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The Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, the festival celebrated on 6 Sivan (and 7 Sivan in the Diaspora. In the book of Exodus (34: 22) the festival is called the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot means ‘weeks’) as it is in the book of Deuteronomy (16: 16), where it is one of the three pilgrim festivals when the people visited the Temple, the others being Passover and Tabernacles. The name Shavuot is derived from the statement in the book of Leviticus (23: 15–16) that the festival falls after seven weeks have been counted from the day after the Omer is brought, hence also the name Pentecost (‘fifty’), though this name is not used in the Jewish sources. The Rabbinic name for the festival is Atzeret, a name used for other festivals (Leviticus 23: 26; Numbers 29: 35). The original meaning of Atzeret is not clear (the word is usually translated as ‘Solemn Assembly’) but the Rabbis seem to understand it as meaning ‘completion’ or ‘adjunct’ and it is used of Shavuot in the sense that it is a complement to the festival of Passover.

A remarkable transformation of this festival took place in Rabbinic times. In the Bible Shavuot is obviously a harvest festival. But, based on the verse in Exodus (19: 1) that the children of Israel came to Sinai on the third month (the month later called Sivan), the Rabbinic understanding of the real significance of the festival is that it commemorates the giving of the Torah and Shavuot is referred to in the liturgy as ‘The season of the giving of our Torah’. Over the centuries, a number of Shavuot customs were introduced. It is the custom to eat dairy products on Shavuot. This might have been simply because Shavuot falls in the hot season when milk dishes are more acceptable fare. But various further ideas have been read into the custom: for instance, that the Torah is compared to milk since it nourishes both the very young and the very old and because, if kept in golden vessels, milk turns sour–a warning to the Torah scholar not to give in to pride. It is the custom to adorn the synagogue with plants and flowers on Shavuot. One reason given is that this denotes the fragrance and beauty of the Torah.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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