Beliefs News Series The 'Splainer The 'Splainer

The ’Splainer: The ‘gifts’ of Pentecost and Shavuot

Traditionally, the holiday of Shavuot is marked by an all-night Torah study session. In Jerusalem, tens of thousands of people finish off the nighttime study session by walking to the Western Wall before dawn and joining the sunrise minyan there, seen here on May 26, 2012. Photo by Daniel Majewski/Creative Commons

The ’Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — This weekend marks the observance of Pentecost and Shavuot, holy days to Christians and Jews respectively. And both involve certain “gifts” that don’t come with wrapping and bows. Let us ’Splain …

What is Pentecost?

Pentecost Sunday (May 20) marks the day most Christians believe the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus after his death, resurrection and ascension. The story comes from the New Testament Book of Acts: “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Jesus’ followers were amazed — they could speak languages they never knew before and they could understand others they had never heard. The Apostle Peter stood up and preached his first sermon — so many Christians think of this holiday as the “birthday” of the church.

A depiction of Pentecost in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Jerusalem. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

What does that have to do with Shavuot?

A lot! Shavuot is called the “Festival of Weeks” because it is held seven weeks (and one day) after the second night of Passover. Originally tied to an ancient grain festival, it eventually became the holiday that marks God’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The link between the two holidays lies in their names. “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word “pentekostos,” which means 50. Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter, when Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead. And 50 days also represents the gap between Passover’s second day and Shavuot. Some scholars believe Pentecost owes its name to Jesus’ Jewish followers who were gathered together to observe the festival of Shavuot.

What do these two holidays mean to contemporary Christians and Jews?

This is where the idea of “gifts” comes in. On Shavuot, which starts this year on Saturday evening, Jews mark not just the giving of the Torah by God, but their acceptance of the Torah. Some Jewish writers have compared the exchange to a marriage or other sacred covenant. One way the holiday is observed is through the reading of the Book of Ruth, the story of a woman who converts to Judaism and accepts the Torah.

The gifts of the first Pentecost have different meanings to different Christians. Some interpret them as the spiritual benefits of accepting Jesus that bring a more meaningful earthly life. Others — especially those Christians known as Pentecostals — believe the first Pentecost gave all followers of Jesus “the gifts of the Spirit” — speaking in and interpreting tongues, the ability to prophesy, the power to heal by touch, the ability to discern spirits. Pentecostals believe those things are available to all Christians, and only those who accept them are able to fulfill the work and destiny that God has laid out for them.

I like gifts. What did you get me for Pentecost and Shavuot?

Sorry, neither Christians nor Jews exchange presents on Pentecost or Shavuot. Nor do they eat cake. Some Jews mark Shavuot by decorating their homes with spring flowers; others stay up during the first night of the festival — this year from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Monday — to read the Torah. They go to synagogue, where the Ten Commandments — the foundational laws they believe were given to Moses on Sinai — are read aloud. Christians generally mark Pentecost by a reading from Acts, and some wear all white, or all red. In medieval Britain, Pentecost was sometimes called “White Sunday” — or Whitsunday — for the custom of wearing white.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

19 Comments

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  • Your articles are important in that they often show the common Holy days of Judaism and Christianity. It is amazing to me how so many fail to see these important similarities. The root of Christianity is Judaism. Paul, in the Spirit, writes “if the first piece of dough (the patriarchs) is holy, the lump (the Jewish people) is also; and if the root (the patriarchs) is holy, the branches (the Jewish people) are too.” Romans 11:16 The Holy Spirit is NOT saying that all Jews are righteous. He is saying that God will be true to the promises made to the Fathers. The only provision for any of us, Jews or Gentiles, is Jesus/Yeshua who is the Promised Messiah. His atonement is what allows for our sins to be forgiven so that we can have peace with God the Father. Judaism and Christianity are forever linked. God Bless Shalom

  • Mark, not exactly. Jesus is not the promised Messiah. The Messiah is supposed to have brought about an age of universal peace. That has certainly not happened. There are numerous places in Jewish prayers where we say, We have no savior, but you,” by you we mean God, not Jesus.

    There is also a tradition of studying Torah all night long. In many cities Jews will gather to study Torah in various ways.

  • Not exactly Susan. This is America, founded on Christian beliefs. You have the freedom as a citizen here to practice what you believe. I believe Jesus is my Lord and Savior, the Messiah, son of God. While I believe Gods judgment is on a fallen American and the second coming draws near I will also celebrate his Judasim this weekend in anticipation. Memorial Day, not so much. Peace. Shalom.

  • Yes of course you are free to believe in Jesus. I just to object to people who express their respect for Judaism when what they want to do is convert Jews.

  • Hey NO DATES were given as to when Jesus would bring Peace to us. The times were to be fulfilled where ALL who will come to know and accept Jesus as the Christ (the Anointed One) and THEN He comes to save HIS OWN. YOU Susan are not God therefore you do not know the hour or day. From the Word of God and simply Truth and common sense.

  • PS PENTECOST is a Christian name and Shavuot is the Jewish name for the exact SAME day ! Its not after Easter ! Which is a mix of pagan and the Holy Roman Church aka Catholic Church. Research and get your facts straight before disseminating untruth. It is 50 days after the day of Passover. Jesus was crucified the afternoon leading up to Passover which began at sundown that day. Then count 24 of our hours to the next sundown which begins the NEXT day. THEN count 50 days which leads to Pentecost / Shavuot.

  • No, I don’t think I’m God, but I can read. There is nothing in what you would call the “Old Testament” about a Second Coming. Besides if Jesus is waiting for everyone to accept him as their savior, Jesus will be waiting forever.

  • I notice in you said five weeks after Passover, from everything I have read it is seven weeks. which by your own word make sense, seeing how there are 7 days in a week and 5 multiplied by 7 only equals 35, not 50, while 7 multiplied by 7 equal 49, much closer to 50.

  • Susan, Yes it is true. When Messiah returns He will bring about an age of peace. The prophets certainly speak of this. They also certainly speak of Messiah suffering and dying for our sins. Why do you accept the one concept and reject the other? Isaiah, Psalms, Zechariah…etc.all make this teaching very clear. You are following the traditions of men instead of the teachings of God. You need to follow God and His Word. You will be waiting a very long time if you are looking for another Messiah.

  • It was my understanding that Jews from around the region were gathered for the Jewish festival and the gifts of tongues allowed the Christians to preach and convert some of the Jews, who in turn carried Christianity to their lands.

  • “Shavuot is called the “Festival of Weeks” because it is held five weeks after the second night of Passover.”

    Actually it’s held a day after seven weeks.

  • i am giving cheese cake to someone tonight to celebrate Shavuot! How funny you to mention the cake. Thanks for the explanation 🙂

  • “Whit” was not the old word for “Wisdom,” the special gift of the Holy Spirit? Instead it just meant “White.”

  • Shavuot=Pentecost. “And 50 days also represents the gap between Passover’s second day and Shavuot.” https://twitter.com/lcvalin/status/995064735543578625
    “…began on the 1st day of the week following the first Sabbath after the Passover.” Controversy means Pentecost/Shavuot always on Sunday. “Boethusians, Karaites, heirs of Sadducees observe Shavout on Sunday” Reformed Torah Comm. Plaut. Parsha Emor past Sabbath Luke 6.1

  • It’s a custom of Jews from Western and Eastern Europe to eat dairy on Shavuot. I am lactose intolerant and diabetic so I bring along my own non-dairy sugar-free desserts.

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