There are four names for the festival of Shavu’ot:
- Shavu’ot, as we read: “Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks (Ḥag Shavu’ot) for the Lord your God” (Devarim 16:10).
- The Harvest Festival (Ḥag Ha-katzir), as we read: “the Festival of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field” (Shemot 23:16).
- The Day of the First Fruits (Yom Ha-bikurim), as we read: “on the day of the first fruits, your Festival of Weeks, when you bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Bamidbar 28:26).
- The Gathering (Atzeret), the festival’s name in rabbinic literature.
We will begin by explaining its primary name – Shavu’ot.
The timing of Shavu’ot is unique. All other festivals have a defined date – Pesaḥ starts on the fifteenth of Nisan, Rosh Ha-shana on the first of Tishrei, Yom Kippur on the tenth of Tishrei, and Sukkot on the fifteenth of Tishrei. However, Shavu’ot has no assigned date. Its date is dependent upon Sefirat Ha-omer. The omer offering was brought on the second day of Pesaḥ. From that day, we count seven weeks, for a total of 49 days. The following day (the fiftieth) is celebrated as Shavu’ot. Thus we read: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days, then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Vayikra 23:15-16). Similarly, we read: “You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks for the Lord your God” (Devarim 16:9-10). True, nowadays Shavu’ot is always on the sixth of Sivan, but this is because we have a set calendar. In the past, when rabbinic courts were comprised of properly ordained judges (musmakhim), they would sanctify the new moon, determining Rosh Ḥodesh based on testimony as to the moon’s appearance. Under those circumstances, the festival was sometimes celebrated on the fifth or seventh of Sivan.
Accordingly, the timing of Shavu’ot depends upon the timing of Pesaḥ. The implication is that only by starting with Pesaḥ can we get to Shavu’ot and the giving of the Torah. Two interconnected principles were revealed on Pesaḥ – the Jewish people’s uniqueness, and simple faith (emuna peshuta). When God chose Israel as His special nation, smote the Egyptians, and led His nation to freedom, He demonstrated that there is a Creator Who runs the world. Jews have this simple faith. However, for this faith to reach its full expression and allow us to help the world progress toward redemption, we need the Torah as well, for it contains the values, commandments, and guidance necessary to perfect the world. This is the meaning of what we say in the berakhot on the Torah: “Who chose us from among all the nations” refers to Pesaḥ, while “and gave us His Torah” refers to Shavu’ot. Without the natural and basic Jewish faith revealed on Pesaḥ, it would be impossible to arrive at the deep and complex faith represented by Shavu’ot. Conversely, our natural faith and our uniqueness could not survive without the Torah given on Shavu’ot (see Peninei Halakha: Pesaḥ 1:1 and Zemanim 2:1-2).
God gave us the festivals of Pesaḥ and Shavu’ot so that we may relive the miraculous events of the Exodus, and to once again remind us of the uniqueness of the Jews and simple faith. These realizations allow us to use the time period of Sefirat Ha-omer to gradually ascend to the sacred day on which the Torah was given, when our faith becomes whole and complete. Each year we are able to rise higher and higher. Ultimately, the whole world will be filled with righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, and the land will be filled with the knowledge of God.