23 May 2010

Christianity's Pentecost: Trinity Sunday and Judaism's Pentecost: Shavuot

Pentecost (Ancient Greek: πεντηκοστή [ἡμέρα], pentekostē [hēmera], "the fiftieth [day]") is one of the prominent feasts in the Christian liturgical year commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ. The feast is also called Whitsun, Whitsunday, Whit Sunday, or Whitsuntide, especially in the United Kingdom. Pentecost is celebrated seven weeks (50 days) after Easter Sunday, hence its name. Pentecost falls on the tenth day after Ascension Thursday.

Pentecost is historically and symbolically related to the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot, which commemorates God giving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus. Among Christians, Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus as described in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles 2:31 during these Jewish "fiftieth day" celebrations in Jerusalem. For this reason, Pentecost is sometimes described as the "Birthday of the Church".

The new Pentecostal movement of Christianity derives its name from this biblical event.

The biblical narrative of Pentecost is given in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. As recounted in Acts 2:1-4:
On the day of Pentecost all the Lord’s followers were together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind. It filled the house where they were meeting. Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak.
The apostles received the Holy Spirit and were miraculously enabled to go out into Jerusalem prophesying and speaking in languages that all the visitors to Jerusalem could understand as told further in Acts 2:5-6:
Many religious Jews from every country in the world were living in Jerusalem ... they were hearing everything in their own languages.
The noise and activity attracted a huge crowd and the Apostle Peter preached a sermon to the crowd with great effectiveness, as Acts 2:41 reports:
"On that day about three thousand believed his message and were baptised."
The Cenacle on Mount Zion, claimed to be the location of the Last Supper and Pentecost. Bargil Pixner claims the original Church of the Apostles is located under the current structure.

Traditional interpretation holds that the Descent of the Holy Spirit took place in the Upper Room, or Cenacle while celebrating Shavuot, first mentioned in Luke 22:12 & 13 ( "And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready. And they went, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover.") ; the location of the Last Supper(Seder). The next mention of an Upper Room is in Acts, the continuation of the Luke narrative, authored by the same biblical writer. Here the disciples and women wait and pray for the "baptism of the Holy Ghost"[9] promised by Jesus:"And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren." It is assumed then that in Acts 2, "And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place", "they" refers to the aforementioned disciples and women; the "place" referring to the same Upper Room where these persons had "continued with one accord in prayer and supplication".

Other scholarship suggests the events of the first Pentecost recorded in the New Testament Book of Acts took place at the Temple Court located south and south-west of the Temple Mount, an area excavated by Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar shortly after the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967. In the Jerusalem Christian Review, Dan Mazar wrote about the archaeological discoveries made at this location by his grandfather, Prof. Mazar, which included the first century stairs of ascent, where Jesus and his disciples preached, as well as the "mikvaot" (or baptismals) used by the "three thousand" who were baptized on the day of Pentecost, according to the Book of Acts.

According to legend, King Arthur always gathered all his knights at the round table for a feast and a quest on Pentecost:
So ever the king had a custom that at the feast of Pentecost in especial, afore other feasts in the year, he would not go that day to meet until he had heard or seen of a great marvel.
Germany's great poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe declared Pentecost "das liebliche Fest" - the lovely Feast, in a selection by the same name in his Reineke Fuchs.

"Pfingsten, das liebliche Fest", speaks of Pentecost as a time of greening and blooming in fields, woods, hills, mountains, bushes and hedges, of birds singing new songs, meadows sprouting fragrant flowers, and of festive sunshine gleaming from the skies and coloring the earth - iconic lines idealizing the Pentecost holidays in the German speaking lands.

Further, Goethe records an old peasant proverb relating to Pentecost in his "Sankt-Rochus-Fest zu Bingen".

Alexandre Dumas, père makes mention of Pentecost in Twenty Years After (French: Vingt ans après), the sequel to The Three Musketeers. A meal is planned for the holiday, to which La Ramée, second in command of the prison, is invited, and by which contrivance, the Duke is able to escape. He speaks sarcastically of the festival to his jailor, foreshadowing his escape : "Now, what has Pentecost to do with me? Do you fear, say, that the Holy Ghost may come down in the form of firey tongues and open the gates of my prison?"

