Shavuot: The Festival of Covenants
The holiday of Shavuot is unique among the biblical festivals in two respects. First, it is the only holiday without its own set date in any calendar; its celebration is determined by counting from another event (the bringing of the omer or wave offering) whose date is also ambiguous (Lev 23:15-16; Deut 16:9). Second, it is the only holiday which has no historical context or event explicitly associated with the origins of its observance. In rabbinic literature, by contrast, the holiday is anchored both calendrically, on the sixth of Sivan, and historically as a celebration of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. When and how did these ideas develop?
The earliest source for a set date for the festival and its connection to the Sinaitic revelation, is Jubilees, a Jewish work composed in the second century BCE. The entire book is presented as a revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai, through an angelic intermediary referred to as the Angel of Presence (מלאך הפנים).
This book, preserved in about 15 fragmentary copies in the Dead Sea scrolls, presents a rewriting of Genesis and Exodus, enriching them with additional material, often reflecting both halachic and/or chronological concerns. Legal passages are added to the patriarchal narratives, and all of the events in these books are dated according to a heptadic (based on the number seven) chronological framework of years, “weeks” of years, and “jubilees” = 49 years.
The Date of Shavuot and the Meaning of “The Day after Shabbat”
The date for Shavuot in Jubilees—the date the holiday was celebrated in the Qumran community—is the 15th of the third month, Sivan, nine days later than the rabbinic practice. In accordance with the 364 day solar calendar used in Jubilees (see my TABS essay, “The Jewish Calendar of Jubilees” for details), the holiday fell on Sunday every year. This date for the Shavuot festival reflects a specific reading of the biblical text, which sheds light on a well-known passage from rabbinic literature.
Leviticus 23:15 assigns the beginning of the seven-week period that culminates in the festival of first-fruits to the day of bringing of the wave offering (omer), specified to take place on ממחרת השבת, the day after “Shabbat” (Lev 23:11). The precise identification of this day was the subject of intense polemics between Jewish groups in the late Second Temple period, who debated how to interpret the term “Shabbat.” As related in rabbinic literature, the Pharisees interpreted the term Shabbat to refer to the first day of the Matzot festival, and thus “the day after Shabbat” to refer to its second day. The Boethusians (a Second Temple sectarian group referred to in rabbinic sources, often disagreeing with the Pharisees on issues of calendar), on the other hand, took Shabbat, as in the vast majority of instances throughout the Bible, to refer to the weekly Shabbat (= Saturday). According to this, “the day after Shabbat” would refer to a Sunday.
According to the Jubilees calendar, if we count seven weeks back from the 15th of the 3rd month, we arrive at Sunday, the 26th of the 1st month, as the day of the wave-offering. This date is the first Sunday following the seven-day Matzot festival (1/15–21), and reflects a literal translation of the expression “the day after Shabbat.” The count begins after the conclusion of the matzot festival since the description of this event follows the completion of the description of the previous festival (Lev 23:5-8).
Scholars debate whether the position attributed to the Boethusians is identical to that found in Jubilees and Qumran, since it is unclear whether they understood the “morrow after Shabbat” as a reference to the Sunday immediately following the matzot festival (as in Jubilees) or the one during the festival itself (as the Samaritans and Karaites do). Both interpretations are fundamentally different from the rabbis, who understood that word “Shabbat” in “the day after Shabbat” as “festival,” specifically the first day of the festival.
Jacob Celebrates Shavuot
In addition to having an exact date for Shavuot, Jubilees also adds an important theme to the holiday, the theme of covenant. This can be seen by looking at what transpires on Shavuot in the book—indeed, a major characteristic of Jubilees as it rewrites sections of Genesis and Exodus is the manner in which it anchors laws that only appear later in the Torah. In Jubilees 44, the date of Shavuot can be determined based upon the chronological data in the rewritten account of Jacob’s descent to Egypt (cf. Gen 46):
44:1 Israel set out from Hebron, from his house, on the first of the third month. He went by way of the well of the oath and offered a sacrifice to the God of his father Isaac on the seventh of this month. 44:2 When Jacob remembered the dream that he had seen in Bethel, he was afraid to go down to Egypt. 44:3 But as he was thinking about sending word to Joseph that he should come to him and that he would not go down, he remained there for seven days on the chance that he would see a vision (about) whether he should remain or go down. 44:4 He celebrated the harvest festival—the firstfruits of grain—with old grain because in all the land of Canaan there was not even a handful of seed in the land since the famine affected all the animals, the cattle, the birds, and mankind as well. 44:5 On the sixteenth the Lord appeared to him and said to him: ‘Jacob, Jacob’…
The passage opens at the beginning of the third month. Following Jacob’s arrival in Beersheba on the seventh of the third month, he remained there for seven days hoping to receive a vision about whether he should indeed go down to Egypt. This seven-day period is followed by “the harvest festival – the firstfruits of grain” in v. 4, immediately followed by the divine revelation on the 16th (v. 5). Thus, the “harvest festival” fell on the 15th of the month, after the seven-day sojourn (until the 14th) and immediately prior to the revelation on the 16th.
