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    The date – Shavu’ot

    Revelation at Sinai, painting by Zely Smekhov

    Shavu’ot is the only festival we have whose date we arrive at by calculation and not by textual announcement.

    In ancient times – in the days of the Second Temple – when the Pharisees and Sadducees were in conflict about a whole range of theological and halachic issues, they knew and accepted that they had to follow the rule in Parashat Emor (Lev. 23:15) that “from the morrow of the day of rest”, seven weeks had to elapse before celebrating Shavu’ot on the fiftieth day.

    But each group defined “day of rest” differently. The Sadducees took the phrase literally and said it meant Saturday, so for them the counting of the days and weeks always began after just after Shabbat, and Shavu’ot was always on a Sunday.

    The Pharisees said that “day of rest” did not have to mean Saturday but could also indicate a festival. So they began counting as from the second day of Pesach, “the morrow of the Pesach festival day”. The two groups ended up with different results.

    Why we follow the Pharisees is that they had the advantage of the Oral Torah which studied and interpreted the Torah text. It’s because of the Pharisees that Jewry is a people of scholars, and with the necessary background and belief every Jew can play a part in learning and living the tradition of Judaism.

    A century ago some scholars argued that “day of rest” meant “full moon’. Since the date of Pesach is 15 Nisan the counting towards the festival of Shavu’ot commenced on the second day of Pesach. It’s an ingenious suggestion, but it is hard to know what evidence there is for this interpretation of “day of rest”.

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