Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, is one of the three “convocations of the Lord” that, along with Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, constitute the “appointed times” (Leviticus 23:4) for Israel to gather in Jerusalem. It may be thought of as a unit with Passover, as we will soon see, for a number of reasons-including the close connection between the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah and the gift of the Holy Spirit that empowers the Lord’s people to do His work.
Shavuot’s Biblical Basis
As the Book of Leviticus describes, the first connection between Passover and Shavuot is that they move together on the Jewish calendar-“On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the LORD’s Passover…seven days you must eat unleavened bread.
The seventh day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it. And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD” (Leviticus 23: 5, 6, 8, 15-17).
Therefore, regardless of where Passover falls on our “modern” calendar, Shavuot is sure to follow fifty days after the second day of Passover. This fifty-day period is where another name for the feast comes from: Pentecost.
Shavuot Traditions in Judaism
In Judaism, the period of “counting the days” from Passover until Shavuot according to the Lord’s command (Leviticus 23:15) is called “Counting the Omer.” It comes from the ancient practice of offering an omer (about two dry quarts) of barley to the Lord on the second day of Passover. To this day, blessings are recited as observant Jewish people keep track of the days between Passover and Shavuot by “counting the omer.”
During this period, observant Jews mourn the deaths that occurred in a plague among the Jewish people during the final armed revolt against the Romans that took place in A.D. 132. A number of signs of mourning are typically observed at this time. For example, there are no haircuts taken during this period, and no weddings or festive occasions are celebrated-except on Lag B’Omer (Hebrew for the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer).
Lag B’Omer commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, supposed author of the Kabalistic work, the Zohar. His death is a day of celebration, for he himself is said to have given such instructions. Therefore, the mourning observances are suspended for a day. Thousands of the Rabbi’s followers congregate at Mt. Meron, near the town of Safed in the Galilee, to observe the anniversary of his death. Bonfires are lit to symbolize the shining light of the Lord (Zohar means “Light”), and weddings are made. Lag B’Omer has become the traditional occasion for a Jewish child’s first haircut.
When Shavuot finally arrives, it is celebrated as a day of rest in Israel (two days outside of Israel). Shavuot traditions today include the reading of the Book of Ruth, which perhaps reminds us of the harvest, the eating of dairy foods (without meat, as befits a kosher diet) and the decoration of the home and synagogue with harvest produce.
But Shavuot has another spiritual side, for it is also called “Hag Matan Torateinu” (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah). According to Jewish tradition, it is also the time when the Lord revealed to Israel the gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai. And here we find that, just as Moses the Deliverer connects the first Passover and the first Shavuot, Jesus the Messiah brings them together again-in a new and startling way.
Shavuot and the New Testament
The Gospels demonstrate how Jesus the Messiah fulfills the prophetic promises of the Hebrew Scriptures. The drama of the Last Supper is a most vivid example, as Jesus reveals Himself to be the true and all-sufficient Passover sacrifice.
Now, as the story continues in the Book of Acts, we see how the close connection between Passover and Shavuot is preserved through the ministry of the Messiah. The very last recorded words that Jesus spoke in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel were, “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
And so, it is fitting that Luke should take up the story again at roughly this point in the Book of Acts. Luke records Jesus’ words restating the Lord’s promise and the Great Commission for which His people will be empowered: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Now, as Luke continues, we are in the midst of another “appointed time” several weeks after Passover. It is the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, and once again Jewish people from throughout the known world (Acts 2:5-11) are gathered in Jerusalem, according to the Lord’s commandment.
The Holy Spirit and Shavuot
We have seen how Shavuot commemorates the harvest and the revelation of the Torah. Now, in the Book of Acts, we find it is the occasion upon which the Holy Spirit was first given.
Peter, who such a short time before had been paralyzed with fear, now preached the Gospel with boldness and authority. And what was the result of his Spirit-filled words? “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (Acts 2:41). Another kind of harvest had begun-a harvest of souls for the Kingdom.
That harvest is continuing today as Jewish people and others join together in the New Covenant and the Great Commission. That covenant was proclaimed by Messiah at the Passover. Now, it is sealed through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost-yet another example of how our sovereign Lord has taken the former things and made them more meaningful than ever before.