Of the primary festivals within the Jewish year, Shavuos possesses what
seems at first to be the most uninspiring and perplexing name. Pesach
declares that G-d passed over Jewish homes as He slaughtered all Egyptian
first-borns, heralding in the great Exodus. Succos reminds us of the
miraculous preservation of the Jewish people – three million strong – for
forty years in a barren desert.
The name “Shavuos” (lit. Weeks – I.e. the seven weeks between leaving
Egypt and receiving the Torah), on the other hand, invokes none of these
glorious thoughts. Rather, it leaves us scratching our heads in confusion.
Why is it that for this great holiday, through which we celebrate our
receiving the Torah at Sinai – the single most important event in all of
Jewish history – we lack a more powerful and seemingly relevant name than
Perhaps more importantly, our festivals are typically named after a
primary event or theme, not the process leading up to that event or
concept! Why then, when it comes to Shavuos, do we name the day after the
weeks leading up to the special day and not use a name that describes the
Further compounding our problem is the fact that Shavuos is practically
eclipsed by the ongoing mitzvah of sefiras ha’omer, the counting sequence
that begins immediately after the barley offering of 16 Nissan (see
Leviticus 23:15-16) and ends literally moments before Shavuos is set to
commence. Why must this great day of Shavuos be forced to share so much of
its limelight with another, ostensibly unrelated mitzvah?
Atzeres: Developing the Special Bond
Another name for Shavuos is “Atzeres” – the name most commonly used by the
Torah and our sages. Its name is derived from the Hebrew atzor, which
means to remain behind, separate from the rest of the group. Thus we find
with regards to the “other” Atzeres, Shemini Atzeres (which follows
immediately after Succos):
G-d says to Israel, “I have detained you to remain with Me (on Shemini
Atzeres).” This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast
with him for a certain number of days. When the time came for them to
leave, he said, “My sons, please, stay with me just one more day, for it
is difficult for me to part with you!” (Rashi to Leviticus 23:36)
Rashi’s comments are based on the words of the Talmud, found in Sukkah 55b.
To what do the seventy bulls that were offered during the seven days of
(Succos) correspond? To the seventy (gentile) nations. To what does the
single bullock (of Shemini Atzeres) correspond? To the unique nation (I.e.
the Jewish people.) This may be compared to a king who said to his
servants, ‘Prepare for me a great banquet’, but on the last day he said to
his beloved friend, ‘Prepare for me a simple meal that I may derive
benefit from you’.
As the Talmud makes clear, the idea of atzeres is to add a special,
intimate dimension to the primary, preceding festival. Following the seven
day period of Succos comes a special addendum, to help solidify our
relationship with our Maker.
The same is true of Shavuos, the atzeres to the previous holiday of
Pesach. When the Jewish people unquestioningly accepted the Torah,
declaring that we will first do (the mitzvos) and then we will hear (I.e.
to achieve understanding – Exodus 22:7), we widened the gap that separated
our nation from all others. G-d responded in kind, by reserving that day
as an Atzeres, giving us an opportunity to reaffirm our connection to the
single most precious gift ever bestowed upon the Jewish people, His Torah.
The Process is the Goal
Despite this basic connection between the two “Atzeres”, there is a
fundamental distinction. Shemini Atzeres is celebrated immediately upon
the conclusion of Succos. In contrast, before we celebrate Shavuos, we are
told to count “seven complete weeks” (Leviticus 23:15). Why the
The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 7:4) offers the following insight:
In truth, Shemini Atzeres should have followed Succos after an interval of
fifty days, just as Shavuos follows Pesach. However in the weeks following
Shemini Atzeres, the time is not suitable for traveling (the roads are
dusty or muddy and difficult for walking). G-d was like a king who had
several married daughters, some who lived nearby, while others resided at
a great distance away. One day they all came to visit their father the
king. The king said, “Those who live nearby are able to travel at any
time. But those who live at a distance are not able to travel at any time.
So while they are all here with me, let us make one feast for all of them
and rejoice with them.” (However) with regard to Shavuos… G-d says, “This
season is fit for traveling.”
It seems clear that in order for an atzeres to have the maximal effect,
some time should exist between the primary holiday and its respective
atzeres, as is the case between Pesach and Shavuos. The only reason as to
why Shemini Atzeres is celebrated immediately upon the conclusion of
Succos, without any such gap, is out of compassion for the pilgrims, to
avoid them trekking back to Jerusalem under difficult, possibly inclement
But why should this be so? Why, under perfect circumstances would we
require such a separation? What is the benefit of this delay? One likely
explanation is the fact that delay allows for preparation of upcoming
events. The Jewish people needed time to prepare for receiving the Torah.
Had they arrived at Mount Sinai immediately after leaving Egypt – a land
steeped in idolatry and immorality – they would not have been able to
fully appreciate the gift which was being bestowed upon them.
Let us now return to our earlier questions. Why the seemingly unimpressive
name of “Shavuos”, which focuses more on the process which led up to the
event rather than the event itself?
The answer is that when it comes to Shavuos, the process itself – the
seven weeks of spiritual preparation – is also a cause for commemoration
and celebration! Without such efforts, our nation would have been unable
to properly receive its special gift, the Torah, greatly minimizing its
Where’s the Date?
It is with this in mind that we can hope to understand another peculiarity
related to Shavuos. With regards to both Pesach and Succos, the Torah
(Leviticus 23:6-7 and 23:34, respectively) clearly identifies their exact
dates of celebration, the fifteenth of Nissan and the fifteenth of
Tishrei, respectively. Yet, when it comes to Shavuos, no date is
mentioned. Instead, the Torah declares its celebration to be contingent
upon Pesach and the sefirah period that follows:
And you shall count from the next day after the rest day… seven weeks
shall be complete. To the next day after the seventh week shall you count
fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord…. And you
shall proclaim on the same day, that it may be a holy gathering to you;
you shall do no labor in it; it shall be a statute forever in all your
dwellings throughout your generations. (Leviticus 23:15-16, 21)
Why is it that no date is mentioned regarding Shavuos, forcing us to
calculate it through alternative means? If anything, this holiday, one
that celebrates our receiving the Torah, should be identified directly by
its own date. Why does the Torah instead go out of its way to connect
Shavuos to Pesach in this peculiar manner?
