by Rabbi Isaac Mann

The Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud refer to the holiday of Shavuot not by its usual Biblical name — Hag ha-Shavuot — but by the term Atzeret (see e.g. Rosh Hashanah 16a and Pesahim 68b), which is used in the Torah to refer to Shemini Atzeret and to the seventh day of Pesah (Num. 29:35 and Deut. 16:8, resp.). While there are several interpretations among Jewish commentators as to why the Rabbis eschewed the Biblical and more common name and instead used a new designation for the Holiday of Weeks, my favorite is one that I heard from my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik z”l, affectionately called “the Rav” by his students and followers.

On several occasions the Rav suggested that the Rabbis were eager to show a strong nexus between the holidays of Pesah and Shavuot in order to emphasize the notion that the physical freedom achieved by the Jewish people was not complete until they also had a spiritual/religious emancipation that came with their embracing of the Torah. Thus, Passover — z’man heruteinu (the time of our freedom) — is tied to Shavuot — z’man matan torateinu (the time of the giving of our Torah). They emphasized this connection by referring to Shavuot as Atzeret. The latter, coming from the word atzar, which means to “hold back” (in Modern Hebrew — to “stop”), would thus connect Shavuot with Pesah just as the holiday of Shemini Atzeret holds back the Sukkot holiday from ending and the seventh day of Pesah does the same for that holiday. Shavuot in similar vein holds back the completion of the holiday of physical freedom until the full realization of freedom is achieved with the giving and receiving of the Torah.

The above explanation jives with that of Nachmanides, a well known medieval Bible commentator and Talmudist. He saw in the mitzvah of the counting of the Omer, which the Torah requires us to do from the second day of Passover until the day before Shavuot, an almost explicit indication that the two holidays were to be conjoined through the daily count.

Another oft-cited explanation for the rabbinic preference of Atzeret over the more ancient Shavuot appellation is one suggested by R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, a Hasidic leader in the late 18th century. In his Kedushat Levi he suggested that unlike the other Biblical holidays that have specific mitzvot and rituals that are associated with each one, Shavuot is the only one that has none. It is indeed a holy day on which work is prohibited, but there is no sukkah or matzah or shofar or fasting or the like that is inherent to the holiday. The Rabbis thus chose a name that means to stop — alluding to the stopping of work — as a hallmark of this holiday. The cessation of prohibited work is what gives the holiday of Shavuot its special character.

What the two explications cited above have in common is that they both see in the name Atzeret a focus on the special character of the holiday. Shavuot is not just the Holiday of Weeks, a term that seems to hide or at least diminish the festival’s own unique nature. By calling it Atzeret the Rabbis indeed tied the holiday to Passover, as the Torah seems to do, but not solely as one that follows in a few weeks, but rather as a special kind of “appendage,” just like Shemini Atzeret is to the holiday of Sukkot. It either represents the completion of the Israelites’ attainment of freedom, or, as the Berdichever suggested, it’s a holiday unique in its absence of ritual objects (any association with cheesecake is quite modern). It’s a holiday that stands alone and needs no other mitzvot to enhance it.

May we all celebrate Shavuot, whoops, I mean Atzeret, with joy and happiness, as we rededicate ourselves to the study of the Torah that was given to us at this time of the year.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameiah!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as the chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.