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Holiday of Giving the Torah

Shavuot (Exodus 19:1 - 20:23 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

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Shavuot is a somewhat elusive holiday. While the Torah clearly states the historical events commemorated on Pesach1 and Sukkot2 , no such connection is clearly drawn between Shavuot and any historical event. Rather, the Torah's description of Shavuot is agricultural: The nation is commanded to bring their first fruits to Jerusalem.


And the Feast of Harvest, the first fruits of your labors, which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering, which is at the end of the year, when you have gathered in your labors from the field. [Shmot 23:16]


And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year's end. [Shmot 34:22]

To the next day after the seventh Shabbat shall you count fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord... [Vayikra 23:16ff]

Also in the day of the First Fruits, when you bring a new meal offering to the Lord, in your Feast of Weeks, you shall have a holy gathering; you shall do no labor [Bamidbar 28:26]

Seven weeks shall you count; begin to number the seven weeks from such time as you begin to put the sickle to the grain. And you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with a tribute of a freewill offering of your hand, which you shall give according as the Lord your God has blessed you. [Dvarim 16:9,10]


The only description of Shavuot is as the holiday of first fruits; no historical explanation is offered. On the other hand, Pesach and Sukkot, aside from their own agricultural identity, are described in the Torah as the holidays that commemorate the Exodus from Egypt and the sojourn in the desert, respectively. Apparently, the Torah weaves the agricultural date into an historical holiday in order to provide deeper meaning and to heighten the farmers' religious experience: The three yearly pilgrimages were tied into the agricultural cycle, in addition to the historical/ theological significance of each holiday, creating a merger of the physical and spiritual realms, and heightened historical consciousness.3

Of the three major celebrations, only Shavuot is left without a clear "historical" connection, a fact made all the more striking by the monumental nature of the event which transpired at the same time of year (beginning of the third month) in the desert that first year after leaving Egypt: the Giving of the Torah.


In the third month, when the People of Israel went forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai...And the Lord said to Moshe, 'Go to the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes, And be ready by the third day; for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. [Shmot 1,10]


Fairly simple mathematics places the giving of the Torah more or less at the same time as the holiday of Shavuot4, though arguably not on the exact day:


Our Rabbis taught: On the sixth day of the month [Sivan] were the Ten Commandments given to Israel. R. Yose maintained: On the seventh thereof. [Shabbat 86b]


While this may seem strange we must keep in mind that in the days when the months were consecrated by the courts after witnesses testified that they saw the new moon, it was possible for the holiday of Shavuot to fall on the fifth, sixth or seventh day of Sivan5 and still coincide with the Giving of the Torah.

Nonetheless, a problem remains: According to the chronology recorded in the Talmud, the Jews left Egypt on a Thursday and the Torah was given on Shabbat, which would be fifty-one days --and not fifty-- after Pesach.

The Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim section 494) insists that the law is actually decided in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yossi cited above: the Torah was given on the fifty-first day after Pesach, the seventh day of Sivan. While the Magen Avraham therefore questioned the appropriateness of calling Shavuot "the day the Torah was given," we should note that the liturgy actually calls Shavuot "Zman Matan Toratenu", the time of the giving of the Torah, not necessarily implying the precise day.

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (commentary to Vayikra 23:21) suggested that the essence of Shavuot is not the giving of the Torah but the preparedness of man to accept the Torah. Just as the Jews in the desert prepared themselves to accept the Torah, so must we. This would alleviate the difficulty of assigning the date of the holiday to the sixth day of the month, which is not necessarily the day the Torah was given, but was, in fact, the day the People of Israel prepared themselves to receive it. This understanding is borne out by the choice of Torah reading for Shavuot, Chapter 19 of Shmot, which begins with the preparations made to receive the Torah.

The Torah itself remains silent regarding the relationship of the Giving of the Torah to the bringing of the first fruits. We are not told the date of the holiday – either of Shavuot or the giving of the Torah. Shavuot is fifty days after the Exodus, and the Giving of the Torah is in the beginning of the third month. While the connection between Shavuot and the Revelation is obscured in the Torah, the association was maintained by tradition.6

One expression of this tradition may be found in the Torah reading, the Sages' means of capturing and transmitting the spirit of the day. This is true for both the "primary" Torah reading as well as the "secondary" Haftorah reading. Regarding Shavuot we are told the following:


Mishna: On Pesach we read from the section of the festivals in Vayikra. On Shavuot, 'Seven weeks' [Devarim 16, 9ff]. (Megilah 30b)


