When Shavuos Is to Be Celebrated

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,
Vol. III, p.995ff.; Vol. IV, p. 1030

Shavuos differs from every other Jewish holiday. The Torah mentions the specific dates on which the holidays of Pesach, Sukkos, Rosh HaShanah, and Yom Kippur should be celebrated. With regard to the holiday of Shavuos, by contrast, no date is given. Instead the Torah states:1

You shall count seven perfect weeks… From the day you brought the omer as a wave offering… you shall count fifty days. [On that fiftieth day,] you shall present a meal offering of new [grain]…. This very day shall be proclaimed as a sacred holiday.

Thus the observance of the holiday of Shavuos is not dependent on a particular day of the month, but on the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer. Although at present Shavuos is always celebrated on the sixth of Sivan, this is because in the present era, we follow a fixed calendar. In the era when the monthly calendar was established by the testimony of witnesses with regard to the sighting of the moon, however, Shavuos, the fiftieth day of the Omer, could also fall on the fifth of Sivan (if both Nissan and Iyar were months of 30 days) or on the seventh of that month (if both Nissan and Iyar were months of 29 days).2

The sixth of Sivan is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah,3 and our celebration of the holiday commemorates this event. This concept is also echoed in our prayers which describe the holiday as “the season of the giving of our Torah.”4 Nevertheless, the Alter Rebbe rules5 that this description is appropriate only when the holiday of Shavuos is celebrated on the sixth of Sivan, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. In the previous era, when Shavuos was celebrated on dates other than the sixth of Sivan, it was not referred to as “the season of the giving of our Torah.”6

The possibility that the holiday of Shavuos will be celebrated on a day other than the sixth of Sivan applies in the present era as well. According to the fixed calendar we follow, Nissan always has 30 days, and Iyar, 29; thus, Shavuos will always fall on the sixth of Sivan. Nevertheless, there are situations in which an individual person is required to celebrate Shavuos on a different date.

To understand this concept, one premise must be established. Based on the phrase,7 “And you shall count for yourselves…,” our Sages emphasize8 that the mitzvah of the Counting of the Omer is incumbent on every single person as an individual (in contrast to the Counting of the Shemitah and Yovel9 years which are counted by the Jewish court10). The Jewish people do not count the Omer as a collective entity; instead the reckoning must be individual in nature.

Taking this concept a step further, it follows that the date on which Shavuos is observed is also a personal matter. For as stated above, Shavuos is not associated with any particular date on the calendar, but instead, depends on the completion of the Counting of the Omer.11

As such, even when a person’s Counting of the Omer concludes before or after the Counting of the Omer of others, it is then that he is required to observe Shavuos.12 We cannot say that with regard to the Counting of the Omer , the person should follow an individual reckoning but with regard to the observance of Shavuos he should observe the holiday with the others around him, for the sole determinant of when Shavuos should be observed is the Counting of the Omer. And the Counting of the Omer is given over to each individual as an individual, not to the Jewish people as a collective.13

The observance of Shabbos and other festivals depends on the local practice as defined by the calendar dates which are determined by the rising and setting of the sun in that locale.14 Shavuos, by contrast, depends not on the calendar, but on the Counting of the Omer , and that is an individual matter.

In previous generations, the above issue was largely theoretical in nature. At present, however, the advances in technology and the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world have made the matter a question of practical relevance.

To explain: Since the earth is shaped like a globe,15 and the sun (upon whose movement the determination of the days depends) travels across the earth’s horizon, there must be a line on the earth (the international dateline) at which the days differ. A person standing on one side of that line is in the midst of a different day than the person on the other side of the line. By crossing that line, a person skips a day, as it were. Thus if a person goes from east to west, he will proceed from Sunday to Tuesday, skipping Monday. Conversely, when a person goes from west to east, moving opposite to the sun’s pattern, he will repeat a day, e.g., he will have two Sundays.

