Shavuot: Zeman Mattan Torateinu?

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Matt Lubin

When it comes to the holiday of Shavuot, few questions are as famous as the one posed by Magen Avraham (494:1) on the problem of associating the holiday with the date of the Sinai revelation, the giving of the Torah. Based on his reading of a talmudic discussion in Shabbat (86b), the author of Magen Avraham, R. Avraham Gombiner, believes that the accepted opinion is that historically, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai occurred not on the holiday of Shavuot, which is the sixth day of the third month (Sivan), but on the seventh day. Even more troublingly, if we accept both Talmudic statements in that section that the historic Exodus from Egypt occurred on a Wednesday night, yet “all agree that [the Torah] was given on Shabbat,” then no matter what the date was the Torah must have been given fifty-one days after the first of Pesach, instead of the fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot mandated by the counting of the Omer. Thus, whether we are following the calendar date or counting a set amount of days from Pesach, the holiday of Shavuot does not coincide with the giving of the Torah.

Solutions to this double-question can be found in sources as varied as the philosophical sermons of R. Jacob Anatoli, (predating Magen Avraham by several centuries)[1] to the halakhic commentary of R. Yonatan Eybeschütz on the laws of menstrual purity.[2] Like the question of R. Yosef Karo regarding the eight days of Chanukah, this problem raised by R. Avraham Gombiner has spawned enough responses to fill an entire book.[3] Instead of focusing on the issue of the date of Shavuot, however, I would like to highlight what seems to me an even more glaring problem, which is side-stepped by the comment of Magen Avraham: why is Shavuot associated with the giving of the Torah at all? The difficulty of determining the date of the Sinai revelation only underscores the Torah’s mysterious silence in making any connection between the giving of the Torah and the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot is unique among the shalosh regalim in its biblical presentation: although Pesach and Sukkot are linked to the annual agricultural cycle, they also serve as monuments to events in Israel’s historical origins. The holiday of Shavuot, however, is described purely as a celebration of the harvest, and unlike the other holidays, is not said to commemorate any historical event. Yet, contemporary celebrations of the holiday of Shavuot–from the prayer book’s designating it as “zeman mattan torateinu” [the time of the giving of our Torah] to the recent but widespread custom for communities to engage in late-night Torah study–center around a theme which is entirely absent from the Torah’s discussion of the holiday, and is not even mentioned explicitly in rabbinic literature until the Talmud (Pesahim 68b). The gap between the Torah’s focus and today’s practices presents us with a twofold question: firstly, why would the all-important date of the Sinai revelation, “the day on which you stood before Hashem your God at Horeb” about which the Torah says to “guard yourself well lest you forget” (Deuteronomy 4:9-10) not be commemorated through a yearly holiday? Second, even assuming that this event really did happen on the date of Shavuot, what motivated the rabbis to celebrate it as such when the Torah itself does not?

As with the question of Magen Avraham regarding the dating of revelation, commentators have not ignored the conspicuous biblical absence of any holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, Shavuot or otherwise. Abarbanel (to LeviticusLeviticus 23) writes emphatically that the holiday of Shavuot is to be understood as a harvest celebration, and that the Torah pointedly does not command a holiday celebrating its own revelation. His explanation for this lacuna, “because the divine Torah which was in our possession and the prophec(ies) still in our possession are witnesses to themselves and do not need the dedication of a day to remember them,” is somewhat cryptic, but appears to be similar to a passage in Akeidat Yitzhak (LeviticusLeviticus no. 67) by Abarbanel’s older contemporary, R. Yitzhak Arama. R. Arama provides two answers to the question of why no holiday is identified with the giving of the Torah. First of all, such an obligation would be logically incoherent; “how could the Torah command that we celebrate the day of its giving and its beginning if we are not [yet] required to obey it, unless this was already accepted as a prior truth?” Just as many medieval rabbis were opposed to counting “belief in God” as one of the 613 mitzvot because it is already presupposed by the entire enterprise of the commandments,[4] any obligation to celebrate the giving of the Torah presupposes the Torah’s having been given.