Abram’s Shavuot Revelation
Similarly, Abraham received the revelation concerning circumcision in “the middle of the third month”: “During the fifth year of the fourth week of this jubilee —in the third month, in the middle of the month—Abram celebrated the festival of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest” (15:1). The celebration of this festival on the 15th of the month corresponds to the dates of the festivals of Matzot and Sukkot, according to the Torah, which take place on the 15th of the first and seventh months respectively.
Jubilees dates additional events to the 15th of the 3rd month:
a. 14:10 – covenant between the pieces (ברית בין הבתרים)
b. 16:13 – birth of Isaac (fulfillment of promise in chapter 15)
c. 29:7 – covenant with Laban
Thus, every significant event in Genesis that is associated with covenant is explicitly associated with the date of the “festival of harvest.”
Shavuot and the Covenant with Noah
An extended passage following the flood narrative explicitly expresses the conception of Shavuot as the festival of covenant. The story concludes with a covenant between Noah and God in which He commits to never again destroy humanity through a Flood, while Noah and his sons swear not to consume the blood of animate beings:
6:17 For this reason it has been ordained and written on the heavenly tablets that they should celebrate the festival of weeks during this month—once a year—to renew the covenant each and every year.
The purpose of the annual celebration of Shavuot is to renew the covenant between God and Israel, a theme decidedly similar to the celebration of matan Torah found in rabbinic sources. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two conceptions.
Shavuot as a Covenant Going Back to the Time of Creation
According to Jubilees, the national covenant between God and Israel was not first established at Sinai, but existed from the dawn of time, when Israel was already chosen as God’s nation in the first week of creation (2:19–21):
9 … 19He said to us: “I will now separate for myself]
10 a people among my nations. And [they will keep Sabbath. I will sanctify them as my people, and I will bless them. They will be my people and I will be their God.”]
11 20And he chose the descendants of Jacob among [all of those whom I have seen. I have recorded them as my first-born son and have sanctified them for myself]
12 for all the age(s) of eternity. The [seventh] day [I will tell them so that they may keep Sabbath on it from everything, 21as he blessed them and sanctified them for himself as a special people]
13 out of all the nations and to be [keeping Sabbath] together [with us.
This accords with a deterministic, dualistic worldview expressed in a number of passages throughout Jubilees, according to which the status of Israel and the nations (and their heavenly angelic counterparts) was established by God as an integral part of the cosmos. Although Israel did not exist until over twenty generations later, its special position was determined in advance.
The existence of the covenant from the time of creation necessitated the existence of commandments, which are the stipulations of this covenant, and thus Jubilees posits that many commandments were already given prior to Mount Sinai. Similarly, the covenant festival was relevant from the dawn of time as well: first observed by angelic beings in heaven from creation, until the time of Noah when it was first observed by human beings. It was then celebrated off and on until it was commanded at Mount Sinai:
6:18 This entire festival had been celebrated in heaven from the time of creation until the lifetime of Noah—for 26 jubilees and five weeks of years [=1309]. Then Noah and his sons kept it for seven jubilees and one week of years until Noah’s death [=350 years]. From the day of Noah’s death his sons corrupted (it) until Abraham’s lifetime and were eating blood. 6:19 Abraham alone kept (it), and his sons Isaac and Jacob kept it until your lifetime. During your lifetime the Israelites had forgotten (it) until I renewed (it) for them at this mountain.
חג השבועת in Jubilees thus commemorates this eternal covenant, which began in the first week of history and was renewed over time. The Sinaitic revelation is the culmination of a process, but is not the sole covenantal event at the heart of this festival.
Festival of Weeks שָׁבֻעוֹת or Oaths שְׁבוּעוֹת
The covenantal nature of the festival may also be reflected when, only a few verses later, the dual nature of the holiday is expressed: “because it is the festival of weeks and it is the festival of first fruits. This festival is twofold and of two kinds” (6:21, according to the Ge`ez translation). The theme of the holiday as the “festival of first fruits” refers to the agricultural context of the holiday, reflecting the biblical descriptions of its observance.
At first, this would seem to be true of the reference to the “festival of weeks,” which is also a biblical theme surrounding this holiday. Nevertheless, due to the overwhelming emphasis on covenant in this passage, including the mention of oaths made by Noah and his sons, and subsequently commanded in the time of Moses, numerous scholars have suggested that the original Hebrew text of Jubilees (based upon the retroversion of the Ge`ez back into Hebrew) should be vocalized as חג השְבועות “the festival of oaths,” reflecting the covenantal aspect of the holiday.
Shavuot in Jubilees may seem quite different from the festival as practiced by Rabbinic Jews nowadays. The dates are not identical, and even the nature of the covenants celebrated reflect different conceptions. At the same time, the Book of Jubilees offers important hints for the development of the conception of Shavuot in rabbinic literature as a festival with a set time that is associated with the giving of the Torah.
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May 29, 2014
October 15, 2020
Dr. Michael Segal is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and also serves as Editor of the Hebrew University Bible Project. He is the author of The Book of Jubilees: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology and Theology (English: Brill; Hebrew: Magnes; 2007).
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