William Shakespeare mentions Pentecost in a line from Romeo and Juliet Act 1, Scene V. At the ball at his home, Capulet speaks in refuting an overestimate of the time elapsed since he last danced: "What, man? 'Tis not so much, 'tis not so much! 'Tis since the nuptial of Lucentio, Come Pentecost as quickly as it will, Some five-and-twenty years, and then we mask'd."  Note here the allusion to the tradition of mumming, Morris dancing and wedding celebrations at Pentecost.

Pentecost is part of the Moveable Cycle of the ecclesiastical year. According to Christian tradition, Pentecost is always seven weeks after Easter Sunday; that is to say, 50 days after Easter (inclusive of Easter Day). In other words, it falls on the eighth Sunday, counting Easter Day (see article on Computus for the calculation of the date of Easter). Pentecost falls in mid- to late spring in the Northern Hemisphere and mid- to late autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.

Since the date of Easter is calculated differently in the East and West, in most years the two traditions celebrate Pentecost on different days (though in some years the celebrations will coincide, as in 2010). In the West, the earliest possible date is May 10 (as in 1818 and 2285), and the latest possible date June 13 (as in 1943 and 2038). In the East, this range of possible dates presently corresponds to May 23 through June 26 on the Gregorian calendar.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Pentecost is one of the Orthodox Great Feasts and is considered to be the highest ranking Great Feast of the Lord, second in rank only to Pascha (Easter). The service is celebrated with an All-night Vigil on the eve of the feast day, and the Divine Liturgy on the day of the feast itself. Orthodox temples are often decorated with greenery and flowers on this feast day, and the celebration is intentionally similar to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Mosaic Law.

The feast itself lasts three days. The first day is known as "Trinity Sunday"; the second day is known as "Spirit Monday" (or "Monday of the Holy Spirit"); and the third day, Tuesday, is called the "Third Day of the Trinity."." The Afterfeast of Pentecost lasts for one week, during which fasting is not permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, the liturgical color used at Pentecost is green, and the clergy and faithful carry flowers and green branches in their hands during the services.

An extraordinary service called the Kneeling Prayer, is served on the night of Pentecost. This is a Vespers service to which are added three sets of long poetical prayers, the composition of Saint Basil the Great, during which everyone makes a full prostration, touching their foreheads to the floor (prostrations in church having been forbidden from the day of Pascha (Easter) up to this point).

All of the remaining days of the ecclesiastical year, up until the preparation for the next Great Lent are named for the day after Pentecost on which they occur (for example, the 13th Tuesday After Pentecost).

The Second Monday after Pentecost is the beginning of the Apostles' Fast (which continues until the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29). Theologically, Orthodox do not consider Pentecost to be the "birthday" of the Church; they see the Church as having existed before the creation of the world (cf. The Shepherd of Hermas)

The Orthodox icon of the feast depicts the Twelve Apostles seated in a semicircle (sometimes the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) is shown sitting in the center of them). At the top of the icon, the Holy Spirit, in the form of tongues of fire, is descending upon them. At the bottom is an allegorical figure, called Kosmos, which symbolizes the world. Although Kosmos is crowned with earthly glory he sits in the darkness caused by the ignorance of God. He is holding a towel on which have been placed 12 scrolls, representing the teaching of the Twelve Apostles.

The liturgical celebrations of Pentecost in Western churches are as rich and varied as those in the East. The main sign of Pentecost in the West is the color red. It symbolizes joy and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Priests or ministers & choirs wear red vestments, and in modern times, the custom has extended to the lay people of the congregation wearing red clothing in celebration as well. Red banners are often hung from walls or ceilings to symbolize the blowing of the "mighty wind" and the free movement of the Spirit. They may depict symbols of the Holy Spirit, such as the dove or flames, symbols of the church such as Noah’s Ark and the Pomegranate, or especially within Protestant churches of Reformed and Evangelistic traditions, words rather than images naming for example, the gifts and [fruits of the] These flowers often play an important role in the ancestral rites, and other rites, of the particular congregation. For example, in both Protestant & Catholic churches, the plants brought in to decorate for the holiday may be each “sponsored” by individuals in memory of a particular loved one, or in honor of a living person on a significant occasion, such as their Confirmation day. These dedications are then printed in bulletins distributed at the service.

