Nowadays, the night of the “Feast of Weeks” (Shavuot) is one of the most vivid nights of celebration in Jerusalem. According to the Hebrew calendar, it marks the end of the seven-week period after Passover (Pessah). Every evening after Pessah, Jews proclaim a precise counting of the days and weeks that pass during this particular period of waiting, known as Omer. Every day is counted separately, from the night of the 16th day of the Jewish lunar-month of Nissan (roughly March-April) until the end of the seven weeks. On the eve of the 6th day of the Jewish lunar-month of Sivan, (roughly April-May), we leave the 49th day, the 7th week of Omer, to enter the feast of Shavuot.
Here in Jerusalem, after the festive dinner is finished, people of all ages, men and women, single or married, alone or in groups, more or less devout, hurry to one of the many places where one can study the Torah all night long. Not only are the synagogues and study houses open, but also a number of public places and cafés. Sometimes, smaller groups may gather at someone’s house. There are many who decide to give courses that night, from an experienced rabbi or a woman who has graduated from an institute of religious studies, to a university professor, a politician, the director of an association, or anyone else who is willing to give instruction.
This vigil, filled with courses and discussions, is a custom that has been respected for many centuries, dating back at least to the 16th century, from the time of the Safed Kabbalists. Its origin can arguably be associated with one of the meanings given by the Sages of the Talmudic era regarding the feast of Shavuot: it is then called the “Feast of the Gift of the Torah”, a title that is used as well in the religious texts belonging to this era. From a more Kabbalistic point of view, it is also about atonement for the negligence of the Hebrews the night before the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, as mentioned in a Midrash (Canticle Rabba 1:12.2 on Song of Songs 1:12): the people fell asleep rather than preparing themselves to receive the Torah. In this sense, this night of studying expresses, generation after generation, the deep attachment of the Jewish people to the Torah and their willingness to delve into it.
However, in the Torah itself, this pilgrimage feast (the second of the three pilgrimage festivals, after Pessah and before Sukkot, which is the Feast of Tabernacles that takes place in autumn) is not related to the historic Revelation at Mount Sinai. The rabbis of the first centuries CE sought to extend the biblical meaning of Shavuot that references exclusively the “Feast of First-fruits” (Numbers 28:26) or the “Feast of Harvests” (Exodus 23:16). Indeed, this agricultural connotation is clearly related to the obligation of going to Jerusalem, in order to bring the proper offerings and sacrifices up to the Temple. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, it was important not only to not forget this offering of the first-fruits, but even more so to reinforce its significance by studying the Torah itself.
Climbing the steps of the Temple to present the first produce from the harvest… Is it not about giving away a part of what was most precious to the pilgrim, about following God’s will as it is conveyed in the text of the Torah, thus becoming closer to Him? Indeed, how could one express today the appreciation for everything that God grants if it is not by the study of the Torah symbolized by this night?
This short clarification is one of the explanations of Shavuot, a Jewish biblical feast still important today.