What do we learn from the holiday’s different names?
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This coming Saturday night begins the holiday of Shavuot! It’s the day we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. In this article we are going to look at the five different names for the holiday of Shavuot.
The names convey important lessons for us about the holiday’s different aspects.
The first and most commonly used name is Shavuot of course!
The word shavuot literally means “weeks” which refers to the nightly, seven-week count (day-after-day, week-after-week) from Passover to Shavuot. Indeed, there is a lot of similarity and connections between Passover and Shavuot.
In fact, some sources refer to the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot as one long holiday! In a similar interpretation, Shavuot is called the conclusion of Passover.
A second name for the holiday is Yom Habikkurim – The Day of the First Fruits.
This name refers to the fact the Shavuot celebrates the ripening of the first fruits in the field. There was a mitzvah, obligation in fact, for farmers in Israel to offer these first fruits in the Temple. It applied to the first fruits from the seven species of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
Shavuot marked the first day on which these new fruits could be offered, and many farmers chose to do so, considering that there was a mitzvah to ascend to Jerusalem on the holidays anyways! Those who didn’t bring the first fruits on Shavuot had until Sukkot, until shortly after Rosh Hashanah, to do so.
Similar to the name just discussed, Shavuot is also called Chag Hakatzir—The “Harvest Festival.” You gotta harvest those first fruits if you want to bring them to Jerusalem!
Another name for Shavuot is Atzeret.
This is the name for Shavuot most used by the Talmud. The word atzeret means “to stop,” “refrain” or “hold back.” It refers to the fact that Shavuot is essentially a holiday without any mitzvot! That’s right!
On Passover we have the mitzva of matzah, on Rosh Hashanah we have the mitzvah of shofar, and on Sukkot we have the mitzvah of lulav (and more!).
But on Shavuot, there is no special mitzvah that must be performed. Shavuot is a holiday where the only thing to do is “atzeret” – to stop, rest and enjoy the holiday on which we recall the receiving of the Torah on Sinai.
Finally, Shavuot is also known as Zman Matan Torahteinu — “the Time of the Giving of the Torah.”
The reason for this name is obvious, but do note, that it is not called “the DAY of the giving of the Torah” but rather, “the TIME of the giving of the Torah.”
This oddity is due to the reality that we don’t truly know when the Torah was given! According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Torah was given on the sixth day of Sivan while according to another, it was given on the seventh day of Sivan.
What is the basis of the dispute or confusion?
Everyone agrees that the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai on the first day of the month of Sivan. Everyone also agrees that the Torah was given on Shabbat.
They disagree, however, what day of the week the first day of Sivan was. One view says it was a Monday, and six days later, on Shabbat, the Torah was given. According to the other opinion, the first day of Sivan was a Sunday, and seven days later, on Shabbat, the Torah was given.
Due to this dispute remaining unresolved we call Shavuot the “time of the giving of the Torah” and not “the day of the giving of the Torah.”
Of course, the question is asked: The Torah gives the exact dates of every other holiday? So, as they say on Passover, “Why is this holiday different from all other holidays?” Why is the date for Shavuot not listed in the Torah?
It is explained that if the Torah would have given the date on which it was given, we might be mistakenly led to believe that the Torah is subject to a certain date, time or place.
We might even come to believe that Torah is more important on Shavuot than on other day of the year. All that is completely false! The Torah is equally as important and constant, 24/7, every day of our lives!