In the German speaking lands, in Central Europe, and wherever the people of these nations have wandered, branches are also traditionally used to decorate churches for Pentecost. Birch is the tree most typically associated with this practice in Europe, but other species are employed in different climates.

In the Middle Ages, cathedrals and great churches throughout Western Europe were fitted with a peculiar architectural feature known as a Holy Ghost hole; a small circular opening in the roof that symbolized the entrance of Holy Spirit into the midst of the assembled worshippers. At Pentecost, these Holy Ghost holes would be decorated with flowers, and sometimes a dove figure lowered through into the church while the story of the Pentecost was read. Holy Ghost holes can still be seen today in European churches such as Canterbury Cathedral.

Similarly, a large two dimensional dove figure would be, and in some places still are, cut out of wood, painted and decorated with flowers, to be lowered over the people, particularly during the singing of the sequence hymn, or Veni Creator Spiritus. In other places, particularly Sicily and the Italian peninsula, rose petals were and are thrown from the galleries over the congregation calling to mind the tongues of fire. In modern times, this practice has been revived, and interestingly adapted as well, to include the strewing of Oragami doves from above, or suspending them - sometimes by the hundreds - from the ceiling. In some cases, red fans, or red handkerchiefs are distributed to the assembled worshippers to be waved during the procession, etc. Other congregations have incorporated the use of red balloons, signifying the “Church’s Birthday” into their festivities. These may be used to decortate the sanctuary, carried by worshippers, or released all at once.
For some Protestants, the nine days between Ascension Day, and Pentecost are set as side as a time of fasting, and world-wide prayer in honor of the disciples' time of prayer and unity awaiting the Holy Spirit. Similarly among Roman Catholics, special Pentecost Novenas are held. The Pentecost Novena is considered the first Novena, all other Novenas offered in preparation of various festivals and Saints days deriving their practice from those original nine days of prayer observed by the disciples of Christ. While the Eve of Pentecost was traditionally a day of fasting for Catholics, today’s canon law no longer requires it. Both Catholics and Protestants may hold spiritual retreats, prayer vigils and litanies in the days leading up to Pentecost. In some cases vigils on the Eve of Pentecost may last all night. Pentecost is also one of the occasions specially appointed for the Lutheran Litany to be sung.

From the early days of Western Christianity, Pentecost became one of the days set aside to celebrate Baptism. In Northern Europe Pentecost was preferred even over Easter for this rite, as the temperatures in late spring might be supposed to be more conducive to outdoor immersion as was then the practice. It is proposed that the term Whit Sunday derives from the custom of the newly baptized wearing white clothing, and from the white vestments worn by the clergy in English liturgical uses. The holiday was also one of the three days each year (along with Christmas and Easter) Roman Catholics were required to confess and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion in order to remain in good church standing. Holy Communion is likewise often a feature of the Protestant observance of Pentecost as well. It is one of the relatively few Sundays some Reformed denominations may offer the communion meal, and is one of the days of the year specially appointed among Moravians for the celebration of their Love Feasts. Ordinations are celebrated across a wide array of Western denominations at Pentecost, or near to it. In some denominations, for example the Lutheran Church, even if an ordination or consecration of a deaconess is not celebrated on Pentecost, the liturgical color will invariably be red, and the theme of the service will be the Holy Spirit. And above all, Pentecost is a day for the Confirmation celebrations of young people. Flowers, the wearing of white robes, or white dresses recalling Baptism, rites such as the laying on of hands, and vibrant singing play prominent roles on these joyous occasions, the blossoming of Spring forming an equal analogy with the blossoming of youth.

