The key to understanding Shavuos is in understanding its names. Shavuos has a number of names, and each of them highlights one aspect of the Holiday and its observances.
Some of the names by which Shavuos is known are:
The Reaping Festival. The Torah says: «Also keep the Reaping Festival, in which you reap the first yield of your produce that you have planted in the field» (Exodus 23:16). Wheat is the latest grain of the year. The reaping season concludes with the reaping of the wheat, which takes place around Shavuos time, as we mentioned above.
The Day of Bikurim (first fruit), as it says: «And on the day of Bikurim, when you make a new gift offering…» (Numbers 28:26). This «gift offering» refers to the offering of the First Fruits, and the Two Loaves of Wheat-Bread.
What was the First Fruits Offering? Every farmer would bring to the Holy Temple the first ripe fruit of each of his crops. Not all his crops, mind you. Just those of the seven species praised by the Torah, which are: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. The Torah praised Israel for these species because there was a time — and there will yet be a time again — when Israel produced the best of these species, better than anywhere else in the world.
The Two Loaves were also part of the First Fruits Offering, except that they were brought by the Kohanim. The Two Loaves would be baked from the fresh wheat crop that had just been cut. Until the Two Loaves were brought to the Altar at the Temple, it was forbidden to use any of the wheat from the new crop.
Shavuos (weeks) is another name the Torah gives this Holiday. The Torah commands us to count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuos (Leviticus 23:15), in preparation for the Giving of the Torah. Since Shavuos is the culmination of Passover, we connect these two Holidays by counting and preparing from the one to the next, each day of the seven weeks.
Therefore the Torah says: «Count seven shavuos — weeks — from when you begin to cut the standing grain (i.e., the barley at Passover time) . . . and then celebrate the festival of Shavuos — Weeks — for Hashem your G-d» (Deut. 16:9-10).
Atzeres. This is not a Biblical name, but a name used by the Rabbis of the Talmud. It refers to the conclusion of the Holiday of Passover. We learned above that Shavuos is the culmination of Passover. Just as Simchas Torah is the conclusion of Sukkos, so is Shavuos the conclusion of Passover. (Simchas Torah is the «Atzeres» of Sukkos; Shavuos is the «Atzeres» of Passover.)
Simchas Torah should really be fifty days after Sukkos also, just as Shavuos is fifty days after Passover, but that would have occurred during the rainy season, and it would have been hard for Jews to travel to the Holy Temple, as they used to do for each Holiday. So G-d instead set it for immediately after Sukkos. However, Passover marks the beginning of the dry season in Israel, thus there is no hardship to travel to Jerusalem for Shavuos.
Shavuos is the continuation of Passover, and it is the reason for Passover. As I said above, it was the reason G-d took us out of Egypt. This leads us to yet another name for this Holiday:
The Time of the Giving of the Torah. Around the time of Shavuos, all of the People of Israel, the entire Nation, stood at Mount Sinai and witnessed the Giving of the Torah. Moreover, every Jewish soul that was ever created was present at Mount Sinai, and was actively involved in receiving the Responsibility of the Torah.
We all assembled at the mountain, and we all saw the mountain burning with a fire that reached the heart of heaven, along with darkness, cloud, and mist. We all heard the voice of the Creator speak out of the fire, yet we saw no image whatsoever. We saw incontrovertible evidence that there is a Creator Who is an active force within the universe and on this earth.
The Creator then charged us with our mission on this earth: to accept and nurture the beautiful gift and opportunity we were receiving, to conduct ourselves with the dignity and holiness befits the Kingly-Priestly Nation status to which we had been appointed: to develop ourselves only according to the multi-faceted dictates of the Torah, and to follow no other system.
Continue on to the next article in this series: The Customs of Shavuos and their Meanings.