Festivals, Prayers & Services
Festival of First Fruits
(Chag ha-Bikkurim / Shavu‛ot)
The Festival of First-fruits (Chag ha-Bikkurim) is also known as Chag ha-Shavu‛ot, the Festival of Weeks, and Chag ha-Qatsir, the Festival of the Harvest (ie of the First-Fruits of our labours). Modern Rabbinical Judaism celebrates it 50 days after Passover, but the majority of Israelites in ancient times celebrated the festival according to Leviticus 23:15-16, on the day after the seventh Sabbath after Passover. For us (as well as Karaites and Samaritans), the Festival of First Fruits/ Weeks is always on a Sunday.
Again, modern rabbinical Judaism celebrates it as a memorial of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, but this is the meaning that Rabbis gave it only after the Temple was destroyed.
The Rabbinic meaning of the festival
In ancient Israel, there were 3 major festival times, three festivals that Israelites have agreed to celebrate as part of our eternal Covenant with YHVH. The biggest one (and often the most boisterous) was Sukkot, the festival of Booths in September/October. Then there was Matsot – Unleavened Bread, in March/April. The third was Shavu`ot. After the Templewas destroyed, the first two still had meaning, but there was a problem with Shavu`ot, in that no meaning is actually openly ascribed to the festival in Torah.
Modern Judaism sees the festival as the giving of Torah at Sinai. The rabbis who met at Yavneh in the 1st century CE decided that they would base their new meaning on Ex 19:1, which ostensibly says, “In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt – on that day, they came to the desert of Sinai.” The passage then goes on to say that it was at this point that the revelation of God at Mt Sinai took place.
However, that’s not what the verse means. The Hebrew word chodesh can mean ‘month’, but it can also mean ‘New Moon’. If it is taken as ‘New Moon’, then the words, ‘on that day’ would make much more sense; it is emphasising how the word chodesh‘ should be construed – not as meaning ‘month’, but as meaning, ‘New Moon day‘: “On the third New Moon after the Israelites left Egypt – on that day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.’ This means that this third New Moon was actually the New Moon day of the Fourth-Month. The theophany at Horeb (and therefore the giving of the Torah) took place on the third day of the Fourth-Month (see Ex 19:11, 19:16).
Could the Sinai Revelation have coincided with Shavu`ot?
Let’s see if either method can make the Sinai revelation coincide with Shavu`ot – either the biblical or the Rabbinic way. Now, the Israelites left Egypt on the day following the Passover sacrifice – the 15th of Nisan (Ex 12:51). If Ex 19:1 means that they arrived in Sinai during the Third-Month, on the same day of the month that they left Egypt, then that means the date of the revelation and the giving of the Torah would have been the 15th Sivan. However, the range of dates for Shavu`ot is always 7th – 13th Sivan – meaning that by this reckoning, the giving of Torah is too late for Shavu`ot (and even that calculation assumes that the New Moon was sighted on time each month).
Even if you go according to the Rabbinic practice of calculating Shavu`ot 50 days after Pesach itself, then you only get to the 4th Sivan – or the 6th at the most – which means that the Sinai revelation was too early for Shavu`ot. So the Sinai revelation cannot have taken place at Shavu`ot. What then was the original biblical meaning of the festival intended by YHVH?
The true biblical meaning of the festival
The Talmidi community read Torah in a 3-year cycle, instead of 1 year. The cycle is so ordered and divided up, that each festival lines up with an appropriate reading in Torah.
If you look at the 3 readings given for Shavu`ot, that should give us some idea of what the festival meant to the Jewish people at the time of the Prophet Yeshua.
So these are the 3 portions for each year of the cycle:
Genesis 12:1 – 13:18 (God swears a Covenant with Abraham)
Exodus 24:1-18 (the Covenant with Israel is affirmed;
the festival is also mentioned previously in 23:16)
Numbers 17:16 – 18:24 / Num 17:1-18:24 in Xtian bibles
(The First fruits and the gifts to the Levites)
From the 3 portions read at Shavu`ot, I conclude that the overarching theme is actually the Covenant sworn between God and the Assembly of all Israel. The year 1 portion refers to the original swearing of the covenant, the year 2 portion recounts the affirmation of the Covenant, and the year 3 reading relates to the first-fruits of that Covenant once in the Land.
During Temple times, there was no attempt to connect the festival with any historical event. The bigger picture helps us to realise that this is because the swearing of the Covenant between God and Israel is not connected to one single event.
In practical terms, as Talmidis we observe it as a festival of First-fruits – the fruits of the Covenant which God swore with our forebears. The alternative name of the festival tells us that this is our very own festival of thanksgiving, of remembering that everything we create, produce, grow and eat belongs ultimately to YHVH.
At this time, we are supremely reminded that everything on this entire planet belongs to YHVH – every plant, every animal, every piece of land, and every human being. We are, in a sense, tenants in this world, and we pay God “rent” for everything we use. Therefore, at the Festival of First Fruits, in ancient times the first of everything that came to us was offered in the Temple. Of our harvests, the ancient Israelites gave the first wheat sheaves, as well as the first ripened of all their fruits. Some of the things mentioned in the Miqra as being offered were: grain, bread, wine, fruit, honey, wool, oil, and so on. Of kosher animals, the firstborn lambs, calves etc were offered in the Temple.
However, Torah reminds us that the firstborn of even non-kosher animals belong to God, and the Covenant reminds us that even the firstborn child that opens the womb (whether male OR female), also belongs to God.
Talmidi customs at the festival
We no longer have a Temple to offer gifts to God, but we can still give thanks for our first-fruits. We can give thanks for our oldest children, the first-born of our pets, even the first of our year’s pay, or the first products of our precious intellectual gifts – the first-fruits of this year’s human creativity; when we use our human imagination, the opportunity to thank God is endless.
Shavu`ot was proclaimed as a day of rest. Since the previous day was always a Sabbath, people ended up having a two-day rest period – Shabbat, immediately followed by Shavu`ot. Some individuals in our community like to celebrate by decorating their homes with greenery (a very ancient custom indeed) and garden flowers, and by making a table display of the bounty of their food. Two small loaves of bread are symbolically waved in thanks to God, and left in a basket (see Lev 23:17; originally the loaves were baked from the grain of the first wheat sheaves ).
In Deuteronomy 16:10, we are told to give a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings God has given us. The Temple no longer stands, so we have to look at that in a different way. Metaphorically, we can examine and remember all our blessings over the past year, and do something to give back to the communities we live in. Some people like to give a donation to charity on this day, or make an anonymous gift somehow.
It is above all a festival supremely of the Presence of God. Ancient Israelites were reminded at this time that everything – plant, animal, and human – belonged to God. At the Festival of First Fruits, we remember the blessings we have received from God, and give thanks.
Observing our faith by ancient principles in witness to YHVH, is a distinctive feature of the Talmidi faith. In accordance with the Jewish religion of Temple times, this festival is notconnected with any historical event, since no one disputes that it had none back then. There is no reason to give it a meaning that YHVH did not intend. This festival is a remembrance of the Covenant which God swore with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and with the whole of Israel. It is also a festival which makes us supremely aware that every living thing belongs to YHVH. Observing it this way has the effect that YHVH our God intended – to see our true place in the scheme of things, that we are reliant on YHVH to provide for us, even if we do not live in Eretz Yisra’eil.
If you wish to observe the festival of First-Fruits at home, you can find a short home service by clicking here.