A second answer given by R. Arama as to why there is no holiday for the giving of the Torah is that “its acceptance is not [limited] to a specific time… every day we are commanded that [the Torah and its laws] should be as new and dear to our eyes as the day when it was given.” Many others have expressed similar ideas to explain the lack of biblical references to a holiday commemorating the day the Torah was given to Israel.[5] An entirely different approach is taken by R. Ovadiah Seforno (to LeviticusLeviticus 23:36), who writes that there is no such holiday because the first ceremony at Sinai was essentially undone by the calamity of the golden calf. Why celebrate the giving of tablets that were shattered, a covenant that did not last? Yet another explanation is offered by Maharal (Gevurot Hashem Ch. 27), who writes that it would be inappropriate for God to obligate rejoicing at receiving “a yoke upon our necks,” and so did not make the Shavuot-Torah connection explicit.

Some of these explanations for the biblical absence of a holiday for mattan Torah only exacerbate an opposite problem: if the Torah says nothing about commemorating the Torah’s revelation, why would we? After all, Abarbanel insists that if we are to read the Torah closely, we should in fact not observe Shavuot as a holiday of the giving of the Torah![6] The opinions of the other commentators, however, can perhaps explain not only why the Torah ignores the holiday of mattan Torah, but also why contemporary Judaism does celebrate Shavuot as such a holiday. If the reason for this biblical omission is as Maharal writes (that it would simply be inappropriate for the Torah to command such a celebration), it is reasonable to suggest that the rabbis and Jewish people are at liberty and perhaps even encouraged to initiate such a holiday on their own in appreciation of the Torah. This explanation is given by R. Moshe Sofer (Hatam Sofer, “Torat Moshe” to Parashat Va-Yehi) not only to the ‘invention’ of Shavuot as the holiday of the Torah, but also to the much newer custom of celebrating when a child becomes a “bar mitzvah.” Although there is no biblical obligation to celebrate this occasion, that is due to the fact that the Torah cannot require a person to rejoice at being subjected to obligations, but we as subjects can and should voluntarily express our appreciation for that fact. Hatam Sofer even goes so far as to say that our current perspective on Shavuot is loftier, more ideal than the mere material rejoicing of the harvest which the Torah prescribes for that day, the exact opposite perspective from that of Abarbanel.

Other opinions referenced above as to why the Torah says nothing about Shavuot’s historical origins can still account for how the holiday has become centered around what is not mentioned in the Torah at all. R. Moshe Alshich (to Leviticus 23:6) and R. Zadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Pesah no. 5) both believe, like Seforno, that the Torah records no holiday for the giving of the tablets and the covenant they embody because Israel’s sin turned this joyous event into a tragedy. Nevertheless, Alshich explains that because God Himself was ready to give the Torah on this day,[7] He essentially provides another chance each year to accept the Torah anew, and R. Zadok alludes to a similar idea. If we accept the message of R. Arama that every day one should consider it as if receiving the Torah anew, perhaps we can explain that although the Torah as written represents such an ideal, in practice we would appreciate the Torah more if we designate a holiday celebrating its revelation. This would be in line with a trend of some commentators who see some laws of the ‘Oral Torah’ which appear to deviate from the ‘Written Torah’ as translating an ideal into how it is manifest practically.[8]

Despite the dearth of biblical textual evidence, numerous apocryphal works surviving from the Second Temple period and succeeding centuries attest to an ancient tradition connecting Sinai with the holiday of Shavuot.[9] Given this evidence for such a tradition, it is somewhat surprising that in no place does the Mishnah  recognize the Shavuot holiday as a celebration of Sinai.[10] In fact, the Mishnah (Taanit 4:8) appears to identify the day of mattan Torah as being on Yom Kippur (see R. Ovadiah Bartenoro ad. loc.), and the Tosefta contains only a single reference (Megillah 3:3) indicating that the rabbis were even aware of such a tradition. Before the closing of Mishnaic canon, the rabbis were essentially silent on the holiday that so engrossed their contemporaries, and said nothing about the many rich traditions regarding Shavuot’s historical meaning. Such silence indicates that, as Abarbanel insists, the Mishnaic rabbis too thought that the Torah does not actually intend for us to commemorate the occasion of its revelation. If so, what caused this change among rabbinic Judaism to the extent that today the mattan Torah tradition is the center focus of our Shavuot experience?

