Sunday, April 16, 2017

Shavuot. Pentecost. Counting our Way to Revelation

Starting on the second day of Passover, traditional practice requires Jews to begin counting 7 weeks -- 49 days -- which will lead us to the celebration of the festival of Shavuot (weeks). Our keeping track of this period of 49 days (actually 49 evenings) is called the counting of the omer. An omer is a biblical unit of measurement -- The word omer is sometimes translated as sheaf — specifically, an amount of grain large enough to require bundling.

As it happens, beginning with Easter Sunday, Christians also begin marking the days -- 50 in all -- which will lead to the festival of Pentecost (the fiftieth day).

My Franciscan compadre Brother Al and I decided that the timelines were a little too specific to be mere coincidence, so we started looking into the details of these parallel practices of marking time...

Passover, like all Jewish holidays, began as an agricultural festival and later became a point of reference with which we could tell the story of the development of our faith. Since the torah states that Passover -- as a festival of liberation -- could not start before Spring, the tradition in ancient Israel held that the first day of the month containing Passover would not start until the barley was ripe, that being the test for the onset of Spring. The seven weeks of the grain harvest began with the harvesting of the barley and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. The Torah’s commandment is to count forty-nine days beginning from the day on which the omer, a sacrifice containing an omer-measure of barley, was offered in the Temple (during Pasover), up until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple (on Shavuot.) This same 49 day period marked our journey from Egypt to Sinai -- from liberation to revelation as it were. The idea of counting each day eventually came to symbolically represent spiritual preparation and anticipation for the receiving of the Torah; just as we go from coarse barley flour to fine wheat flour, we refine ourselves spiritually to receive the word of God. There are intricate kabbalistic formulas -- each day, each week -- for this work of spiritual purification, which we won’t go into here.

Easter, meanwhile, is not a day, but a season which begins on Easter Sunday on concludes on Pentecost Sunday. In the Anglican tradition, this period is often called Eastertide. It is celebrated as a single joyful feast -- as a great Lord's Day. Each Sunday of the season is treated as a Sunday of Easter, and, after the Sunday of the Resurrection, they are named Second Sunday of Easter, Third Sunday of Easter, etc. up to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, and the whole fifty-day period concludes with Pentecost Sunday. It became common in Catholic practice for new converts to the faith to go through preparation during the season of Lent leading up to Holy Week, and then to be formally accepted into the faith and baptized on Easter Sunday. What followed was a period called mystagogy, from the Greek word meaning “to lead through the mysteries.” This is a period for new Catholics to discover what it means to fully participate in the sacramental mysteries of the Church. The newly baptized are called neophytes, from the Greek words meaning “new plant,” because the faith has been newly planted in them. In time, it became appropriate for all believers to engage in this 50-day period of introspection and spiritual purification, in solidarity with these new members of the faith. Similar to the Jewish 49 days, there have developed, over the centuries, intricate formulas and specific practices involved in this Christian mystagogic process, which we likewise will not go into here. This refinement culminates in the celebration of the receiving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

So, to summarize: Passover came to be seen as the occasion of liberation from servitude, from Egypt -- in Hebrew mitzrayim -- which means narrowness, constriction. This freedom from tightening, choking slavery (of body and spirit) was greeted with great joy and celebration and marked the beginning of a seven-week process of spiritual refinement which culminated in the receiving of direct revelation from the divine -- the Torah -- on Shavuot.

Easter came to be seen as the occasion of liberation from sin and death -- through the sacrifice of Jesus. This freedom was greeted with great joy and celebration and marked the beginning of a seven-week process of spiritual refinement which culminated in the receiving of direct revelation from the divine -- the Holy Spirit -- on Pentecost.

That’s the background. Here’s the part that really intrigued Brother Al and myself: 

There is a practice of staying up all night the evening of Shavuot to study Torah – known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot – and it has its source in a midrash -- a homiletic story -- which relates that the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead. But they overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify this flaw in the national character, it was thought that Jews should stay up all night on Shavuot to learn Torah.

The actual custom of all-night Torah study goes back to 1533 when the kabbalists in northern Israel held all-night study vigils the evening of Shavuot. During one of those study sessions, an angel appeared and taught them mysteries of the law. This staying up all night, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot (repairing the evening of Shavuot), has since become a quasi-mystical practice that most every Jewish community and synagogue engages in (for at least part of the evening if not all night), a ritual that ordinary people practice in the hopes that -- even if something mystical doesn’t happen, at least they can tell the stories of when it did.


Traditional interpretation holds that the Descent of the Holy Spirit took place on the eve of Pentecost in the Upper Room. This Upper Room was said to be the location of the Last Supper (the Passover seder) and the basis for holy communion. In the book of Acts, is written, “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages...”

The apostle Peter states that this event -- this descent of holy spirit -- was the beginning of a continual outpouring that would be available to all believers from that point on, Jew and Gentile alike. “When the day was fully come” means the evening before. Days are reckoned from evening to evening, so the commencement of Pentecost (back then, called Shavuot) began with prayers (maybe the lighting of candles) welcoming the holiday at sunset of the prior evening. While the eve of Pentecost was for a long time traditionally a day of fasting for Catholics, today's canon law no longer requires it. Some Catholics and Protestants hold spiritual retreats, prayer vigils and litanies in the days leading up to Pentecost. In some places, vigils on the eve of Pentecost still last all night.

So Brother Al and I wondered... 

If the receiving of the Holy Spirit was an unexpected surprise -- if they didn’t know they were going to receive the gift that night -- then what indeed were those (Jewish) disciples doing in the upper room 50 days after their rabbi’s death (during Pesach)? Clearly they were praying some form of evening service -- maariv -- on the evening of Shavuot. Perhaps they were engaged in a prayerful re-creation of the receiving of the Torah.

And then we started to wonder -- these devout Jews experienced something on the first erev Shavuot, 50 days after the passing of their rebbe -- something that is expressed by Christians as the descent, or gift of the Holy Spirit. Translating holy spirit back into its original Hebrew, we get ruach hakodesh, which is the traditional biblical term for prophesy. What came upon them -- the voice of God? Now we want to know more about what they really experienced and how it relates to what the kabbalists in northern Israel experienced on the same night of Shavuot 1,500 years later, when an angel appeared to them as the voice of God -- i.e., how might the original Pentecost experience be a precursor to tikkun leil Shavuot -- the all night vigil that is still practiced today in Jewish communities throughout the world?

While they don’t mean exactly the same thing, and I don’t mean to suggest a perfect analogy, the Christian trinitarian Father-Son-Holy Spirit and the Jewish combination of God-Torah-Israel certainly demand as closer look as we seek to contrast and compare these two traditions -- for the benefit of both.

Hazzan Steve Klaper