Between Shavuot and Pentecost
The biblical Shavuot (“Weeks”) is a harvest festival:
דברים טז:ט שִׁבְעָה שָׁבֻעֹת תִּסְפָּר לָךְ מֵהָחֵל חֶרְמֵשׁ בַּקָּמָה תָּחֵל לִסְפֹּר שִׁבְעָה שָׁבֻעוֹת. טז:י וְעָשִׂיתָ חַג שָׁבֻעוֹת לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִסַּת נִדְבַת יָדְךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּן...
Deut 16:9 You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. 16:10 Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for YHWH your God, offering your freewill contribution…
The harvest connection is highlighted by the festival’s other names, Katzir “Harvest” (Exod 23:26, 34:22) and Bikkurim “First Produce” (Lev 23:15–22, Num 26:31).
The Torah never associates Shavuot with any event in Israel’s history. Moshe Weinfeld (1925–2009) of Hebrew University argued that already in biblical times, it was associated with the revelation on Mount Sinai. He notes the date of this revelation as having taken place in the third month (Exod 19:1), and believes that certain Psalms (50 and 81) as well as a passage in Chronicles (2 Chron 15:10) imply a yearly renewal of the covenant celebration that would have taken place on Shavuot.
This suggestion is quite speculative, however, and we have no direct evidence for Shavuot as connected to the Sinai theophany until the 2nd century B.C.E. Book of Jubilees, which describes Shavuot as a covenant renewal day. A little later in time, the Dead Sea Scrolls describe a yearly ceremony of Covenant renewal and repentance in the third month, which many scholars understand as being on Shavuot.
This association does not appear to have entered mainstream Jewish consciousness until later, since neither Josephus nor Philo note this connection. Most significantly, this identification is absent in the Mishnah, even though an entire tractate (Bikkurim) is dedicated to Shavuot’s main ritual of bringing the first produce to the Temple. The earliest rabbinic sage to make this connection explicitly, is Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat a 3rd century C.E. Galilean sage, who argues that it is a mitzvah for people to enjoy themselves on Shavuot because it was the day the Torah was given (b. Pesachim 68b):
א"ר אלעזר: "הכל מודים בעצרת דבעינן נמי לכם, יום שניתנה בו תורה הוא."
Said Rabbi Elazar: “All admit in respect of the festival of Atzeret (=Shavuot) that we require it to be ‘for you’ (Num 29:35); it is the day on which the Torah was given.”
As the “fact” of Shavuot being the date of the revelation is not debated here, it would seem to have been a consensus position by this time. Indeed, the Tosefta, a collection of Tannaitic rulings from roughly the same period as the Mishnah, already mentions the Sinai pericope (Exodus 19) as one of two possible passages for the Shavuot Torah reading (t. Megillah 3:5).
As for the explicit description of Shavuot in Jewish liturgy as זמן מתן תורתינו, “the day of the giving of our Torah,” this first appears in the Siddur Rav Amram Gaon in the name of the 9th century Gaon of Sura, Natronai ben Hillai. While rabbinic Judaism never developed a covenant renewal ceremony as such for Shavuot, the kabbalistic practice of staying up all night learning Torah, which appears in the Zohar (1:8a–9b) and is popularized by 16th century Sefad, emphasizes how this is a day in which Jews renew the Sinaitic Covenant, by showing excitement to accept the Torah again.
As seen in the Talmudic quote above, the standard term in Rabbinic literature for Shavuot is Atzeret, a biblical term meaning “sacred assembly,” perhaps more specifically “closing assembly of festival.” In the Torah, this term is applied to the seventh day of Matzot and the eighth day of Sukkot. The rabbinic use of the term for Shavuot was meant to emphasize the link with the Matzot festival fifty days earlier, treating Shavuot as its delayed ending.
In the Bible, the connection between these two festivals was agricultural, with Matzot beginning the grain harvest and Shavuot ending it. For the rabbis, however, the connection between the festivals emphasized an historical message: The Matzot festival commemorates the exodus from Egypt, which led up to the revelation at Mount Sinai, commemorated on Shavuot.
Shavuot in Early Christian Communities: Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians
Towards the end of the Second Temple period, Paul mentions Shavuot in his First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul, a Jew (see esp. Acts 23:6, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” who became an early apostle of Jesus, dedicated his ministry to including non-Jews among the fold of what we now call early Christians, including communities that he helped establish outside of the Land of Israel, including Corinth, in Greece.