Gemara: On Shavuot, we read "Seven weeks", and for haftarah a chapter from Habakuk (Chapter 3). According to others, we read "In the third month"(Shmot 19-20) and for haftarah the account of the Divine Chariot (Yechezkel chapter 1). Nowadays that we keep two days, we follow both courses, but in the reverse order. [Megilah 31a]


The difference between the two choices of Torah reading is telling: the section in Devraim describes the "Festival of Weeks"--Shavuot. This holiday is mentioned in various sections of the Torah. It describes an agricultural holiday, celebrated by bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem. The section in Shmot describes the Revelation, which links Shavuot with Matan Torah. According to the Mishna and the first opinion expressed in the Talmud, the reading for the first day is about Shavuot – the agricultural holiday, and the second day is about the Giving of the Torah. The conclusion of the Gemara is that on the first day of Shavuot we read the 19th chapter in Shmot, which describes the giving of the Torah, the Revelation and Decalogue, while on the second day (in the Diaspora) we read the description of the Holiday of Shavuot in Devarim (16:9). The irony is that it is possible that the Torah was actually given on what would eventually become the "second day" of Shavuot – hence the reading on the second day reflected the giving of the Torah, while the first day reflected the holiday of Shavuot.

The haftarah reading for the "first day" is the description of the Divine Chariot, and for the "second day" the section of Habakuk which mentions the giving of the Torah7 (and provides an overview of the years in the desert, and the conquest of the Land of Israel). Notably, both choices of the haftarah are related to the giving of the Torah and ignore the agricultural motif. The Rabbis always knew of the relationship between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah; perhaps, taking their cue from the Torah's silence, they too were reticent about openly declaring the relationship.

The final choice for the first day is the Prophesy of Yechezkel, known as the Chariot of Yehezkel. This section seems the most appropriate match for the section in Shmot that describes the Revelation; by choosing this as the haftarah, Chaz"al instruct us as to the nature of Shavuot while teaching us an important lesson about the Revelation. There are two distinct aspects of the Revelation to consider: first, the content of the Revelation and second, the fact that there was a Revelation at all– namely, that the Creator and Sustainer of the universe "descended" upon a mountain and made Himself "known". Upon reflection, we realize that the fact of Revelation is of primary importance: The content would have no significance had it not been for the fact that God Himself said these things. On the other hand, even had the Revelation been devoid of content, it would still have been of incredible religious significance, in and of itself, as a rendezvous between man and God. It is this theme of revelation per se which is highlighted by the choice of the haftarah of Yechezkel.

The Merkava (Chariot) deals with the Revelation witnessed by Yechezkel:


And it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Kevar River, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. [Yehezkel 1:1]


The ensuing chapter provides an elaborate description of Divinity. The images are stark yet mysterious; the symbols are illusive yet tantalizing. More than any another scriptural prophesy, this section became associated with mystical knowledge and exploration.8

There may be another message being communicated by this choice. The Prophesy of the Chariot is actually an unlikely candidate for haftarah reading at any time. The Rabbis teach in the Mishna that there are those who believe that the Chariot may never be read in public as a haftarah:


The portion of the chariot is not read as a haftarah, but R. Judah permits this. [Megilah 25a]


Why were the Rabbis hesitant to publicly read about the Chariot? The Mishna taught that this section may not be taught in public – not even to a small group of initiates:

The [subject of] forbidden relations may not be expounded in the presence of three, nor the Work of Creation in the presence of two, nor [the Work of] the Chariot in the presence of one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge. [Chagigah 11b]

So intense and mystical is the teaching of the Chariot that it was not to be taught or even read publicly. Too much would be revealed.


It is the glory of God to conceal a thing [Mishlei 25:2]


The choice of this section for this day speaks volumes: Though on other occasions it would be more prudent to conceal, on this day we may reveal a bit, for on this day Revelation took place. Even post- Revelation man must realize that there is so much about God that we cannot know and indeed will never know. On this day of Revelation, perhaps we should even conceal that something was revealed, yet we boldly read about the Revelation and follow with the description of the Chariot. We know that something - perhaps better concealed - was revealed. By choosing the haftarah of the Merkava, the rabbis were expressing their ambivalence in identifying Revelation as the key aspect of the day, and subtly telling us to be careful with our conclusions. The challenge of revelation is to avoid hubris; man may become overconfident, deluded into thinking he understands what may actually elude him. To avoid this pitfall, revelation must be obscured and protected. Ultimately if man wishes to understand God and His ways, the only way to reveal this secret is to learn His Torah and perform His commandments. This is the gift of Revelation with which we are entrusted throughout the year; the content of the Revelation at Sinai is the key to unlocking the secrets of the Revelation itself.