All of the explanations quoted earlier for the Torah’s lack of any holiday celebrating mattan Torah are, seemingly, equally relevant at all times throughout Jewish history. Whether the reason is due to Israel’s having sinned and forfeited the Torah given on this day, or that celebrating mattan Torah as an annual holiday is in some way inappropriate, this would be true whether considering a holiday one year after Sinai or a thousand years later. Yet, the passage in Magen Avraham quoted at the opening of this essay appears to entertain the possibility that Shavuot can only be considered zeman mattan Torateinu when it falls out on the correct date, implying that in earlier times when it could have coincided with either the fifth, sixth, or seventh of Sivan, Shavuot was not, in fact, associated with mattan Torah. Ribash (Shu”T Ribash, 96 referenced in Magen Avraham) does indeed posit such a view, writing that it is only now that we use a fixed calendar that we can refer to Shavuot as zeman mattan Torateinu.[11] Ribash definitely indicates that for as long as the new months were determined by witness testimony, the holiday was not associated with any historical event. R. Yechezkel Landau (Tz.L.H. to Pesahim 67a) rejects this possibility due to evidence that even before the rabbinic calendar was fixed, the talmudic sages considered Shavuot to be zeman mattan Torah, but he seems to have no difficulty with the essential claim that it was only in a much later era that Shavuot took on this meaning as the major focus of the holiday.

Proposing that there might have been such a dramatic change in how to celebrate Shavuot may sound like a radical suggestion, but understanding why this transformation took place could provide an explanation for the Written Torah’s omission of Shavuot’s Sinai connection while also explaining why the talmud and our prayer book place this at the center of the holiday.[12] To that end, I would like to build upon an idea from the recently deceased R. Leib Mintzberg,[13] a Haredi thinker whose works connecting close readings of biblical texts to Jewish thought deserve a wider audience.[14] In order to explain the connection between Shavuot as described in the Torah and Shavuot as it is observed today, R. Mintzberg contends that the Torah presents the holiday as a celebration of the land given by God, which in turn was given to Israel “in order that they keep His statutes and guard His teachings” (Psalms 105:44). Elaborating upon this core idea that Shavuot is the holiday of the Land can perhaps better allow for coherence between  the Shavuot holiday’s different iterations.

Prima facie, it is not obvious why Shavuot should be a time of celebration for the God-given land any more than the other two pilgrimage festivals, as all three of them are associated with the yearly agricultural cycle. Pesach is the spring holiday, marking the ripening of the grain, then comes Shavuot celebrating the harvest, and finally Sukkot marks the ingathering, the joyous conclusion of the harvesting process when the storehouses are full. However, a closer look at the Torah’s description of Shavuot and its context (Leviticus 23) indicates that, unlike the other two holidays, which signal the beginning and end of the harvest, Shavuot is more of a celebration of the actual harvesting process and thus more closely tied to the land than any other holiday. Instead of starting with the date and delineating the laws of the festival as it does for the other holidays, the Torah’s presentation of Shavuot begins with the farmer in the field, “when you come to the land which I give to you and reap its harvest, you shall bring an ‘omer, the first of your reapings, to the kohen” (23:10). Thus commences the sacrifice which triggers the forty-nine day count, culminating with the fiftieth day, on which “from your settlements you shall bring waving loaves,” (23:17) the bread offering and its associated animal sacrifices.