The typical image of Pentecost in the West is that of the Virgin Mary seated centrally and prominently among the disciples, with flames resting on the crowns of their heads. Occasionally parting clouds suggesting the action of the “mighty wind”, rays of light, and/or the Dove, are also depicted. Of course, the Western iconographic style is less static and stylized than that of the East, and other very different representations have been produced, and in some cases have achieved great fame, such as the Pentecosts by Titian, Giotto and el Greco.

Paul already in the first century notes the importance of this festival to the early Christian communities. (See: Acts: 20:16 & Corinthians) Since the lifetime of some who may have been eye-whitnesses, annual celebrations of the descent of the Holy Spirit have been observed. Before the Second Vatican Council Pentecost Monday as well was a Holy Day of Obligation during which the Catholic Church addressed the newly baptized and confirmed. Since that time however Pentecost Monday is no longer solemnized. Nevertheless it remains an official church festival in many Protestant churches, such as the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, and others. In the Byzantine Catholic Rite Pentecost Monday is no longer a Holy Day of Obligation, but rather a simple holy day. In the Roman Catholic Church, as at Easter, the liturgical rank of Monday and Tuesday of Pentecost week is a Double of the First Class and across many Western denominations, Pentecost is celebrated with an octave culminating on Trinity Sunday.

Marking the festival’s importance, in several denominations, such as the Lutheran and United Methodist churches (and formerly in the Roman Catholic Church), all the Sundays from the holiday itself up until the next Advent in late November or December are designated the 2nd, 3rd, Nth, Sunday after Pentecost, etc. Throughout the year, in Roman Catholic piety, the Pentecost is the third of the Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary, as well as being one of the Stations of the Resurrection, or Via Lucis.

In Evangelical churches, where a lesser degree of emphasis on the liturgical year is generally placed, Pentecost may indeed be one of the greatest celebrations in the year. In many other cases though, Pentecost may be a holiday ignored in these churches. Perhaps ironically, this includes many Pentecostal congregations. Christians of these traditions may be surprised to learn of the significance assigned to the holiday by others, and in fact in many evangelical churches in the United States, secular Mother’s Day is more celebrated than the ancient and biblical Christian feast of Pentecost. (This tends much to be less the case among evangelicals in countries where Pentecost is prominently celebrated, such as Germany or Romania.) Nevertheless, today many evangelicals are discovering the liturgical calendar and observe Pentecost as a day to teach on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile across denominational lines Pentecost is becoming an opportunity for Christians to honor the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and celebrate the birth of the church in an ecumenical context.

In Italy it was customary to scatter rose petals from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues; hence in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy Whitsunday is called Pasqua rosatum. The Italian name Pasqua rossa comes from the red colours of the vestments used on Whitsunday.

In France it was customary to blow trumpets during Divine service, to recall the sound of the mighty wind which accompanied the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Since Pentecost itself is on a Sunday, it is automatically a public holiday almost everywhere. Pentecost Monday is a public holiday in many European countries including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, and (most parts of) Switzerland. In Sweden it is also a public holiday, but Pentecost Monday (Annandag Pingst), through a government decision December 15, 2004, was abolished and replaced with the Swedish National Day. In Italy, it is no longer a public holiday. It was a public holiday in Republic of Ireland until 1973. It was a Bank Holiday in the United Kingdom until 1967.

Shavuot (help·info) (or Shavuos (help·info), in Ashkenazi usage; Hebrew: שבועות‎, lit. "Weeks") is a Jewish holiday that occurs on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (late May or early June). Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire Israelite nation assembled at Mount Sinai, although the association between the giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) and Shavuot is not explicit in the Biblical text. The holiday is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. It marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer.

The date of Shavuot is directly linked to that of Passover. The Torah mandates the seven-week Counting of the Omer, beginning on the second day of Passover and immediately followed by Shavuot. This counting of days and weeks is understood to express anticipation and desire for the Giving of the Torah. On Passover, the Jewish people were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.

In the Bible, Shavuot is called the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: חג השבועות, Ḥag ha-Shavuot, Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10); Festival of Reaping (Hebrew: חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir, Exodus 23:16), and Day of the First Fruits (Hebrew יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim, Numbers 28:26). The Mishnah and Talmud refer to Shavuot as Atzeret (Hebrew: עצרת, a solemn assembly), as it provides closure for the festival activities during and following the holiday of Passover. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Hellenistic Jews gave it the name Pentecost (πεντηκοστή, "fiftieth day").