Ordinarily, these concepts do not affect our ritual observance. With regard to the Counting of the Omer, however, the crossing of the dateline makes a significant difference. As mentioned above, the counting of the Omer is a mitzvah which is dependent on every person as an individual. Thus when a person crosses the dateline in the middle of counting the Omer, he must continue according to his own personal reckoning although everyone around him is counting a different day.

For example, Pesach falls on Shabbos. On Monday, the second day of the Counting of the Omer , a person travels from east to west [e.g., from the U.S. to Australia]. Although he left on Monday, when he crosses the dateline, it will be Tuesday. That night [the night between Tuesday and Wednesday], he is required to count the third day of the Omer, while the local people will be counting the fourth day.

Conversely, if a person crosses the dateline while traveling from west to east, leaving Monday and arriving on Monday, on the night between Monday and Tuesday, he must count the third day of the Omer, although the local people will be counting the second day.

As mentioned above, the holiday of Shavuos is not dependent on a particular day of the month, but on the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, and, moreover, that reckoning is individual in nature. Accordingly, when someone crosses the dateline from west to east, the fifth of Sivan is the fiftieth day of his Counting of the Omer. He must observe Shavuos on that day with regard to all matters except the reference to the holiday as “the season of the giving of our Torah.”16 If he lives in the diaspora, he should observe the sixth of Sivan as the second day of the holiday.

Conversely, if someone crosses the dateline from east to west, he should observe Shavuos on the seventh of Sivan. If he lives in the diaspora, he should observe the eighth of Sivan as the second day of the holiday.

The concept that the observance of Shavuos depends on the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer and not on a particular calendar date also has ramifications with regard to the second day of the holiday. With regard to the holidays of Pesach and Sukkos (both the first and last days), in the era when the sanctification of the moon was established according to the testimony of witnesses, the observance of a second day was instituted in the outlying areas of the diaspora17 because of a doubt concerning the day on which the holiday was to be observed. If messengers from Jerusalem were not able to reach these communities and inform them when the new moon had been consecrated, they would have to observe the holidays for two days, because they did not know which day was the fifteenth of the month. Even after the new moon was no longer sanctified on the basis of the testimony of witnesses, and instead, a fixed calendar was adopted, these communities continued observing the second day of the festivals in respect for the custom practiced by their ancestors.18

The above concepts do not apply with regard to the holiday of Shavuos. Since the observance of the holiday is not associated with a particular day of the month, but is instead dependent on the Counting of the Omer, there was never any doubt regarding the day of its observance. Even in the era when the new moon was consecrated according to the testimony of witnesses, by the sixth of Sivan, the Jews living in the most distant diaspora had been informed when the month of Nissan had been consecrated, and thus when Pesach and the Counting of the Omer had begun.

Why then was Shavuos observed for two days? In order not to make a distinction between one festival and another.19 Were the second day of this festival not to be observed in the diaspora, the Jews living there might have treated the observance of the second day of other festivals lightly. To prevent that from happening, our Sages ordained that the second day of Shavuos be observed as a festival, despite the fact that there was never a doubt regarding the day the holiday was to be observed.

This conveys a more severe status upon the second day of Shavuos than that of the second day of other festivals. For as mentioned above, the observance of the second day of other festivals is associated with doubt, while the observance of the second day of Shavuos is a decree of our Sages regarding which doubt never existed.20

The connection between the individual nature of the Counting of the Omer and Shavuos has ramifications with regard to the inner dimensions of our Divine service. The Divine service appropriate for the Counting of the Omer is the refinement of our emotional qualities. We count seven weeks corresponding to the seven emotional qualities, and 49 days (7x7), for each of these qualities is interrelated with the others. The objective is to make these weeks — and the corresponding emotional qualities — “perfect.”

When a Jew finishes the refinement of his emotional qualities, he is granted the Torah as a gift from above. This is totally dependent on him; it makes no difference what is happening with the people around him. When he has refined his 49 emotional qualities, he is granted the Torah, the fiftieth Gate of Knowledge, even though the others around him may not have reached that degree of preparation.

Conversely, if his personal process of refinement is slower and he has not refined his emotional characteristics, he must wait until he has completed his task of refinement, although those around him are being granted the Torah.