After Christian Easter and Jewish Passover (click here about this festival), the parallel between the two religions continues in the weeks that follow. This article recalls the sources of these festivals and the places attached to them in Israel.
The Jewish holiday of Shavuot
Its name means "weeks" because there are 7 weeks after the first day of Passover (Jewish Easter) and it is celebrated the day after a period of 7 weeks (i.e. 49 days), therefore Shavuot falls on the 50th day.
Why Jews celebrate this day? The source of this festival is found in the divine commandment:
"Then you shall count each one, from the day after the feast (of Passover), from the day when you offered the 'omer' of the waving, seven weeks, which must be complete; you shall count until the day after the seventh week, that is to say fifty days, and you shall offer a new oblation to the Lord." (Leviticus 23:15-16)
Therefore, the Hebrew date of this festival always falls on the 6th of the month of Sivan because Pesach falls on the 15th of the month of Nisan. In 2022, this corresponds to June 5 in the Gregorian calendar and in 2023 it is on May 26. It was on this date that the Hebrews received the Torah after Moses spent 40 days in Mount Sinai. The festival also marks the harvest and the arrival of the first fruits in Israel, and the "new oblation" (offering made to God). In the religious service on this day, the book of Ruth the Moabite is read, thus recalling the time of harvesting but also because Ruth accepted a new faith, which is like the Children of Israel accepting the new law, the Torah:
"Where you go, I will go, where you live, I will live, your people will be my people and your God will be my God." (Ruth 1:16)
There are also references to this festival in the New Testament because, of course, Jesus and most of his first disciples were Jews. For example, Paul said:
"Bring away the old leaven, that you may be new dough, since you are unleavened, for Christ, our Passover, was slain." (I Corinthians 5:7)
This "new dough" alludes to the festival of Shavuot. A more direct reference is found in:
"Paul had intended to pass through Ephesus without stopping there, that he might not lose time in Asia; for he was hastening to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost." (Acts 20:16)
Why rush to get to Jerusalem? Because the Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and offered their "new oblation" in the Temple of course. This festival was therefore an opportunity to meet many people in Jerusalem, and obviously all the disciples of Jesus were going to be there.
After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the rabbis focused this festival on the Giving of the Torah, as it had become impossible for Jews to do a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which was destroyed. The Jews were banned from the city, and this situation lasted for nearly 2000 years, with difficulties, until the conquest of Jerusalem by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War. It is useful here to recall that, after the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948 following the partition plan voted at the UN, Jerusalem was illegally occupied for 19 years by Jordan between 1948 and 1967.
Finally, we can note that the date of 6 Sivan, for the festival of Shavuot, is also the Hebrew date of the death of King David (who descended from Ruth), and of that of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism.
Which sites can be visited on Shavuot? Today Israelis celebrate the festival in diverse ways, depending on their level of religiosity:
- In agricultural communities (notably a Kibbutz or a Moshav), Shavuot is celebrated with products from the new harvest, such as new fruits, breads baked with the flour of the harvest, cheesecakes (because Israel is "a land flowing with milk and honey"). In fact, several agricultural villages organize this festival on this date
- For religious people, Shavuot is celebrated by going to pray at the Kotel (the Western Wall) because it is the last vestige of the Temple destroyed in 70 AD. And since they are in Jerusalem, they can also go to Mount Zion, the traditional location of King David's Tomb
- You can also celebrate Shavuot with an actual pilgrimage by going to the site of Shiloh in Samaria, because there stood the Tabernacle and therefore the celebration of religious festivals took place in Shiloh, for many years before the construction of the First Temple
The Christian feast of the Ascension
This feast corresponds to the ascension of Jesus to heaven 40 days after Easter Sunday, the day of his resurrection. This means that Ascension always falls on a Thursday. The Gospels of Luke and Mark mention the Ascension. The date is confirmed as follows:
"After he (Jesus) had suffered, he appeared to them alive, and gave them many proofs of it, showing himself to them (the disciples) forty days, and speaking of the things that concern the kingdom of God." (Acts 1:3)
