What is the Story of Shavuot?
The “stories” of many things, their background and purpose, can be told by explaining what they are called. To a great extent, this is true in general of the Jewish holidays and, in particular, it is true of the holiday of Shavuot. The names of this holiday are:
“Chag Shavuot” – The Feast (or Holiday) of Weeks “Z’man Matan Torateinu” – The Time of the Giving of Our Torah “Chag HaBikkurim” – The Holiday of the First Fruits “Atzeret” – The Holiday of “Being Held Back, or Restrained, Close to Hashem, in the Temple” “Chag HaKatzir” – The Holiday of the Cutting of the Crop “Chag Shavuot” – The Feast of Weeks
The holiday is given this name because it is the climax of the Counting of Days and Weeks which make up the Sefirat HaOmer. Sefirat HaOmer connects Passover and Shavuot. Passover is the holiday on which we commemorate our Redemption from Slavery in Egypt. That was our “Physical Redemption.”
But physical redemption is not enough. It would have left us “free” people, but with no purpose to our lives. The purpose of the Jewish People is to serve G-d. The way we serve G-d is by studying and practicing his Torah. On Shavuot, G-d Himself appeared to us on Mt. Sinai to give us the Torah. By accepting it, we earned the title of “A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”
Thus, Shavuot is the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt. Seven weeks had to pass before we were able to shake off the feeling of being subject to our Egyptian taskmasters. The Jewish Religion believes that there is no legitimate master for a human being other than G-d. This is probably the most important lesson of Shavuot.
“Z’man Matan Torateinu” – The Time of the Giving of Our Torah
The Jewish People arrived in the vicinity of Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai) on Rosh Chodesh Sivan. The purpose of their assembling there was to receive the Torah from Hashem. Three days passed before the Jewish People recovered from their six week sojourn in the desert. Moshe was instructed by Hashem that the Jewish People would have to prepare themselves for another three days before they would be ready to receive the Torah.
Before giving the Torah to the Jewish People, Hashem had, so to speak, “shopped it around” to the various nations of the world, but there were no takers.
Moshe “Rabbeinu,” Moses our Teacher, according to another Midrash, had to overcome the objection of the Angels, who claimed that the Jewish People weren’t sufficiently deserving to receive the Torah. But, fortunately for the Jewish People, and for the world, Moshe won that debate.
“Chag HaBikkurim” – The Holiday of the First Fruits
This name commemorates the New Grain Offering, which was brought at this time; its offering made it permissible to bring Grain Offerings from the “Chadash,” the New Grain.
This was also the time that the first fruits of all the Seven Types of Produce with which the Land of Israel is Blessed (wheat, barley, wine, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates) were brought to the Temple. This procedure is described in the Talmud in Masechet Bikkurim.
“Atzeret” – The Holiday of “Being Held Back, Close to Hashem”
This is the name used exclusively for this Holiday in the Talmud. It suggests a similarity to Shemini Atzeret. The latter comes at the end of Sukkot, while this “Atzeret” comes at the conclusion of a process which began on “Pesach,” or Passover.
One way of understanding the idea of “Atzeret” is that Hashem wants the Jewish People to feel close to Him at all times. But to have them come back to the Temple in Jerusalem several weeks after Sukkot would have required difficult travel in the winter. So Hashem just held them back for one day after Sukkot, to show his special love for them.
Whereas, Shavuot and Pesach have a special relationship which makes them really, in a sense, almost like one holiday, namely, the Holiday of Redemption, Physical and Spiritual, of the Jewish People.
“Chag HaKatzir” – The Holiday of the Cutting of the Crop
This refers to the wheat crop, which is the latest of the crops to be harvested, which took place at this time. There is also a reference here to Megillat Ruth, which places the time of the events described in the Megillah as “at the beginning of the cutting of the barley crop.”