For six years I was fortunate enough to design for a graphics firm that specialized in creating calendars for the Jewish market. After designing over 50 of them, I’ve acquired first-hand knowledge of how they differ from international calendars (also known as Gregorian, Western or Christian calendars). To begin with, rather than starting on January 1 with New Year, Jewish calendars begin in September with Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year. Jewish calendars list the candle lighting times for Shabbat & holidays as well as the assigned weekly Torah readings (Parashat ha-Shavua). In a Jewish calendar (for the U.S. market) you’ll also find, right along side the familiar holidays of Labor Day and Presidents Day, some unfamiliar ones such as Tu B’Shevat, Lag B’Omer and Tisha B’Av.
My boss was a kind Orthodox Jewish Rabbi who had a love of teaching. His extensive knowledge of Judaism, coupled with my thirst for it, proved my stint at the firm to be incredibly edifying. I learned about the roots and reasoning for each and every holiday I placed on the calendar. And, if I had a question that needed clarification, I had a mentor who was more than willing to share what the Scriptures, Mishnah, Talmud or sages had to say about that particular holiday.
This weekend we celebrate one of the three most important festivals on the Jewish calendar, Shavu’ot (The Festival of Weeks or Pentecost)—the other two being Pesach (Passover), and Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles).
At the time of Jesus, pilgrims would travel to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice on these three festivals. In fact, as we will hear in the first reading this Sunday, that’s why all of Jesus’ followers were gathered together in the upper room, to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavu’ot:
“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” —Acts 2:1–5
To some it may come as a surprise to learn that Pentecost is not of Christian origin. The roots of Shavu’ot—both agricultural and historical—lie in ancient Israel.
Agriculturally, it celebrates the wheat harvest—the most important grain for the ancient Jewish people. Some historians suggest that wheat, in all its forms, provided nearly 80% of the daily caloric intake for the Israelites. It’s no wonder that a holiday to commemorate it’s gathering would be celebrated.
Historically, it marks the giving of the Torah to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. After the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people wandered the desert before arriving at the foot of Mt. Sinai 7 weeks later. The Hebrew word Shavu’ot means “weeks.” In Jewish tradition 7 is the perfect number (the number of creation) and 7 times 7, even more so. It is a week of weeks or 7×7 which is 49 days. The Ten Commandments were given by God on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which was 50 days from the crossing of the Red Sea.
Greek Jews gave the festival the name Pentecost or fiftieth day. The same Greek prefix pente, meaning 5, is in the words:
- Pentagon: A five-sided polygon
- Pentagram: A five-pointed star
- Pentameter: A line of verse consisting of five metrical feet
- Pentathlon: A contest with five different events
Shavu’ot commemorates the time when God gave the Israelites the 10 Commandments, the way by which they were to live their lives. It is on that day that the Hebrews became a nation.
For the first Christians, Pentecost was the day they received the Holy Spirit, which dwells in the hearts of all believers, commanding the way they are to live their lives. Pentecost celebrates the unity of the first Christians and the birth of the Church.
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