Why Do We Celebrate the Torah on Simchat Torah and Not Shavout?
Why do we complete the reading of the Torah and celebrate it on Simchat Torah and not on Shavuot when we received the Torah? Wouldn’t Shavuot make much more sense? What does Sukkot have to do with the Torah?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for raising the basic issue. The one-line answer to your query is that although we first received the Torah on Shavuot – the date of the Revelation at Sinai – we lost the Torah we received on that occasion. Right after the Revelation (at which Israel heard the Ten Commandments), Moses ascended to Mount Sinai for 40 days to receive the entire Torah from God. He returned to the camp at the end of 40 days with the Tablets, only to see a small fraction of the nation dancing around a Golden Calf. (Thought only 3000 participated in the actual sin, most of the nation was far too tolerant of the grisly affair, making them not only unworthy of the Torah but deserving of destruction.) Moses smashed the Tablets (which actually saved the nation from destruction, as this severed – at least temporarily – Israel’s special connection with Hashem). He then spent the next 40 days beseeching God to spare Israel and a third 40 days atop Mount Sinai, re-receiving the Torah from God. He at last descended to a penitent nation with the Second Tablets. The day this occurred was Yom Kippur – a days of repentance and reconciliation with God for all generations. (See Talmud Ta’anit 30b with Rashi.)
This explains why we do not complete or celebrate the Torah on Shavuot. Tragically, we lost the Torah we received on that day – as well as our original covenant with God. Even so, Shavuot is a celebration and a joyous holiday in its own way. The experience of coming close to God at Sinai and becoming His special nation had a lasting effect on us, even though we did not live up to it at the time. We merited, on a national scale, the closest, most intimate connection with God possible to man. And the impact upon us was eternal, even if the Torah itself we received at the time was lost. Indeed, the Talmud (Brachot 8b) points out that the broken pieces of the First Tablets were preserved – and placed within the Ark of the Covenant right next to the second ones. The Talmud (Eiruvin 54a) further teaches us that had we not lost the First Tablets, we would have never been able to forget any Torah we would study – so powerfully the experience of Sinai had been etched onto our minds.
We therefore celebrate Shavuot until this day, commemorating the earthshattering, majestic event of the Revelation at Sinai. But we don’t celebrate the Torah on that day. In fact, during the entire holiday of Shavuot, we do not so much as ask ourselves if we’re keeping the Torah we received. We relate to the awe-inspiring experience of coming before God at Sinai – but not to the Torah we were given at it. That Torah was lost, and so we were left with a momentous experience but without its most significant element.
This is the role of Simchat Torah. As above, we re-received the Torah on Yom Kippur. That day is the culmination of the High Holiday season – in which we repent and introspect, asking ourselves if we are observing the Torah we received on that day. When we think about it, that is the most fitting way to commemorate our receiving of the Torah from God.
Immediately after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot. One of the major themes of that holiday is celebrating our newfound closeness with God, which we have just earned with our repentance on the High Holidays. We now dwell together with God in our Sukkah.
Sukkot itself culminates in Simchat Torah, a special celebration between just us, the Children of Israel, and God. (Sukkot itself has a more universal aspect to it, being a time in which we invoke God’s mercy on the nations of the world as well. See this article for further details.) On this occasion – the culmination of the entire High Holiday season – we celebrate our special relationship with God with the special gift He granted Israel alone – the Torah that we had just received on Yom Kippur. At this time we complete and restart the Torah, dancing with it in celebration. Furthermore, we see to it that every person, great and small, is called to the Torah for an aliyah (public reading) and is given the opportunity to dance with it. For unlike on Shavuot, when we admire from afar the Torah we did not merit, the Torah of Simchat Torah belongs to each and every one of us.