The ‘omer count of seven weeks of seven days is concurrent with the actual harvest itself, and so the impression made by the Torah is that the entire counting and its festival finale of Shavuot are celebrations meant to transform the harvesting process into a semi-religious ritual. By counting the fifty days from one grain offering to another the message is reinforced that by reaping what he has sown, the Israelite is not enjoying the fruits of an agricultural product, but he is collecting what is being given to Him by God, through His land. As the Shema passages remind us twice a day, the land will allow you “to gather your grain, oil, and wine” only if “you listen to My commands” (Deuteronomy 12:12). So much of Tanakh reemphasizes this link between the land’s bounty and loyalty to God. It therefore seems reasonable to say that while all of the holidays enjoin the Israelite to remember and thank God at key agricultural intervals, it is only during the holiday of Shavuot, at the time of harvesting process itself, that working the land is itself seen as an expression of Israel’s continued relationship with God. It is in the context of Shavuot that the Torah reminds the farmer, “when you reap the harvest of your land do not consume the corners of your field as you harvest, nor gather your harvest’s gatherings; for the poor and the stranger abandon them–I am the Lord Your God” (23:22). The entire harvest is an encounter with the product of God’s blessing, and so with every swing of the sickle one is reminded of the duty due to the source of this bounty.

Perhaps no biblical story better reflects this relationship with God and the land’s harvest than the account of Ruth. Abudraham writes that the book of Ruth is traditionally read on Shavuot because it takes place during this time of year, but “the time of the harvest” is much more than the story’s seasonal context; it is the conduit through which the characters interact with God. Naomi’s family abandons the land at a time when its bounty is blocked by famine, but by deserting the divine land God responds in kind, leaving the women bereft of their husbands. When Ruth collects her share of grain, Boaz blesses her that “God repay your efforts and your wages be paid in full by the God of Israel” (Ruth 2:12), and when the crop is brought to Naomi, she blesses God for the news. Ruth’s personal dedication to the God of Israel is answered by Him with a plentiful harvest, a sign that He will indeed repay her for her losses with the family she deserves. It is the land’s harvest which speaks for God’s providence; the drama of Ruth’s integration into the tribes of Israel takes place amongst the grain (3:7) and is tied to the redemption of land (4:3).

All of this–when Israel was living on its land, each tribal family recognizing its ancestral plot, and the Temple and its kohanim awaited the grain harvest. With the desolation of the land and the exile of its people, Pesach could still be celebrated as the festival of Exodus, and Sukkot can continue to commemorate the divinely guided encampments through the wilderness, but what of Shavuot? How could we reap the harvest of God on foreign land? Israel’s relationship with God continued through the exile, but surely it took a new form, one unanchored from the land itself and its agricultural cycles. Only the Jew of the land can live all the laws of the Torah, but no matter where he is, the Jew can always learn the laws of the Torah.[15] Through this transformation, the ancient tradition regarding the holiday of Shavuot was ready to be dusted off by the sages of the era to breathe new life into the harvest festival. This would not have happened immediately after the Second Temple’s destruction; instead, slowly, as the national center moved from Judea to Babylonia, the theme of Shavuot would be refocused. The holiday which was always a celebration of God’s continued dialogue with His people, a rejoicing at encountering God out in the fields and on the threshing floor, became instead a holiday celebrating the new-but-timeless continued encounter with God through His original revelation at Sinai.[16]

Something is surely lost when a celebration of the present becomes focused on the past, but if this understanding is correct, Shavuot recognizes the events at Sinai not so much as a historical past, but as a “great sound which does not cease” (Deuteronomy 5:19), the way in which we continue to hear God’s voice in the present. The primary, ideal form of this continuous encounter with God as described in the Torah is through living in the land “which your God’s eyes are always upon it” (Deuteronomy 11:12), but there was always another vehicle for this relationship: the Torah. Shavuot is indeed zeman mattan torateinu, because when God gave Israel the Torah, He provided them with a way to continue to hear His voice, to perpetually probe His words and deepen their relationship with God regardless of where they were dwelling and how many commandments they would be able to put into practice. Just as the original Shavuot involved a sacrifice honoring a relationship that was not specific to this one day, but represented the culmination of a harvesting process lasting a full season, our holiday of Sinai is an annual recognition of an event whose relevance continues throughout the year and in every generation.

