These days Shavuot is known as the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah. In Temple times, however, Shavuot was significant for several other reasons. In fact, the Torah uses three names for the festival, none of them directly related to the event at Mount Sinai: Shavuot,1 Chag HaKatzir,2 and Yom HaBikurim.3

“Shavuot” means “weeks,” and refers to the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, during which each day is counted as part of Sefirat HaOmer. “Chag HaKatzir” means “the festival of the harvest”—in ancient Israel the holiday coincided with the wheat harvest, and “Yom HaBikurim” means “the day of the first produce,” since on Shavuot the first offering from the new wheat crop, known as the “Shtei HaLechem” (the two loaves), was brought in the Temple.4 5

In the agricultural society of ancient Israel, the wheat harvest was a very important event, and though it is not currently observed, the Shtei HaLechem bread offering was originally an essential part of the festival. Let’s take a closer look at the offering and its significance, both practical and mystical.

How It Was Done

The Torah commands the Jewish people to bring an offering from the new wheat crop to the Temple on Shavuot.6 It was to be brought from the choicest wheat,7 which would be husked, ground into flour and sifted twelve times to ensure that only the finest flour was used.8
The flour was brought to the Temple courtyard,9 where it was baked into two loaves of chometz,10 leavened bread, unlike almost all other offerings in the Temple, which were either flour or matzah (unleavened bread).11 (The korban toda, thanksgiving offering, was the only other sacrifice to have loaves of chometz brought with it.12 )
Along with the two loaves, two lambs were included in the offering. The priests would wave the lambs and the loaves in all four directions and up and down, and then place the lambs on the mizbeiach (altar). The loaves were eaten by the kohanim (priests).13

The Talmud14 tells us that no offerings Two lambs were included in the offeringfrom the new crop of wheat were allowed in the Temple before the two loaves were brought. This is similar to the Omer offering brought on Passover, until which no one was allowed to eat from the new crop of barley.


The commentaries explain that the Shtei HaLechem was an offering of thanksgiving. 15 As an expression of thanks to G‑d for the successful harvest of grain, the most basic food, we brought the choicest portion to Him. They point out that this is expressed in the details of the offering’s laws:

Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman16 (1195-1270) writes that the loaves were made into chometz, similar to the Toda offering, because both were offerings of thanksgiving. The Chinuch17 (13th century) adds that the more similar an action is to its reason, the more of an effect it will have on the person performing it. Wheat is considered food for humans and eaten in the form of bread. We thank G‑d for wheat by offering Him loaves of bread, reminding ourselves that all of our sustenance comes from Him.

The Talmud18 explains that by waving the loaves in the four directions and up and down, we acknowledge the One who created the four directions, heaven, and earth. Alternatively, waving in the four directions blessed the winds that originate from them, so that they should only be good, beneficial winds, and lifting the loaves blessed the dew, that it too should be beneficial.

The prophet Jeramiah also points to the blessings the Shtei Halechem bestowed. “The weeks of the laws of harvest [G‑d] keeps for us,” 19 he says, and Rashi20 explains: “Seven weeks in which He ordained two ordinances of harvest, the ordinance of the Omer, and the ordinance of the Shtei HaLechem keeps for us.” When we thank G‑d for the bounty of the present harvest, our future harvests are blessed as well.

Bread and Torah

In addition to the simple interpretation of the Shtei HaLechem as a thanksgiving offering, sages and commentators throughout the ages have found deeper lessons concealed within its laws. Often, they draw connections between the offering of the loaves and the giving of the Torah.

