Today is the second day of Shavuot, one of the major holidays in the Jewish year. Shavuot celebrates two things. It was one of the three harvest festivals, a day on which Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bring their first fruits as an offering. It also marks the day that the Jewish people entered into the covenant with God, receiving the Torah and agreeing to be his people.
Like all holidays, Shavuot offers us lessons that transcend the religious observance and apply to our modern lives. One of these lessons is about time. Shavuot gives us a new way to think about time.
The Festival of Weeks
The word Shavuot is the Hebrew word meaning weeks. You may know its relative — the word shiva — the Jewish mourning period, which occurs for a week (hence the name). The root of both words is sheva, the Hebrew word for the number seven.
Shavuot comes 7 weeks after the start of Passover. Specifically, we count 49 days starting on the second night of Passover.
The Significance of 7 and 49
Leviticus 23:15 instructs us to count the days, and says that at 7 weeks, we shall be complete.
In Jewish tradition, the number seven conveys completion. It is a signal to rest.
God finished his acts of creating the Universe on the seventh day, and then rested.
One of the first commandments to the people after the Exodus — even before they arrived at Mount Siani and received the Torah — was to create a day of rest on the seventh day.
Seven weeks after Passover, we observe Shavout, another holiday of rest.
We observe Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days and spiritual new year, in Tishrei, which is the seventh month of the Jewish year.
Jewish law also dictates that every seven years, a farmer should allow his land to lie fallow. No planting or harvesting. It is a rest year. A sabbatical year.
In the 50th year, after seven 7-year cycles, there is again a rest year, called the Jubilee year.
There is also a Kabbalistic significance to the 49 days:
The Kabbalists explain that the 49 days that connect Passover with Shavuot correspond to the 49 drives and traits of the human heart. Each day saw the refinement of one of these sefirot, bringing the people of Israel one step closer to their election as G‑d’s chosen people and their receiving of His communication to humanity.
Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks,” is the product of this count, driven by the miracles and revelations of the Exodus, but achieved by a methodical, 49-step process of self-refinement within the human soul.
The teachers explain that the spectrum of human experience comprises seven basic emotions. Each of the weeks between Passover and Shavuot is dedicated to examining and refiniing each of these emotions.
3 Ways to Measure Time
The Greeks have 2 words for time: chronos and kyros.
Chronos is clock time. It is measured in Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Years.
Kyros is human time. It is measured in milestones and moments.
Shavuot introduces us to a third way of measuring time: relative time.
Unlike other holidays, the starting date for Shavuot is not prescribed by the Torah. It is not tied to the new moon or the full moon. It is relative to the start of Passover. We know when Shavuot falls only by counting from the start of Passover.
Time is Emotion
Some minutes feel like they last an hour. If you’ve ever sat next to a crying baby on a long flight, you know this feeling.
Some hours feel like they last just a minute. The time you spend with someone you love in their last hours often feels this way.
Time is perception, which is based on our emotion. We feel time fly or time drag based on what we are doing. How we measure time, therefore, is relative to our emotional experience in the moment.
How We Measure a Life
In our culture, the incessant drive toward productivity and getting things done traps us in two false beliefs about time: we believe that all time is chronos time, and that all units of time are equal.
You’ve likely heard people say “everyone gets the same 24 hours in a day.”
Technically, it’s true that each of us gets 24 hours in a day. What’s not true is that those 24 hours are “the same.” Not all hours are equal.
The quality of your life is not measured in chronological time, but in moments and milestones. It’s measured by your growth and by the evolution of your soul.
What if You’re Not Behind?
Do you ever think, “I feel like I’m behind my day.” Or “I feel like I’m behind where I should be”?
How do you know when you’re behind? You only believe you’re behind because you are looking at others. But where other people are isn’t the marker for where you should be. Each of us has our own path.
The Jews were not just wandering the desert for seven weeks, waiting for God to tell them they were ready. They were doing their inner work of refining their souls and preparing themselves to be ready.
And so it is with us as well. You may feel like you are drifting in the desert, wandering off the path. But the desert is the path. Perhaps what you perceive as wandering is simply the way you are living the experiences that refine your soul.
The Bridge Between Chronological and Human Time
The cycles of seven and the concept of relative time create a new framework within which we can understand time.
What we learn from the cycles of seven is that chronological time — days, weeks, months, years — has a rhythm. All days are not created equal. All months are not created equal. The years are not all equal.
Some are for action and some are for rest.
This rhythm of sevens is marked in milestones and moments. Every seven days, seven months, and seven years, we slow down to step back and appreciate our efforts. The days, months, and years of rest offer us an opportunity to see how far we’ve come, to check in with where we are going, and to align to the path.
Looking at Shavuot through this lens, we can understand that time is neither chronological nor human. It’s always both. This is how we get relative time.
We mark the milestones and moments of human time relative to chronological time.
The way we do this is by following the rhythm of the cycles of time. Pausing at the sevens — seventh day, seventh week, seventh month, seventh year — to reflect on where we have been and where we are going — keeps us on our path.
The teaching of Shavuot is that although we think we are counting in chronological time, or linear time, we are really counting in human time. You cannot measure your personal timeline in months or years. You can measure it only in milestones and moments. But we can only see these milestones and moments within the context of chronological time.