Two Jews, Three Translations: An Exploration of Shavuot Sources
The holiday of Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event that jumpstarted a thousands-year-long conversation that continues to this day.
Translations are just one place we can look to see how the Jewish people have made sense of our most sacred text — because in order to translate something into a different language, one has to determine what the original means. Let’s look at a few Shavuot sources and various ways that translators have interpreted them.

Receiving the Torah

The Jewish relationship to the Torah begins with the People of Israel hearing the ten commandments at Mount Sinai. Today, they are read publicly on Shavuot. Here’s part of the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-10):
זָכוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ׃ שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כׇּל־מְלַאכְתֶּךָ׃ וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַיהוה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂה כׇל־מְלָאכָה…
But how exactly do we fulfill a commandment? Consider the slight variations in the following translations. How might the word choices contribute differently to your understanding of the passage?
Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work… (JPS, 1985)
Be mindful of the Sabbath day, to hallow it. For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath for YHWH your God: you are not to make any work… (Schocken, 1995)
Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it. You may work six days, and do all your work. But the seventh day is Shabbos to Adonoy, your God. You must not do any manner of work… (Metsuda, 2009)

Counting to Shavuot

Shavuot is also an agricultural holiday. Alongside Passover and Sukkot, it’s one of three festivals involving pilgrimage to the ancient Temple with harvest offerings. In Leviticus 23:15, the Torah explains when Shavuot should take place:
וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמׇּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת־עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה׃
Like the last example from Exodus, this passage includes the Hebrew word “Shabbat,” but it means something different in this context. This poses a question for translators about if and how to explain the meaning to readers.
And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete. (JPS, 1985)
You shall count for yourselves, from the day after the day of rest (Pesach) from the day on which you will bring the omer waveuplifted-offering, seven complete weeks they shall be. (Metsuda, 2009)

A Prophet's Vision

One of the haftarah readings for Shavuot comes from the book of Ezekiel and, like the day’s Torah reading, centers on the theme of revelation. It ends with Ezekiel 3:12:
וַתִּשָּׂאֵנִי רוּחַ וָאֶשְׁמַע אַחֲרַי קוֹל רַעַשׁ גָּדוֹל בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד־יהוה מִמְּקוֹמוֹ׃
Here we encounter one of the hardest tasks for translators: naming and describing God.
Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound: “Blessed is the Presence of the LORD, in His place. (JPS, 1985)
Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound: “Blessed is the Presence of God, in its place.” (JPS, 2023)
Then a spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, saying, Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place. (Koren, 2008)

Did some of these versions speak to you more than others?

  • Remember that you can pick your preferred translations on Sefaria by clicking on a passage to open the resource panel and selecting ‘Translations.’
  • You can also view multiple translations simultaneously with the Compare Text feature in the resource panel. Check out these step-by-step instructions.
Looking for more texts and teachings related to Shavuot? Visit our holiday resource roundup.
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