheaf of grain on the day following the Sabbath, together with an offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and a one-year-old lamb. On the fiftieth day (“seven sabbaths”) after this “waving of the ‘omer,” two loaves of bread, made with the season’s first grain, were to be offered, together with a male goat and two male lambs. Such harvest festivals were common in ancient societies; Israel’s uniqueness lay in attributing the bounty of the earth to YHWH, the one true God, rather than to one of the many nature deities worshipped in the ancient Middle East. Since this period concluded on the fiftieth day (pentēkostē in Greek), it gradually acquired the name of “Pentecost” in Greek-speaking Jewish communities. Throughout the Bible and in later rabbinic writings, it is also referred to as “the Day of the Firstfruits,” (Heb yôm ha-bikkurîm) and as ‘Atzeret [shel Pesach] (Heb for “the concluding [festival of Passover]”. It is a day of many different names, and yet its fundamental meaning is clear: gratitude to the Creator for the rich blessings of the earth. Exod 34:18-26 specifies that Shavuot is one of the three great “pilgrimage festivals”2 when all male Israelites were to come to the Temple to celebrate with singing and dancing.
Shavuot as we know it today, however, is a festival with a very different focus. The
Jewish community was aware that it was not simply the fruits of the earth that God had given them: the greatest gift given to the Chosen People was the Torah, the teachings of God communicated through Moses and the rabbis who came after him. Various rabbinic commentators suggested that it was on the fiftieth day after the Exodus that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai (47 days of journeying, and 3 days of preparation; this is perhaps hinted at in Exod 19:1-16); this obvious coincidence, and the connection with Passover, led Jewish interpreters to link the two events, and Shavuot soon began to be celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, the “birth of Israel as a people,” when the Israelites and God vowed a mutually-binding covenant (by an interesting pun, the Heb term for “oaths” or “vows” is shevu‘ot!). These seven weeks were therefore regarded as a time of purification and spiritual preparation to receive God’s eternal teachings. Although the Bible does not specifically make this link3, the extra-biblical book of Jubilees specifies that the first covenant (that with Noah and his descendants) was made on Shavuot, and that the later covenants with Abraham and Moses also occurred on the same date (the sixth day of the Jewish month of Sivan). Indeed, Jubilees goes further, specifying that Shavuot was also the date of Isaac’s birth and of Abraham’s death. The
2 The other two are Passover (Pesach) and Sukkot (the “Feast of Tabernacles/Booths”). 3 “In none of the books of the Bible is there any trace or mention of Shovuos [sic] in connection with the giving of the Torah.” (Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to Their History and Observance, p.87).
considerable importance attributed to this date is obvious, and its primitive agricultural connotation gradually faded from memory.
Numerous traditions are associated with Shavuot in Jewish culture, including
decorating one’s home with flowers, trees and greenery (perhaps a throwback to the ancient harvest setting?), the eating of dairy products (interpreters claim that, after the revelation at Sinai, the Jewish people were so ravenously hungry that they were unable to wait for a meal to be cooked, and consumed all the milk products they could find), and the reading of the book of Ruth, which details the acceptance of God’s Torah by Ruth, a foreigner and convert to Judaism (and which is also dominated by agricultural and harvest imagery). One of the most striking Shavuot practices, however, is the custom of keeping night vigil, reading a collection of Scripture passages and commentaries (Tikkun leil Shavuot) throughout the entire night before the feast. This custom, which seems to have derived from medieval mystical groups in Spain, is rooted in a tradition, according to which, on the day when God had determined to give them the Torah, the Israelites slept until late—almost until noon—and had to be woken up by Moses to be present for the amazing events of that day. To demonstrate repentance for that lapse, and to show their absolute devotion to God and His Law, many Jews will remain awake all night, dedicating themselves to prayer and study, in preparation for the important day ahead. In some Reform Jewish communities, Shavuot has also become a traditional day for celebrating the Confirmation of young men and women4.
A midrash [commentary] on Exodus says that, on the day of Sinai, God’s words split
into seventy voices speaking in seventy languages—all the languages of the known Gentile world at that time—stressing that the Torah’s commands were destined for all peoples. This covenant was for everyone—a covenant to give life and direction to all earth’s inhabitants. It was an invitation to enter into a profound (and demanding!) relationship with God, but also to inherit God’s rich blessings in return. It is not difficult to see the connections between the Jewish feast of Pentecost/Shavuot, and its Christian counterpart as described in Acts. In the
wake of Jesus’ Resurrection (which was understood as a new Passover and a radical renewal of the covenant), God once again speaks to His people in a multitude of languages, communicating the message of His love in words that all can understand: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans
and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power” (Acts 2:9-11). The miracle of Mount Sinai is renewed through the apostles, who proclaim Jesus’ rising from the dead as the start of a new era in salvation history, an era of absolute inclusiveness in which God is doing something new and unprecedented. Jesus (whom Luke has consistently portrayed in the image of Moses) has become the mediator of a “renewed
4 In the state of Israel, Shavuot is observed for a single day; outside of Israel, it is generally observed on two consecutive days (6 and 7 Sivan).
covenant,” a new type of relationship with God. Here, Luke seems to say, is the “conclusion [‘atzeret] of the harvest”: the Gentile nations are now being “reaped,” gathered (like Ruth) into the covenant that had previously been the prerogative of the Jewish people alone. Those who hear and respond will be the “firstfruits” of the salvation Christ has come to offer, the beginnings of something new and radical that God is doing in their midst. Even the flames of fire recall very vividly the fire that surrounded Mt. Sinai when God descended to communicate the Torah, and the fiery pillar that accompanied the Israelites on their desert journey. The early Christians understood their Pentecost as an extension of what had happened centuries earlier, in the original “Pentecost”—God’s presentation of His teachings, with an invitation to follow them faithfully.
Needless to say, it would be a grave oversimplification to suggest that the Christian
Pentecost and the Jewish Shavuot are one and the same; while they share much in common, they also differ significantly. Nevertheless, the very deep Jewish roots of our Pentecost celebration challenge us to reconsider Christianity’s undeniable rootedness in the Torah, to acknowledge the continuity between the covenants made with the patriarchs and that which we celebrate in Jesus Christ, and to ask ourselves what those covenants continue to demand of us today—challenging us to faithfulness and obedience, inviting us to new life and a new mission. As Jews and Christians, Pentecost invites us all to experience the power of God’s Spirit, who inspires and speaks to us through the Scriptures, and who can transform us through the experience of God’s love, which continues to burn as a flame deep within each of us who believe.
Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to Their History and Observance. New York:
Schocken Books, 1938 [reprinted 1996], pages 86-95 on “Shovuos”.
Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide & Commentary. New York: Harper & Row,
“Pentecost” at Jewish Encyclopedia Online:
“Shavuot” at Chabad Online: http://www.chabadonline.com/shavuot/shavuot-article-
“Shavuot at OU.org” at Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America:
“Shavuot On the Net” at: http://www.holidays.net/shavuot/
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