Shavuot is little-known. It is postulated that among other reasons, its obscurity is related to the gravitas of the Torah itself, with its numerous positive commandments and negative commandments.

According to Jewish tradition, Shavuot is celebrated in Israel for one day and in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) for two days. Reform Jews celebrate only one day, even in the Diaspora.

Besides its significance as the day on which the Torah was revealed by God to the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai (which includes the Ten Commandments), Shavuot is also connected to the season of the grain harvest in Israel. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24; Deut. 16:9-11; Isa. 9:2). It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest, just as the eighth day of Sukkot (Tabernacles) was the concluding festival of the fruit harvest. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot.

Shavuot was also the first day on which individuals could bring the Bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem (Mishnah Bikkurim 1:3). The Bikkurim were brought from the Seven Species for which the Land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8). In the largely agrarian society of ancient Israel, Jewish farmers would tie a reed around the first ripening fruits from each of these species in their fields. At the time of harvest, the fruits identified by the reed would be cut and placed in baskets woven of gold and silver. The baskets would then be loaded on oxen whose horns were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers, and who were led in a grand procession to Jerusalem. As the farmer and his entourage passed through cities and towns, they would be accompanied by music and parades.

At the Temple, each farmer would present his Bikkurim to a kohen in a ceremony that followed the text of Deut. 26:1-10. This text begins by stating, "An Aramean tried to destroy my father," referring to Laban's efforts to weaken Jacob and rob him of his progeny (Rashi on Deut. 26:5)—or by an alternate translation, the text states "My father was a wandering Aramean," referring to the fact that Jacob was a penniless wanderer in the land of Aram for 20 years (ibid., Abraham ibn Ezra). The text proceeds to retell the history of the Jewish people as they went into exile in Egypt and were enslaved and oppressed; following which God redeemed them and brought them to the land of Israel. The ceremony of Bikkurim conveys the Jew's gratitude to God both for the first fruits of the field and for His guidance throughout Jewish history (Scherman, p. 1068).

Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holidays in that it has no prescribed mitzvot (Torah commandments) other than the traditional festival observances of abstention from work, special prayer services and holiday meals. However, it is characterized by many minhagim (customs). A mnemonic for these customs is the letters of the Hebrew word acharit (אחרית, "last"). Since the Torah is called reishit (ראשית, "first"), the customs of Shavuot highlight the importance of custom for the continuation and preservation of Jewish religious observance. These customs, largely observed in Ashkenazic communities, are:
  • אקדמות – Akdamut, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services
  • חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese
  • רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services
  • ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and synagogues with greenery
  • תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.
Akdamut (Aramaic: אקדמות) is a liturgical poem extolling the greatness of God, the Torah and Israel that is read publicly in the synagogue right before the morning reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot. It was composed by Rabbi Meir of Worms, whose son was murdered during the Crusade of 1096. Rabbi Meir was forced to defend the Torah and his Jewish faith in a debate with local priests, and successfully conveyed his certainty of God's power, His love for the Jewish people, and the excellence of Torah. Afterwards he wrote Akdamut, a 90-line poem in Aramaic which stresses these themes. The poem is written in a double acrostic pattern according to the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, each line ends with the syllable "ta" (תא), the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alluding to the endlessness of Torah. The traditional melody which accompanies this poem also conveys a sense of grandeur and triumph.

Sephardim do not read akdamut, but before the evening service they sing a poem called Azharot which sets out the 613 Biblical commandments. The positive commandments are recited on the first day and the negative commandments on the second day.

Dairy foods such as cheesecake and blintzes with cheese and other fillings are traditionally served on Shavuot.  One explanation for the consumption of dairy foods on this holiday is that the Israelites had not yet received the Torah, with its laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering of animals). As the food they had prepared beforehand was not in accordance with these laws, they opted to eat simple dairy meals to honor the holiday. Some say it harks back to King Solomon's portrayal of the Torah as "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11).