During the first centuries, Christians celebrated the Ascension (40 days) at the same time as Pentecost (50 days) but the Christian authorities later separated the two feasts, for the following possible reasons:
- the text of Acts speaks of 40 days with the disciples, and therefore we can assume that Jesus ascended to heaven at the end after this period and not 10 days later (at Pentecost)
- the final presence of Jesus on earth, after 40 days, echoes the beginning of his mission on earth, which began after 40 days in the desert and the temptation of Satan; therefore, the beginning and end of Jesus' earthly passage are symbolically contained between these two periods of 40 days
- the 40 days of Jesus in the desert and his ascent after 40 days echo the number 40 which has several references in Jewish symbolism: the ascent of Moses to Mount Sinai where he remained for 40 days to receive the Torah, the 40 years of the Hebrews in the wilderness, the 40 years of King David's reign, and so on; it was important in everything related to Jesus to establish a parallel with the messianic prophecies contained in the Hebrew Bible
It is also significant to note that the biblical character who ascended to heaven was the prophet Elijah as it is written:
"They (Elijah and Elisha) went on their way talking, when suddenly a chariot of fire, drawn by horses of fire, separated them from each other, and Elijah ascended into heaven in a whirlwind." (II Kings 2:11)
However, according to a prophecy of Malachi, God will send Elijah back to earth before the Messiah:
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." (Malachi 3:23)
The Jews at the time of Jesus knew these prophecies and some believed that Jesus was the reincarnation of Elijah, since this prophet was to arrive before the Messiah. This explains this strange dialogue in the New Testament:
"And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elijah? And he said, I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered, No." (John 1:21)
Which sites to celebrate the Ascension? Definitely at the Mount of Olives, among the following sites:
- the Chapel of the Ascension at the top of the mount
- the convent of the Ascension (Russian Orthodox with a bell tower visible from all Jerusalem)
- the Carmelite monastery of Pater Noster (because it is the location of the very first Christian church of the Ascension in the time of Queen Helena, mother of Constantine, around the year 325 AD)
The Feast of Pentecost
It takes its name from the Greek word for fiftieth: Pentēkostē. Because it marks the period of 50 days after the Resurrection. Jesus had already been in heaven for 10 days from a Thursday, so this feast is celebrated on a Monday. What happens after 50 days? The disciples received the Holy Spirit:
"On the day of Pentecost they were all together in the same place (Mount Zion in Jerusalem, according to tradition). (...) And they were all filled with Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit enabled them." (Acts 2)
This refers to another Jewish prophecy from the Bible:
"After this I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, so that your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams and your young people will see visions." (Joel 3:1)
With this gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, they spread in the world to prophecy and bring the word of Jesus in a myriad of languages. This situation can be compared to the Tower of Babel: men had sinned, and God punished them by confusing their languages. Here it is divine mercy that allows the disciples to speak in all the languages of the earth. There is also a parallel between the Jewish Shavuot, when the Hebrews receive the Torah and therefore the divine word, and Pentecost when the disciples receive the holy spirit and the ability to spread the (new) universal word throughout the earth. Thus, all the prophecies and events found in the Hebrew Bible become prefiguration to the new faith. Notably, for example, the 12 Tribes become the 12 apostles. Or in following known prophecy:
"I will give you a new heart and I will inspire you with a new spirit" (Ezekiel 36:26)
Which sites to celebrate Pentecost? Head to Mont Sion for:
- the Church of the Dormition, where both Pentecost and the eternal sleep of Mary, mother of Jesus, are venerated
- the first church of Jerusalem (first century), which Jacques, brother of Jesus, led: this site is closed to the public but can be visited with an official guide who would make the arrangement
I hope that reading this article will help you to see more clearly between the festivals that are celebrated by Jews and Christians, between mid-May and mid-June according to the calendars. As usual, I recommend that visitors take a tour guide to these sites to better understand what is seen in the light of the holy scriptures.