Shavuot is a holiday that comes and goes each year with little fanfare. Tomorrow night, Jews around the world will begin the observance of this ancient harvest festival, which, as you will see, has been re-invented and recontextualized over time.
For two thousand years, Shavuot has been celebrated as the holiday of the Receiving of the Torah. This connection is so central to our understanding of the holiday, that one would think that this is how it is discussed in the Torah itself – but this is not the case. In the Torah we find a very different record of how this ancient festival was to be observed, and surprisingly, there is no mention of Sinai; no mention of revelation; no mention of the Torah whatsoever.
The ancient Festival of Shavuot was primarily agricultural. Its observance is described in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 26 (as well as elsewhere in the Torah).
“When you enter the land that Lord your God is giving to you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil that you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where God will establish the divine name. You shall go to the priest in charge and say, ‘I acknowledge this day [with this fruit as my witness] that I have entered the land that Lord swore to our ancestors to assign us.”
This passage describes how Shavuot was observed for nearly 1000 years. It was a holiday devoted to the land. It was concerned with establishing a three-part covenant between God, the Jewish People and the land of Israel.
For nearly 1000 years, the Temple stood as the central location for each of the Harvest Festivals (which included Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), but this all changed with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans. Without the Temple in Jerusalem, the primary connection to the land became a secondary consideration.
In a state of diaspora from the land of Israel and no place to offer their sacrifices to God, the Jewish people needed a completely new model for observance. In response to their new realities in exile, the rabbis of the first century CE were faced with a two-fold challenge. They now had a holiday (Shavuot) without a ritual, and they had an event (the giving of Torah at Sinai) without a holiday.
It may be difficult to imagine; but the Torah does not give a specific date for the Giving of Torah at Sinai was never coupled with a specific date. The only thing we do know is that, according to the Torah, we are taught that revelation occurs in the third month after the Exodus from Egypt. Behold! A connection!!
This connection was an easy one for the rabbis, for in the Book of Exodus, the Torah also teaches us that the Summer Harvest was to be observed 49 days after Passover. This gave the rabbis a perfect way to reinvented and re-contextualized the customs associated with Shavuot.
Therefore, for the past 2000 years, Shavuot has been associated with Revelation. In this way, our sages were able to preserve the values and teachings of our heritage and faith after the destruction of the Temple. This is our challenge in every generation – how to keep our faith alive in an ever-changing world.