In the context of discussing when he plans to visit Corinth again, Paul informs the people that he will be celebrating Shavuot that year in Ephesus in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), another one of his communities:
1 Cor 16:7 I do not want to see you now just in passing, for I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. 16:8 But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost (πεντηκοστῆς), 16:9 for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.
The Greek word Pentecost means “fiftieth,” referring to the counting of fifty days from the Matzot festival:
ויקרא כג:טו וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה. כג:טז עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַי־הוָה.
Lev 23:15 And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: 23:16 you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to YHWH.
The term was standard among Greek speaking Jews, appearing in works that predate Paul, such as Tobit (2:1) and 2 Maccabees (12:32). Paul’s casual reference to which community he will be spending Shavuot with shows that the celebration of Shavuot/Pentecost was part of the festival cycle in these early Christian groups.
The Holy Spirit on Pentecost: Acts of the Apostles
The Acts of the Apostles, a text composed a generation or two after Paul, tells how, on the Shavuot/Pentecost following Jesus’ crucifixion, the Holy Spirit rested upon his disciples:
Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
The coming of the Spirit authenticates God’s acceptance of the recipients, by granting them the miraculous gift of the ability to spontaneously speak in foreign languages. If this story has a historical basis, it was likely about glossolalia—uttering incomprehensible sounds, expressing a speaker’s joy and gladness.
The story was likely recast as something miraculous, because Paul critiques glossolalia, arguing that it can be self-serving and something less than prophecy:
1Cor. 14:1 Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. 14:2 For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. 14:3 On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 14:4 Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. 14:5 Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy….
Paul contrasts glossolalia with meaningful utterances, which, he says, are to be preferred because they edify others and not just the speaker. The book of Acts recasting of the event as miraculous fluency in foreign languages was meant to distance the account of what happened to Jesus’ disciples from this practice.
And yet, the connection between Pentecost and glossolalia persists, especially among the participants in the modern Pentecostal movement, whose name is inspired by this story and who continue to practice glossolalia to this very day. Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury is on record as saying that he practices it himself.
By the time Acts was composed, Shavuot was likely understood by many Jews as the festival commemorating the revelation at Sinai. The story of Jesus’ disciples receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, therefore, reappropriates the Shavuot festival as a celebration of this new religious order. At the same time, Christians continue to acknowledge the importance of the Ten Commandments as the foundation of morality, and Christian liturgies for Pentecost sometimes include the Exodus account of the revelation on Sinai, a clear echo of the Jewish understanding of Shavuot.
The Development of the Pentecost Festival in the Church
In the early years of Christianity, Pentecost was celebrated as the “seal” (σφραγίς, sphragis) of a 50-day period of (Easter) celebration, first attested in the late second century C.E., especially in North Africa and in some parts of the eastern churches. Since Easter is always on a Sunday, Pentecost too is always on a Sunday. Kneeling and fasting, penitential actions, inappropriate in a season of rejoicing, were prohibited during all fifty days, implying that each day was treated as if it were like a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath.
Later, Christians designated specific days within this period as distinct festivals with their own liturgies, each commemorating a different event following Jesus’ crucifixion:
Easter commemorated the resurrection,
Ascension Day commemorated Jesus’ ascension into heaven forty days later (Acts 1),
Pentecost commemorated the gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ early disciples (Acts 2).
With this, the festival of Pentecost was no longer primarily the endpoint of a season but a day of celebration for the gift of the Holy Spirit as narrated in Acts 2.
Since the reforming Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Catholic Church, followed by many Protestant churches, has tried to return to seeing the fifty days following Easter Day as one special season, with the Sunday of Pentecost concluding it, rather than seeing Pentecost as an independent festival about the descent of the Holy Spirit. This brings the Christian understanding of Pentecost closer to the presentation of Shavuot in the Hebrew Bible.
Baptism on Pentecost, Shavuot and Conversion
By the fourth century it was common for Christians to administer baptism at Pentecost. The usual term for Pentecost in English, Whitsun (“White Sunday”), probably derives from the fact that the newly-baptized were dressed in white garments.
