Shavuot: A Sacrifice Offered by God, by Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz

The Torah calls the festival of Shavuot “Yom Habikurim” or the day of the ripening of the first grains of the wheat harvest. Bamidbar, 28:26. Rashi explains the text as follows, “the festival of Shavuot is called the first ripening of the wheat which was cut, because of the two loaves of bread (Shtei Halechem) which were the first offering of wheat which comes from the new wheat.” Rashi on Bamidbar 28:26. The Torah calls this offering of the Shtei Halechem, “Mincha Chadasha” or the “New Offering.” Vayikra, 23:17. It was only after the Shtei Halechem were brought that any of the new wheat was permitted to be used as a Mincha (wheat sacrifice). The Shtei Halechem always had to be the first offering of the new wheat.

The Rambam elaborates on this festival and tells us:

On the fiftieth day from the counting of the Omer is the festival of Shavuot and it is Atzeret, (i.e. that is the completion of the holiday time frame that began with Pesach) . . . and also we bring over and above the normal musaf sacrifices on this day a new meal offering, the two loaves. . .

Mishneh Torah, T’midim Umusafim, 8:1.

The Torah sets several conditions for this offering: The wheat must be cut from crops that are grown in the land of Israel; it should be from new wheat (Chadash) of the current year which is valid for use only after the 16th of Nisan; finally, and most unusual the two loaves, unlike all other meal offerings, must be leavened (Chametz) and as a result, are unable to become a burnt offering on the altar. There is a major controversy in the Talmud as to whether the Shtei Halechem may be brought from Yoshon (last year’s wheat) if Chadash is not available. See Menachot 73b. There also seems to be a controversy on this issue between the Rambam and the Raavad where the Rambam rules that in the absence of Chadash the Shtei Halechem may be brought from Yoshon. See Mishneh Torah, T’midim Umusafim, 8:2. There is no question that the Shtei Halechem must be Chametz for the Torah clearly states, “they are to be baked Chametz.” Vayikra 23:17. The consequence of making the Shtei Halechem into Chametz is that they could not be brought upon the altar. Mishneh Torah, Maaseh Hakorbanot, 12:3. See also T’midim Umusafim 8:9.

The process of preparing the Shtei Halechem of new wheat was as follows: One tenth of one and a half Seot of flour was taken in a special pan and carefully strained to eliminate all impurities. Yeast was then mixed with enough water to allow for the proper formation of dough. The yeast/water was then mixed with the flour and kneaded into dough and baked. This process was repeated twice. Thus each loaf was produced separately. Mishneh Torah, T’midim Umusafim 8:4, 6 and 9; Menachot 52b.

The two loaves were used in the following manner. One was eaten by the High Priest and the other was divided among the priestly watches. The loaves had to be eaten within the time frame of that day until midnight. This was the same time frame when the most sacred sacrifices (kodesh kodashim) had to be eaten (i.e. sacrifices which only the Kohanim could eat) Rambam, Mishneh Torah, T’midim Umusafim, 8:11.

Most other Menachot (Wheat Sacrifices) were a tenth of a Seah of flour which was mixed with oil and frankincense (Levona). A kometz (handful) of the tenth was burned on the altar, and the rest was eaten by the Kohanim. Above all else, it had to be Matza or unleavened. See Mishneh Torah, Maaseh HaKarbanot, 12: 7, 9 and 14.

We are now left with two difficult conundrums. First, how is it possible that the Shtei Halechem, which could not be offered on the altar because it was leavened, was the sacrifice which made all other wheat sacrifices permissible which were burned on the altar because they were unleavened? Second, why is it that in all other Menachot a portion of the Mincha is given to God by being consumed on the altar, but in the case of the Shtei Halechem, none of it was given to God and was totally consumed by the priesthood?

A clue to resolving these difficulties may be found in the Sefer Hachinuch where he discusses the underlying principles of meal sacrifices. In his analysis, he suggests that the Matzah represents the trait of diligence because it must be baked immediately, as opposed to Chametz which represents laziness because it takes a long time to rise. An individual meal offering could thus never be Chametz, however, “ . . .in a community, one member will always encourage and support the other.   Thus the Torah did not emphasize Matzah in the meal offering of the community because it only occurs occasionally like the Shtei Halechem on Shavuot.” Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 117.

What the Sefer Hachinuch is saying is that since a community is a unified entity, we are not that concerned about individuals not fulfilling their service to God, because a community is a mutually supportive entity and all will be involved in the service of God. This communal service can be fulfilled without the use of Matzah.

We can now explain why specifically on Shavuot the Torah insists that the meal offering, (Mincha Chadasha) must be Chametz even though it is disqualified from being offered on the altar. Matzah is the holy bread that was offered on the altar and has the trait of diligence. It represents those select Jews who are diligent in following God. The Chametz represents the entire community, with some Jews who are more diligent than others. By having the Shtei Halechem offered on Shavuot, the holiday when the Torah was given, God is making a statement that the Torah is for the entire community, not just for the select few. Indeed, this message was so important that it was the Shtei Halechem which allowed the new grain to be used for all the other meal sacrifices.   All Jews are important in establishing the destiny of Israel.

We must still explain, however, why a portion of all other Menachot are offered to God, but the entire Shtei Halechem is eaten by the Kohein Gadol and the other priests. An answer could be as follows:

The giving of the Torah on Shavuot was an occasion when the Jewish people were unified as a nation and accepted God and his Torah. They stated,  “We shall do and we shall hear,” emphasizing that first they will follow God’s commands before listening for the reason behind the command. The sacrifice which the Jews offered to God from the new wheat of the coming year represented their total reliance on God for their subsistence. Rather than consume a portion of the two loaves as a burnt offering as was the case with other Menachot, that sacrifice was eaten entirely by the representatives of the people, the Kohein Gadol and his fellow priests. In this way God was acknowledging his love for his people as they acknowledged their love for him. The sacrifice which symbolized their desire to offer their lives for God, He returned it to them to demonstrate that they would be granted that life as long as they followed the Torah. This is the true revelation and ultimate message of Shavuot, that just as Matan Torah was a time when we accepted God, the Shtei Halechem was a sign of God accepting us. While we normally offer sacrifices to God, on Shavuot God offered a sacrifice to us.



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