Accessing Revelation is not something that is limited to one day on the calendar; we are enjoined to see every day as if the Torah was given anew on that day.9 Receiving the Torah is not limited to one day a year.


COMMAND YOU THIS DAY. This suggests that they should ever be to you as new commandments, as though you had heard them for the first time on that day (Siphre on v 32)[Rashi Dvarim 11:19]


The Torah writes at the conclusion of the first fruit ceremony:


This day the Lord your God has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore keep and do them with all your heart, and with all your soul. [Dvarim 26:16]


Rashi comments are instructive:


THIS DAY THE LORD YOUR GOD HAS COMMANDED YOU: This suggests - each day they (God's commandments) should be to you as something new (not antiquated and something of which you have become tired), as though you had received the commands that very day for the first time. [Rashi, Dvarim 26:16]


How interesting that specifically on the holiday of Shavuot, at the celebration of the first fruits, we are commanded to think and act as if the Torah was given on that very day! We now know that, in fact, it was.

Our attitude toward Torah should be as if it were given on each and every day. Perhaps this frame of mind takes us back to the first fruits: The man who has worked so hard during the entire year now has the fruits of his labor in his hands. He experiences a sense of renewal and completion. The first fruits were a living example of what man's orientation to Torah should be – a sense of newness and freshness coupled with resolve to continue, a recognition of hard work coupled with an appreciation of its rewards. Remarkably, the ceremony which accompanied the First Fruit Offering included a revelation – a Bat Kol calling on man to continue onward:


THOU SHALT THEREFORE KEEP AND DO THEM. A heavenly voice ("Bat kol") pronounces by these words a blessing upon him (the worshipper) - "Thou hast brought the first fruits to-day - thou wilt be privileged to do so next year, too!" [Rashi Dvarim 26:16]


The themes of Revelation and first fruits are inseparably intertwined in the holiday of Shavuot. The window between the revealed and the concealed is opened for us on this singular holiday, and the content and purpose of the Revelation at Sinai, the Torah and its commandments, is wrapped around the more familiar and accessible agricultural aspects of the day. As we offer the first fruits of our physical labor before God, the physical bounty with which we have been blessed serves as a reminder of the personal and national destiny we accepted at Sinai. In the final analysis, the holiday of the First Fruits was about receiving the Torah all along, about the medium and the message of Revelation.


1. Shmot 12 and numerous other sources. (return to text)


2. Vayikra 23:43. (return to text)


3. See Pesachim 68b where the division of the day - in terms of "Divine" service versus personal pleasure is noted. Of specific interest is the declaration that regarding Shavuot it is clear that there is an aspect of human pleasure - a point which is debated regarding the other holidays: "R. Eleazar said: All agree in respect to the Feast of Weeks that we require [it to be] 'for you' too. What is the reason? It is the day on which the Torah was given." (return to text)


4. It is worthwhile mentioning that the date in Sivan is not ordained in the Torah as the means of establishing the holiday, rather by counting 7 weeks from Pesach. For the Babylonian Rabbis, if the giving of the Torah was not commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot itself, then it was by the "Second Day" observed in the Diaspora. See Joseph Tabori, Jewish Festivals in the time of the Mishna and Talmud, page 153. (return to text)


5. See Tosefta Erachin 1:4 (return to text)


6. The Giving of the Torah was associated with Shavuot in antiquity as is evidenced by the prayers which are the formulation of the Men of the Great Assembly, they call Shavuot "zman Matan Torateynu" the day of the giving of the Torah. this appellation was used by them in the beginning of the Second Commonwealth. Additionally, the association of the giving of the Torah with Shavuot was retained by the Ethiopians and the Samaritans, both of whom had limited contact or influence of the Rabbinic authorities. See Tabori page 151 note 25 (return to text)


7. Compare Habakuk 3:3 with Dvarim 33:2 (return to text)


8. See Brachot 21b, Shabbat 80b,Megilah 24b,Baba Batra 134a (return to text)


9. See Sichot MaHaran, section 26, where Rav Nachman explains that even forgetting Torah can be positive: when you learn it anew the joy is as if it were the first time. (return to text)



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