Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover and closes the holiday season. The work Shavuot means “Weeks”. It indicates the fact that the holiday appears seven weeks and one day after Passover. The festival is the survivor of an old calendar, the number seven was the sacred number. The seasonal year was divided into seven units, each of fifty days. Each unit of fifty days was, in turn, divided into seven weeks; each week, into seven days. Shavuot was the atseret, the closing day of the spring unit that Passover began. Only the Sabbath and Shavuot are surviving holidays from this old calendar.
Since the spring barley and wheat harvest lasted about fifty days and started with Passover, Shavuot evolved as the celebration of the end of the harvest. In the beginning, Shavuot was a farmer’s festival, attached to Passover and identified with the fertility of the land. When Jews ceased to be farmers, Shavuot gradually lost its connection with Passover and developed its own uniqueness.
In the rabbinic period, the holiday was identified as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This association was as arbitrary as the event was legendary. But the prestige of this connection maintained Shavuot as a major holiday. In traditional synagogues, it became the time for the public reading of the Ten Commandments.
For humanistic Jews, the connection of Shavuot with the Torah alone is an insufficient reason for a celebration. But if we see the holiday as a tribute to the three thousand-year-old literary creativity of the Jewish people, of which the Torah is the beginning, then the holiday takes on an important humanistic dimension.
Shavuot as a holiday to celebrate Jewish books and Jewish literature can be both useful and exciting. The major harvest of the Jewish people throughout the past two thousand years has not been wheat. It has been the written word. From the secular perspective, that “harvest” is not the creation of God. It is the creation of the Jewish people. It is a tribute to human ingenuity and human effort. Celebrating Jewish literature is a way to celebrate the creative energies of the Jewish people.
From: Judaism Beyond God, by Rabbi Sherwin Wine