One well-known interpretation is that G‑d commands us to bring an offering from the new crop on the anniversary of the Torah’s giving to remind us that our commitment to Torah, too, must be renewed each year.21 One must consider the Torah not as an ancient document, but rather as if it were given today.22

We must not consider the Torah an ancient document

Many point to the contrast between the matzah we eat on Passover and the leavened bread used for the Shtei Halechem. Leavened bread was usually prohibited in sacrifices because dough that has risen is compared to pride and arrogance, traits associated with the yetzer hara (evil inclination).23 Studying Torah, however, subdues inappropriate pride,24 allowing us to use the energy of the evil inclination for good.25

The chassidic master Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900) elaborates on this idea. On Shavuot the giving of the Torah elevates the world to the spiritual level that existed before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, he writes. Just as then the evil inclination was only a positive force to help build the world, so too on Shavuot, we are empowered to use it once again for its intended purpose.26

This is also expressed in the Jews’ famous declaration upon receiving the Torah “naase venishma27 (First we will do, and then we will understand). They agreed to have complete obedience to G‑d in every situation, without regard to their personal feelings and desires, a complete subjugation of the evil inclination that is only possible through Torah.28

The famous chassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (known by the name of his magnum opus, Sfas Emes) writes that the divine wisdom contained in the Torah is the power from which the world was created. Normally this wisdom is hidden, and physical beings feel that their own efforts are what count. At the giving of the Torah, however, G‑d Himself spoke to man, meaning that the essential reality of all existence became visible and tangible. 29

He explains that the two loaves offered on Shavuot symbolize the duality that we perceive in creation: one signified divine blessings, the other the product of man’s toil. On the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, they were both waived towards heaven as an acknowledgment that both come from G‑d.

Animal, Human, and Divine

As we have seen, commentaries often compare the Shtei HaLechem to the Omer—the barley offering brought on Passover. The Abarbanel (1437-1508) points out that30 that while barley is used as food for animals, wheat is for human consumption.

Passover is the anniversary of the redemption from Egypt, when the Jewish people were compared to animals, having not yet received the Torah that allowed them to understand and appreciate G‑d. Thus it is appropriate that on Passover we bring an offering of animal fodder. On Shavuot, however, we matured into human beings capable of appreciating G‑d’s greatness, so it is fitting that the offering brought then was from wheat.

He concludes that an offering must be brought to G‑d in the same manner that a person would use it. Since humans eat their grain by turning it into bread, the Shtei Halechem was made into bread, and just as a human king would not eat bread alone, but would have meat together with it, so too the Shtei HaLechem came together with lambs.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains31 that the Omer and Shtei HaLechem offerings represent two stages in the service of G‑d that the Israelites experienced on their journey out of Egypt, a journey that we are empowered to re-experience each year.

The first step on the path of divine service is personal refinement. Natural impulses and emotions, as yet unbridled and animal-like, must be progressively controlled and transformed.

Passover is the anniversary of the birth of the Jewish nation. They began their service of G‑d by subduing their lower faculties and desires, symbolized by the offering of barley, a food for animals. The Omer was also made into unleavened bread, which lies low and is tasteless. This represents a stage in divine service when the path is one of subjugation, without any “taste” for what one is doing.

We are empowered to retrace their foodtsteps

The seven weeks of counting that follow Passover correspond to the gradual refinement of the seven human emotions, and by the time they reached Mount Sinai, the Jews had reached the level of mature adults with intellect and understanding, able to appreciate the greatness of their creator.

Even at this level, however, they had to be careful that the foundation for their divine service was not only a result of their own understanding, but rather because G‑d commanded them to serve Him (“We will do, and then we will understand”).

To teach us this, the Torah commands us to bring two loaves of leavened bread as an offering to G‑d. Wheat is associated with intellect in Torah, and leavened bread, which has more taste than unleavened, signifies intellectual appreciation. The lesson is that one’s higher faculties, too, should be subjugated to G‑d and used to serve Him to the best of one’s ability.

Just as the Jewish nation progressed through these stages on its journey through the desert, so are we empowered to retrace their footsteps each year, beginning with the rebirth of Passover, through the spiritual refinement of Sefirat HaOmer, culminating on Shavuot, when we receive the Torah anew and rededicate ourselves to G‑d—body, heart, and mind.