The answer again is that the process leading up to our receiving the Torah
is an invaluable aspect of the actual experience. Without it, no
meaningful transference could take place. Hence, the date of Shavuos is
only significant if it is viewed as being the end of fifty days of
preparation! Thus it (and its date) is not an independent entity, but
rather the outgrowth of an entire process of transition from Pesach to
From Physical to Spiritual
Let us develop this idea a bit further. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes
in his masterpiece Horeb (pp.84-90) that there is a special link between
the word atzeres and the spiritual development of our people. Each of the
festivals represents a different aspect within the development of the
Jewish nation. Pesach represents the physical birth of our nation. For the
first time, after centuries of servitude, we were able to begin developing
as an independent nation.
Succos symbolizes the physical survival of the Jewish people. Following
the Exodus from Egypt, our nation, three million strong, survived in the
desert for forty years without natural sources of food, drink, or shelter.
They managed to do so only because G-d provided for our needs. Food fell
from heaven in the form of man, water poured forth from the well. Our
clothes and our shoes never wore out. The heavenly clouds provided us with
protection from the elements.
Atzeres, on the other hand, both in the form of Shavuos and as Shmini
Atzeres, places a greater emphasis on the spiritual side of our
relationship with G-d. Shavuos was in effect the spiritual birth of our
nation. Only with the acceptance of the Torah could we recognize our true,
spiritual essence, fundamentally separating ourselves from all other
Shmini Atzeres represents our spiritual survival. It highlights our
ability to continue to grow and develop spiritually, to live amongst the
gentile nations and still be able to preserve a close connection with G-d –
“it is difficult for me to part with you”.
It is possibly for this reason that neither day of atzeres possesses its
own, unique commandments. Instead, we focus on the source of all mitzvos,
G-d and His Torah, learning from it on Shavuos and dancing with it on
Shemini Atzeres (Simchas Torah). We reaffirm our commitment to Torah in
the most basic of ways, intellectually, physically, and emotionally,
without the assistance of any outside motivators.
One question still remains. Why did G-d specifically designate that there
be fifty days for the above mentioned process of preparation? Why not
forty, or sixty days, or some other number? To this the Maharal of Prague
gives a fascinating explanation. In order for us to fully appreciate his
answer, however, we need to first ask ourselves another, seemingly
unrelated question. Why is it that we celebrate eight days of Chanuka?
Certainly we are familiar with the fact that the oil of the single flask
burned for eight days instead of one, giving the Jews enough time to
produce new oil. But what is the deeper message behind the number eight?
In his work Ner Mitzvah (page 23), Maharal explains that in the area of
Jewish symbolism the number eight possesses special significance. This
importance stems from the fact that eight is one more than seven, the
number which symbolizes Nature, as in the seven days of creation. That
which comes “after nature” in reality transcends nature, elevating the
physical reality to a new spiritual realm. Thus, we circumcise our sons on
the eighth day so as to elevate the uncircumcised child from a purely
physical state to a new spiritual dimension. We also kindle Chanuka lights
for eight days, to underscore the spiritual basis of the Chanuka miracle.
For this same reason we were instructed to celebrate Shavuos on the
fiftieth day. Following seven weeks of preparation, the Jewish people were
finally ready to accept the Torah, having achieved the spiritual
transcendence necessary to properly receive it. The fiftieth day, one day
after the seven weeks were completed, symbolizes the other worldly concept
expressed by the number eight.
Torah is infinite. It cannot be associated with a number that symbolizes
the limitations of nature. Rather, it must be expressed as eight. For
seven weeks, the Jewish people moved steadily closer to their goal of
being ready to receive the Torah. On the fiftieth day – a higher
expression of the number eight – we transcended the limitations of nature
and rose to an almost G-d-like level. Only then were we ready to receive
Sefiras HaOmer: The End is Just the Beginning
Rav Hirsch (commentary to Leviticus 23:15-16) offers a similar
explanation. He suggests that Pesach, as the festival of freedom,
represents not only freedom, but the first step towards “self-supporting
national prosperity”. However, this is merely the first step in the
spiritual weltanschauung of a Torah nation.
The true goal is to achieve Shavuos, to receive the Torah from the one G-
d. The way to accomplish this is to experience the “purification and
(spiritual) adjustment” of Shabbos even times over, with each experience
serving to detoxify us further from the impurities and moral challenges
which routinely confront us. Once we have experienced such a process, we
have reached the level of fifty, and can be considered ready to re-receive
our holy Torah.
This is the message of sefirah. Any successful harvest is cause for
celebration, the culmination of much effort and toil. But how are we to
view our newfound material bounty? Is it to be seen as an end unto itself,
or the means by which we can achieve our lofty goals in life? G-d
instructs us at this exact moment of material success to begin counting
seven weeks towards Shavuos. Keep your eyes focused on the true, spiritual
goals. Work hard to achieve slow, steady growth, bringing us closer, day
by day, to our lofty mission of accepting the Torah. It is a process that
allows us to transcend the physical world that surrounds us and partake in
our special audience with G-d, our Atzeres.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, M.Ed., is an instructor of Jewish History at Hebrew Theological College (Skokie, Illinois) and serves as associate principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel in Chicago. More information about Rabbi Hoff can be found on his website, rabbihoff.com