There are five books in Tanakh that are known as Megillot (Hebrew: מגילות, "scrolls") and are publicly read in the synagogues on different Jewish holidays. The Book of Lamentations, which details the destruction of the Holy Temple, is the reading for Tisha B'Av; the Book of Ecclesiastes, which touches on the ephemeralness of life, corresponds to Sukkot; the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) retells the events of Purim; and the Song of Songs, which echoes the themes of springtime and God's love for the Jewish people, is the reading for Passover.

The Book of Ruth (מגילת רות, Megillat Ruth) corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot both in its descriptions of the barley and wheat harvest seasons and Ruth's desire to become a member of the Jewish people, who are defined by their acceptance of the Torah. Moreover, the lineage described at the end of the Book lists King David as Ruth's great-grandson. According to tradition, David was born and died on Shavuot.

According to the Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit. Greenery also figures in the story of the baby Moses being found among the bulrushes in a watertight cradle (Ex. 2:3) when he was three months old (Moses was born on 7 Adar and placed in the Nile River on 6 Sivan, the same day he later brought the Jewish nation to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah).

For these reasons, many Jewish families traditionally decorate their homes and synagogues with plants, flowers and leafy branches in honor of Shavuot. Some synagogues decorate the bimah with a canopy of flowers and plants so that it resembles a chuppah, as Shavuot is mystically referred to as the day the matchmaker (Moses) brought the bride (the Jewish people) to the chuppah (Mount Sinai) to marry the bridegroom (God); the ketubbah (marriage contract) was the Torah. Some Eastern Sephardi communities actually read out a ketubbah between God and Israel as part of the service.

The Vilna Gaon cancelled the tradition of decorating with plants because it too closely resembles the Christian decorations for their holidays.

The custom of all-night Torah study goes back to 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, then living in Ottoman Salonika, invited his Kabbalistic colleagues to hold a night-long study vigil, in the course of which an angel appeared before them and commanded them to go live in Eretz Yisrael. According to a story in the Midrash, the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead, but they overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify this flaw in the national character, religious Jews stay up all night to learn Torah.

Any subject may be studied, although Talmud, Mishna and Torah typically top the list. In many communities, men and women attend classes and lectures until the early hours of the morning. In Jerusalem, thousands of people finish off the nighttime study session by walking to the Kotel before dawn and joining the sunrise minyan there. The latter activity is reminiscent of Shavuot's status as one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals, when the Jews living in the Land of Israel journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday.

In keeping with the custom of engaging in all-night Torah study, the Arizal, a leading Kabbalist of the 16th century, arranged a special service for the evening of Shavuot. The Tikkun Leil Shavuot ("Rectification for Shavuot Night") consists of excerpts from the beginning and end of each of the 24 books of Tanakh (including the reading in full of several key sections such as the account of the days of creation, The Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Shema) and the 63 chapters of Mishnah. This is followed by the reading of Sefer Yetzirah, the 613 commandments as enumerated by Maimonides, and excerpts from the Zohar, with opening and concluding prayers. The whole reading is divided into thirteen parts, after each of which a Kaddish di-Rabbanan is recited when the Tikkun is studied in a group of at least ten Jewish, Bar Mitzvahed men.

This service is printed in a special book, and is widely used in Eastern Sephardic, some German and Hasidic communities. There are similar books for the vigils before the seventh day of Pesach and Hosha'ana Rabbah.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews do not observe this custom.

Reform Jewish synagogues will typically hold celebrations of Confirmation for tenth graders on the evening or morning of Shavuot. The holiday falls around the end of the school year in the northern hemisphere, and the giving of the Ten Commandments naturally fits into the theme of continued Jewish learning.

Since the Torah does not specify the actual day on which Shavuot falls, differing interpretations of this date have arisen both in traditional and non-traditional Jewish circles. These discussions center around two ways of looking at Shavuot: the day it actually occurs (i.e., the day the Torah was given on Mount Sinai), and the day it occurs in relation to the Counting of the Omer (being the 50th day from the first day of the Counting).

