Shavuot has been known as Chag HaShavuot (Festival of the Weeks) or Chag HaKatsir (Festival of the Harvest) or Chag HaBikkurim (Festival of the First Fruits). It is one of the shalosh regalim,
the three main pilgrimage festivals. It comes at the end of the
seven-week cycle of the Omer, which begins on the second day of Pesach.
The Festival of Shavuot is somewhat unusual. Not only does it
not occur on a specific date, but there is no real explanation given in
Torah as to the meaning of the day, nor how it is to be observed
ritually. In Biblical times, the period of Counting the Omer marked the
transition from the very first grain crop of barley in early spring at
Pesach to the beginning of the summer grain harvest of wheat at
Shavuot. Bringing the first fruits of the year to the Temple in
Jerusalem was a special event. Thousands of people would make the
pilgrimage. Those who came from nearby villages brought fresh fruit,
while those who came from far and remote places would bring dried
fruit, olive oil from the previous year, and honey from dates ripened
during the past year.
These agricultural roots of Shavuot would have been acceptable for the
agricultural society of ancient Israel, but were not sufficient
explanation for a holiday for Jews once they were outside the Land of
Israel, where farming was on a different cycle and there was no Temple
to which one could bring the seasonal offerings. In exile, Jews were
left with an annual festival that had no apparent meaning.
The meaning of Shavuot became apparent to the sages after they
considered the relationship of Shavuot with Pesach and Sukkot all of
which are are Biblically commanded festivals. All have an agricultural
connection, assigned to a specific harvest season. But Pesach and
Sukkot have historical associations as well. Pesach commemorates the
Exodus and the liberation from Egyptian bondage, while Sukkot and the
dwelling in the Sukkah recall the Israelite's experience while
wandering in the wilderness for forty years. So, they assumed, Shavuot
must fit into this pattern as well.
The sages came to refer to Shavuot as Z'man Matan Toratenu -
The Time of the Giving of our Torah. As the anniversary of revelation,
Shavuot evolved into a celebration of Torah. In the synagogue, the
account of the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments are read as
part of the service.
Their reasoning was that, fifty days after leaving Egypt and before
they set out to wander in the desert, the Israelites were encamped at
the foot of Mount Sinai, awaiting the revelation of God's teachings.
Hence, in this historical context, Shavuot naturally became associated
with an extraordinary and significant event - the revelation of the
Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. As Shavuot had no historical event
associated with it in the Torah, and the event of Revelation had no
holiday to mark it, it fitted the pattern perfectly.