Paul’s Sunday Shavuot

first-fruits-barleyThe period from Passover to Shavu’ot is a time of great anticipation. We count each of the days from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavu’ot, 49 days or 7 full weeks, hence the name of the festival. The counting reminds us of the important connection between Passover and Shavu’ot: Passover freed us physically from bondage, but the giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot redeemed us spiritually from our bondage to idolatry and immorality. Shavu’ot is also known as Pentecost, because it falls on the 50th day; however, Shavu’ot has no particular similarity to the Christian holiday of Pentecost, which occurs 50 days after their Spring holiday.

Shavu’ot is not tied to a particular calendar date, but to a counting from Passover. Because the length of the months used to be variable, determined by observation, and there are two new moons between Passover and Shavu’ot, Shavu’ot could occur on the 5th or 6th of Sivan. However, now that we have a mathematically determined calendar, and the months between Passover and Shavu’ot do not change length on the mathematical calendar, Shavu’ot is always on the 6th of Sivan.

– “Shavu’ot” at Judaism 101

The date of Shavuot is directly linked to that of Passover. On Passover, the Jewish people were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Law and became a nation committed to serving God. Shavuot is celebrated in Israel for one day and in the diaspora (outside of Israel) for two days. Reform Jews celebrate only one day, even in the diaspora. Karaite Jews and Christians believe that Shavuot always falls on a Sunday, while mainstream Jews follow the teaching of the Talmud, which holds that the holiday commences immediately after the “counting of the omer,” or 50 days after Passover.

– “Shavuot” at New World Encyclopedia

Last Sunday, my Pastor’s sermon from Leviticus 23 was on Shavu’ot/Pentecost. Like many Christians (and I had no idea Christians believed this before a few days ago), he believes that Shavuot must always fall on a Sunday for the following reasons:

The word “Sabbath” in this verse is assumed, by some, to be the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which has been deemed to be a “special Sabbath.” Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to assume that the first instance of “Sabbath” in Leviticus 23:15 indicates the special Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Aviv (or Nisan) 15—that is, the day after the Passover, Aviv 14. In thinking this way, their count of the Feast of Weeks would begin on the day after the 15th, which is the 16th. Many, if not most, Jewish rabbis begin the count here.

However, in Leviticus 23:16, it says, “Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath….” There are not special Sabbaths during each of the seven weeks during which the count is made. However, there are seven regular weekly Sabbaths. Therefore, the fifty-day count ends on Sunday, the day after the seventh weekly Sabbath (which is Saturday). That makes the first day of the fifty-day count to be a Sunday as well. So Shavuot = the Feast of Weeks = Pentecost always falls on a Sunday, although some believe that it can be on any day of the week, depending on the year.

– “How do you calculate the timing of Shavuot or Pentecost?”
at TedMontgomery.com

churchesI have no idea who Ted Montgomery is or why he’s considered an authority in this matter (and he should update his website design to something that doesn’t just scream, “1998!”), but what he has on his site is basically the same explanation Pastor gave in his sermon.

If he’s right, then Shavuot/Pentecost always occurring on a Sunday would have a great deal of meaning in Christianity and bolster the Christian tradition of having the official weekly worship day on a Sunday. I don’t know enough about it to have much of an opinion, but one of my personal “laws” (and I think almost everyone has this “law”) is that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

When I looked up the dates for Shavuot at Chabad.org, the holiday doesn’t always fall on a Sunday according to their calendar. In fact, this past year, since Shavuot is celebrated two days in the diaspora, Shavuot was observed on Wednesday, May 15th and Thursday, May 16th. Next year, it will also be held on a Wednesday and Thursday, but in early June.

How the dates for Shavuot are calculated depends on when you start counting. If it’s always on the first day after Passover, the day of the week Shavuot occurs will vary. If it’s always on the first day after the Saturday Shabbat, then it will always be on Sunday. Before last Sunday, the only way I heard that it was to be calculated was how Judaism traditionally recommends. Christianity, it seems, always comes up with little surprises for me.

I know that Christians, including my Pastor, will tell me that the calculation for the “Sunday-only” Shavuot/Pentecost is purely Biblical and thus, it doesn’t matter what Judaism and the Rabbis have to say about it. On the other hand, this observance was given to the Children of Israel well over a thousand years before the birth of Christ, so I’d have to give the Jewish people some “props” in how they choose to understand the Torah on this matter.

According to Pastor in his sermon, in Acts 20, we see Paul anxious to get to Jerusalem as soon as possible. Pastor tells us that this is because he wanted to arrive in time for Shauvot, but he asked an odd question. Why should it have mattered to Paul? He wasn’t a farmer. Shavuot is (or was) all about offering the first fruits of the wheat harvest to God at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. What was the big deal for Paul?