While most of the Talmudic Sages concur that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan; R. Jose holds that it was given on the seventh of that month. According to the classical timeline, the Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Sinai on the new moon (Ex. 19:1) and the Ten Commandments were given on the following Shabbat (i.e., Saturday). The question of whether the new moon fell on Sunday or Monday is undecided (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 86b). In practice, Shavuot is observed on the sixth day of Sivan in Israel and a second day is added in the Jewish diaspora (in keeping with a separate rabbinical ruling that applies to all biblical holidays, called Yom Tov Sheini Shebegaliyot, Second-Day Yom Tov in the Diaspora).

The Torah states that the Omer offering (i.e., the first day of counting the Omer) is the first day of corn harvest (Deut. 16:9). It should begin "on the morrow after the Shabbat", and continue to be counted for seven Sabbaths. (Lev. 23:11). The Talmudic Sages determined that "Shabbat" here means a day of rest and refers to the first day of Passover. Thus, the counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Passover and continues for the next 49 days, or seven complete weeks, ending on the day before Shavuot.

According to this calculation, Shavuot will fall on the day of the week after that of the first day of Passover (e.g., if Passover starts on a Thursday, Shavuot will begin on a Friday).

Most secular scholarship, and the Karaites, as well as Catholics and the historical Sadducees and Boethusians, dispute this interpretation. They infer the "Shabbat" referenced is the weekly Shabbat. Accordingly, Shavuot falls on the day after the weekly shabbat, counting from seven weeks since the day after the first shabbat during Pesach.

This interpretation was shared by the second-century BC author of the Book of Jubilees who was motivated by the priestly sabbatical solar calendar of the third and second centuries BC, which was designed to have festivals and Sabbaths fall on the same day of the week every year. On this calendar (best known from the Book of Luminaries in 1 Enoch), Shavuot fell on the 15th of Sivan, a Sunday. The date was reckoned fifty days from the first Sabbath after Passover (i.e. from the 25th of Nisan). Thus, Jub. 1:1 claims that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah "on the sixteenth day of the third month in the first year of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt".

The Book of Jubilees describes the celebration of Shavuot in pre-Mosaic times. In Jub. 6:15-22 and 44:1-5, the holiday is traced to the appearance of the first rainbow on the 15th of Sivan, the day on which God made his covenant with Noah. The covenant renewal feature of Shavuot is thus attributed to this first covenant. Subsequently, it was observed by Noah until his death but revived again by Abraham (Jub. 15:1), and after Abraham's death it was forgotten again until Moses restored it once more.

Qumran scholar Gabriele Boccaccini has suggested that the 1,290 and 1,335 days of Daniel 12:11-12 point to the observance of Shavuot in a restored Israel, as reckoned by the priestly solar calendar. These durations are exactly 30 and 45 days longer than the 3½ years mentioned in Dan. 7:25 and 9:27. The period of 3½ years amounts to 1,260 days in the priestly solar calendar because the equinoxes and solstices count as markers of the seasons rather than monthly days (1 En. 74:11, 75:1, 82:4). The blessings expected at the end of the 1,335 days pertain to the resurrection to "everlasting life" mentioned a few verses earlier (12:2), and this is the reward to those who refused to forsake the covenant unto death (Dan. 11:22, 11:28, 11:30, 11:33-35), while those who forsook the covenant (11:30-32) face "everlasting contempt".

Boccaccini sees the 3½ years as ending at the spring equinox (equinoxes and solstices were important markers of the seasons in the solar calendar), to be followed by 30 days to complete the 1,290 days (the month of Passover), and an additional 45 days to reach the 15th of Sivan, the purported day of Shavuot. For those who refused to forsake the covenant, this would be the day the covenant would be renewed and the expected blessings would be realized.

The Jewish Encyclopedia points to the similarities between the Christian and Jewish Pentecost, as an outpouring of the spirit or the giving of the Law in seventy languages.

The first day of Shavuot begins on:
  • 2010: Tuesday night/Wednesday 18-19 May
  • 2011: Tuesday night/Wednesday 7-8 June
  • 2012: Saturday night/Sunday 26-27 May
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