[1] Malmad ha-Talmidim, “Sermon for the Day of the Giving of the Torah. 

[2] Kreiti to Shulhan Arukh: Yoreh De’ah 182:4.

[3] Rachmiel Zelcer, Ner Le-Meah: Hag ha-Shavuot (Brooklyn, 1981).

[4] See Ramban, Hasagot le-Sefer ha-Mitzvot shel Rambam, Aseh 1, and R. Hasdai Crescas, Ohr Adonai, preface.

[5] R. Moshe di Trani, Beit Elohim, “Sha’ar ha-Yesodot,”  Ch. 37; R. Shelomo Ephraim Luntschitz, Kli Yakar to Leviticus 23:16; R. Joseph Shaul Nathanson, Divrei Shaul to Leviticus 23:16; R. Yehiel Mikhel Epstein, Arukh Hashulhan, Orah Hayyim 494:2.

[6] Shlomo Pick, Mo’adei HaRav (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2013), 159 ascribes to R. Soloveitchik the idea that Shavuot should indeed not be thought of primarily as the day of mattan Torah, and therefore during the Torah reading, the Decalogue should be read as broken up by the pesukim, as if it were any other passage, and not broken up into ten segments (the ta’am ‘elyon). However, see R. Zvi Schachter, Mi-Penini Harav (Jerusalem: Beit Midrash deFlatbush, 2001), 300-302, Nefesh Harav (Jerusalem: Reishit Yerushalayim, 1994), 293-4, and R. Michael Shurkin, Harerei Kedem vol. 2 (Jerusalem: 2010), 250.

[7] Many commentators emphasize God’s readiness to give the Torah, instead of the day it was actually revealed, as the primary “zeman mattan Torateinu,” in order to answer the question of Magen Avraham mentioned earlier. See Kedushat Levi, “Shavuot;” Shem Mi-Shmuel, “Parashat Emor;” R. Samson Raphael Hirsch to Leviticus 23.

[8] For one well-known example, see Rambam, Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Hovel u-Mazik 1:1; R. Ovadiah Seforno to Exodus 21:24; Maharal, Gur Aryeh to Leviticus 24:20.

[9] Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (New York, 2008).

[10] Rachel Elior, “The Disappearing Holiday of Shavuot,” [Hebrew] in “Vezot Li-Yehudah: Collection of Articles Dedicated to Our Friend Yehudah Liebes” (Mosad Bialik: 2012), 70-92.

[11] Ribash’s view also seems to be shared by R. Yom Tov al-Asevilli (or “Ritva”), Hidushei ha-Ritva to Shabbat 87b.

[12] To be clear, I am not suggesting that the rabbis “invented” the connection between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah, only explaining why what was previously known but not worth celebrating later became the focal point of a biblical festival.

[13] Ben Melekh: Sefirat ha-’Omer ve-Hag Shavuot, p. 127.

[14] An example similar to the one presented here (in that it deals with another discrepancy between the Torah’s description of a holiday and how it is celebrated in practice) can be found in Ben Melekh: Hag ha-Matzot, p. 37-47.

[15] This is not the place to elaborate upon changes to Judaism with the destruction of the temple, but for one Rosh Yeshiva’s take on the matter see R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet Le-Yaakov to Exodus 12:2.

[16] See also R. Yehoshua ibn Shu’eib, Dershot Ri ibn Shu’eib, “Sermon for Shavuot” who writes that the holiday of Shavuot was sanctified independently of the giving of the Torah, and implies that this event is merely one expression of the holiday’s central meaning.

Matt Lubin is a semikhah student in RIETS and a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University.