Judaism does not have a comparable practice on Shavuot. Nevertheless, while Shavuot is not a day in which conversion candidates actually convert to Judaism—an act that would require immersion in the waters of a mikvah—the practice to read on Shavuot the book of Ruth, which was understood by the rabbis to be about Ruth the righteous convert, emphasizes the theme of conversion.
Amongst modern day Christians, the association between Pentecost and baptism has been largely lost. Nevertheless, a trace of it remains in the custom of administering “confirmation” at Pentecost.
Confirmation: A Pentecost Practice that Moved to Shavuot
When baptism was still practiced on Pentecost, they were then anointed with oil as a sign of the gift of the Spirit. Once the practice developed of administering baptism to babies, unable to make the baptismal promises themselves, the anointing on Pentecost came to be a separate ritual, attached to a new rite, “confirmation” of baptism, giving adults the possibility of making for themselves the promises that could only be made on their behalf by their godparents when they were baptized.
Different churches have developed confirmation in varying ways. In the Anglican church, for instance, such confirmation typically takes place in the early teenage years, similar to a bar- or bat-mitzvah, when candidates are reckoned capable of making a decision for themselves. Among the Anglicans, this does not always take place on Pentecost, but some other Protestant churches have retained that connection.
Not everyone who is baptized goes on to be confirmed. Confirmation is seen as a mark of definite Christian commitment. Consequently, when confirmation is undertaken, it is taken seriously, usually with a course of classes in preparation.
Confirmation in the Liberal Jewish Movements
People who grew up in the Orthodox Jewish world have likely never heard of confirmation as a Jewish practice, but confirmation has been a practice in the Reform (and eventually Conservative) movement for more than two centuries. On the Shavuot of 1811, the Jacobsontempel in Seeson Westphalia, was the first synagogue to hold such a ceremony. Even now, some synagogues still hold confirmation on Shavuot.
Originally, the confirmation ceremony served as a replacement for the bar mitzvah, and was a sign that Judaism was emerging into a new age. Since bat mitzvah celebrations (i.e., for girls) did not exist before the 20th century, and thus the confirmation ceremony was the first that would celebrate the milestone for boys and girls alike.
The confirmation ceremony was not modeled on the bar mitzvah ceremony, in which the child is called to the Torah, and sometimes reads from it. Instead, it was modeled on the Christian catechism, the oral question and answer method of instruction and examination. Indeed, a German Jewish book of catechisms came out in 1807, and many others followed.
The ceremony also copied the “Whitsun” dress of Christian baptisms and confirmations, by having the teenagers wear white. This was first recorded in the 1840s in France and Italy and extending right up to modern times.
Jewish Girls’ School confirmation or “group bat mitzvah” ceremony; Alexandria, Egypt (early 1900s). Nebi Daniel Photo Collection
The Shavuot confirmation ceremony may have been modeled on the Christian ceremony of that name but connects to some earlier Jewish practices. As Ivan Marcus of Yale University shows, in medieval Europe, Shavuot was associated not with the end of a Jewish educational program, but with the beginning. Jewish boys aged five or six would learn their first letters, and be rewarded with cakes, eggs, fruit and nuts. In that light, confirmation is not simply about passing the tests, but showing that the person is ready for full and educated commitment to the religious tenets of Judaism.
The Mutual Influence of Shavuot and Pentecost
Thus, we end with the inverse of where we started. In modern times, Pentecost has exerted some influence on Jewish practices for Shavuot, with the introduction of confirmation in the liberal movements. At its core, however, Pentecost derives from the festival of Shavuot, both in how it commemorates a revelation of sorts from each respective religion’s past, and in even in its very name, the festival that is celebrated on the fiftieth day.
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Prof. Rev. John Barton is Emeritus Oriel & Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford, UK, and a Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, Oxford. He holds a D.Phil and a D.Litt from the University of Oxford and is an ordained priest of the Anglican Church. Among his many books are Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study (Westminster, 1984), The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Westminster-John Knox 2007), Ethics in Ancient Israel (Oxford 2014), and A History of the Bible: The Story of the World's Most Influential Book (Viking 2019).
Dr. Rabbi Michael C. Hilton is Senior Lecturer at Leo Baeck College, London; Scholar in Residence at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London; and an Honorary Research Fellow of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. He is the author of The Gospels and Rabbinic Judaism: A Study Guide (with Father Gordian Marshall OP); of The Christian Effect on Jewish Life; and of Bar Mitzvah: A History.
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