For Jews, Shavuot is a holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the day more than 3,300 years ago when they were given the Torah on Mount Sinai. The festival also historically marks the wheat harvest in Israel. The Torah itself contains the teachings of Judaism. In rabbinic literature the word “Torah” means both the five books that are written (Pentateuch) scripture, as well as the oral Torah history.
Every year on the holiday of Shavuot, the Jewish people renew their acceptance of God’s gift, and celebrate that God ‘re-gives’ the Torah. Scholars have compared this spiritual event to a wedding between God and the Jewish people. The word ‘Shavuot’ means ‘oaths’, because it is when God swore eternal devotion to the Jewish people and they in turn promised everlasting loyalty to Him.
The festival – celebrated on one day in Israel, two elsewhere - marks the end of the Counting of the Omer, the 49-day period between the second night of Passover (Pesach) and the holiday of Shavuot. It also marks the beginning of the barley harvest when, in ancient times, Jews would bring the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. The word ‘omer’ literally means ‘sheaf’ and refers to these early offerings.
As with all festivals, there is a range of special traditions connected to Shavuot The celebratory meal usually includes dairy foods and after this Shavuot holiday meal, many people go to synagogue for Ma’ariv (the evening service). At synagogue, which is usually decorated with greenery (there are parallels with the Christian harvest festival), a passage from the Book of Ruth is often read. This is followed by an all-night Torah study session known as the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, in which Jews learn passages from the Torah.
It was the Shavuot that brought the apostles and all the followers of Jesus to Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-31) – and it was then that the Holy Spirit descended on them and they found themselves speaking in tongues, with everyone in streets crowded for the festival understanding what they were saying.
And so, last Sunday Christians celebrated Pentecost. The Christian holy day is celebrated on the 50th day after Easter, and is marked as the birth of the Christian church. Christians celebrate by attending church services. The symbols of Pentecost are the flame, wind, and the dove, which represents the Holy Spirit. The colour of Pentecost is red and the priest wears red vestments on this day.
For Jews, Pentecost or Shavuot is a celebration of the gift of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai. For Christians, the focus is on God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.