Pastor’s answer was not so much about the Jewish Shavuot as the Christian Pentecost. Because of the giving of the Holy Spirit in the original Acts 2 event and its meaning as the “birthday of the Church,” Paul wanted to get back to Jerusalem to commemorate the Christian side of the coin, so to speak, as opposed to observing one of the three pilgrim festivals that all Jews are commanded to attend in Jerusalem each year.

shavuot_two_loavesIt is true that based on Leviticus 23:15-22, it doesn’t seem as if Paul would rush right back to Jerusalem in order to offer a personal wave offering of two loaves of bread along with the lamb and drink offerings. But then again, in the same sermon, Pastor said that the offerings recorded in those scriptures weren’t personal offerings but were offered for the entire assembly of Israel, so Paul wouldn’t have had to be a farmer  with a personal sacrifices to offer to desire to be present at the Temple. He just had to be a Jew.

We see in Acts 2 that thousands upon thousands of Jews from the diaspora were present in Jerusalem for Shavuot. Could they have been responding to this?

“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God (emph. mine).

Exodus 23:14-17 (NASB)

You can find similar language commanding Jewish people to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem for Shavuot in Exodus 34:21-24, Numbers 28:26-31, and Deuteronomy 16:9-12. I’m not saying that the Acts 2 event had no meaning for Paul and that it didn’t add a tremendous dimension to Shavuot for Paul and the other Jewish apostles and disciples, but it would hardly be disconnected from the commandments of God for the Jewish people and Jewish obedience to the Torah of Moses. There’s no reason to believe the Christian conceptualization of Pentecost would have unplugged the festival from the Jewish Shavuot.

After all. Pastor acknowledged in his sermon that one of the names for Shavuot is “Z’man Mattan Toratenu” or “The Time of the Giving of the Law (Torah).” In his sermon, he affirmed that it is quite Biblical to believe that, given the timing of the Exodus from Egypt, that the Children of Israel could have been at Sinai for the giving of the Torah on the traditional date for Shavuot.

For Paul then, the linkage between the giving of the Torah and the giving of the Spirit would have been inescapable and been seen as a dramatic illustration of God’s continual graciousness to the Jewish people as a light to the world and as the means by which Israel and the nations would be redeemed.

While I strongly believe that the coming of Jesus, his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father represents a revolutionary event in the course of human history and the plan of God for both the Jewish people and the people of the nations, it was and is also the predictable, prophesied, and logical extension of God’s plan across time, not a radical departure shifting from God’s “plan A” to “plan B.”

The past several blog posts where I mention my Pastor, I know it seems as if I’m really butting heads with him, so to speak. While we don’t always see eye to eye, I have great respect for him and I thought last Sunday’s sermon especially was informative and illuminating. In fact, the highlight of my church attendance every Sunday is his sermon. As you can see, he provides me with a lot of food for thought.

ShavuotI know why Christians count the Sabbaths from Passover to Shavuot as they do. The symbolism relative to Pentecost and Sunday is exceptionally compelling given Christian tradition. I can also understand why Judaism would calculate it differently based on disconnecting the Jewish Shavuot from the Christian Pentecost. On the other hand, that doesn’t make the Christian calculation right and the Jewish calculation wrong (or vice versa). Even if Shavuot/Pentecost occurs annually according to the Jewish calendar, that hardly devalues the meaning of the holiday for believing Jews and Gentile Christians. Christians just don’t have to work so hard to disconnect Pentecost from its original and ongoing meaning in Judaism. If there will be a Third Temple as both Pastor and I believe, then those offerings will once again be upon the altar in Jerusalem in Messianic days.

Why was Paul in such a hurry to get to Jerusalem before the festival of Shavuot? We can’t derive his exact intent from the text of Acts 20. However, reason, history, and the Torah tells us that he needed no other reason than because he was Jewish. If he had other reasons, then we will learn those after the time of Messiah’s return, may he come swiftly and in our day.

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2 thoughts on “Paul’s Sunday Shavuot”

  1. As it happened, since Rav Yeshua’s resurrection occurred on the first day of a week (i.e., Sunday), the occasion of Shavuot did also, hence Christians have long felt that they must focus on the first day of the week. I don’t know if they would have hesitated to do so, however, if they had realized that they were thus aligning themselves with the Sadducees who denied the possibility of resurrection. The faulty literalism of the Sadducees caused them also to discount the Shabbat that was Passover as the start of the Omer count toward Shavuot, hence their view was to start after the regular weekly Shabbat and thus count toward a perennial Sunday Shavuot. However, Rav Yeshua sided with the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees in his recognition of authority to interpret and teach Torah; therefore the Christian/Sadducean method of counting is invalid.

  2. I think the connection to the Sadducees is missed by most Christian scholars as far as which tradition of the Omer count should be selected, PL. On the other hand, there’s a lot of emotion attached to certain traditions in the church, so I don’t think many Christian commentators are going to easily give up their perspective.

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