Law and Lyrics: The Challenge of Shavuot

Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein, Director of Training and Placement for OTS’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Programs

The events of Shavuot, receiving the Torah and it’s Jewish lifestyle, was probably the most severe “life-change” ever to take place to an entire nation: from eating anything [except a limb from a live animal] to eating only kosher, from working every day to halting on Shabbat and the Holidays, and so much more, this Holiday changed the thinking & behavior of Jews for eternity. In a word, as we say each time a Shabbat or Festival comes to an end;

ברוך…המבדיל בין קדש לחול ובין אור לחשך ובין ישראל לעמים…”

“Blessed are you G-d…who makes distinctions between the holy and the mundane, between light and darkness, between Jews and Non-Jews

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that G-d commanded that never forget the experience at the foot of mount Sinai, challenging us to the following:

רק השמר לך ושמר נפשך מאד פן תשכח את הדברים אשר ראו עיניך ופן יסורו מלבבך כל ימי חייך

והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך:יום אשר עמדת לפני יקוק אלהיך בחרב (דברים ד/ט-י)

But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children, the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb (Devarim 4/9-10.)

Having said that, what precise event at “Chorev”/Sinai do we have to never even think of forgetting?

Two of the most primary Rishonim [ibid] argue on this point;

Rashi claims that the “event” is of secondary importance compared to the content of what was taught there:

אז כשלא תשכחו אותם ותעשום על אמתתם= תחשבו חכמים ונבונים. ואם תעוותו אותם מתוך שכחה=

תחשבו שוטים:

Only then, when you do not forget them, and will [therefore] do them in their proper manner, will you be considered wise and understanding, but if you distort them because of forgetfulness, you will be considered fools.

In a word, according to Rashi, we must never forget the content of the Torah, the manner in which we must do mitzvot and stay away from prohibitions. If we “dare” to forget an important detail or two, we might, G-d forbid distort the Torah. For example, if someone was listening to a class about the prohibition of Chametz on Pesach, but was asleep for part of the time, the results can be disastrous:  when asked by his wife or kids what he learned, he might say; “Well: the Rabbi spoke about Chametz…and eating…and Pesach…so I guess we better get ready to eat Chametz on Pesach!”

Indeed, it’s no wonder that Rashi says that if we forget, “you will be considered fools.” One can “forget” the thunder/lightning/shofar-blowing and all the rest of the tapestry that made up that amazing day at Sinai, but not the content of what was taught.

Precisely what Rashi allows us to “forget” the Ramban forbids! In his opinion, the verse above is indeed speaking precisely not about what G-d said, but rather how G-d said it:

…כי כאשר אמר שנזהר בכל המצות ונשמור החוקים והמשפטים לעשותם, חזר ואמר “רק אני מזהירך מאד להשמר ולשמור עצמך מאד מאד לזכור מאין באו אליך המצות, שלא תשכח מעמד הר סיני מכל הדברים אשר ראו שם עיניך; הקולות’ והלפידים’ את כבודו ואת גדלו, ודבריו אשר שמעת שם מתוך האש, ותודיע כל הדברים אשר ראו עיניך במעמד הנכבד ההוא לבניך ולבני בניך עד עולם. ופירש הטעם כי השם עשה המעמד ההוא, כדי שתלמדו ליראה אותו כל הימים ואת בניכם תלמדון לדורות עולם.

…just like the Torah commands to keep all the commandments, it states “I warn you in every way to remember where all these mitzvot came from; you shall never forget the Sinai experience and all that you saw there; the voices, the smoke, G-d’s presence, the things you heard emanating from the fire, and you shall tell all this to the next generation and further forever. And the reason is given [above]; “that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children” for eternity[1].

According to the Ramban, it’s not the actual Torah and its teachings we “dare” not forget, but rather the experience of receiving them; the thunder and shofar blowing, and more importantly, the experience of G-d speaking to us directly on that day.

Making their difference of opinion tangible, Rashi would probably celebrate Shavuot with classes and personal learning of Torah, while the Ramban would put the emphasis on signing. While each acknowledges the importance of the other, the primary goal, vis-a-vis this mitzvah is like the historic debate between the “Mitnagdim” and “Chasidim“; Rashi would be on the side of the former, with the Ramban on the side of the latter.

This difference of opinion seems to be consistent as these two Rishonim debate over another event that happened on that historic Shavuot at Mount Sinai;

וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר: וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לאֹ שָׁלַח יָדו וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ (שמות כ”ד/י-י”א)

And they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived God, and they ate and drank. (Shemot 24/10-11).

Rashi, consistent with  his point of view, is not surprised that G-d contemplated “to “lay his hand“, i.e.-punish the Jewish people, as eating and drinking when seeing G-d is highly inappropriate:  

לא שלח ידו – מכלל שהיו ראוים להשתלח בהם יד: ויחזו את האלהים – היו מסתכלין בו בלב גס מתוך אכילה ושתיה.

He did not lay His hand: This indicates that they deserved that a hand be laid upon them. They gazed at Him;  with levity, while [they were] eating and drinking.

According to Rashi, this experience should have led the Jewish people to open a tractate of Talmud or learn a chapter of the Bible. But surely not to celebrate with eating and drinking.

Not surprisingly, this is exactly what the Ramban…praises:

וטעם “וישתו “- שעשו שמחה ויום טוב, כי כן חובה לשמוח בקבלת התורה…,וכתיב בשלמה…”ויבא ירושלם ויעש משתה לכל עבדיו” (מ”א ג טו), ואמר רבי אלעזר מכאן שעושין משתה לגמרה של תורה (שהש”ר א ט) …. ואף כאן ביום חתונת התורה כן עשו.

they drank“- they made a true “simcha” and holiday, as this is indeed the obligation to be happy when one receives the Torah…and it’s says regarding Shlomo the king…”and they came to Jerusalem and he threw a party for all his subjects” [Kings 1/3/15], and said R’ Elazar; from here we learn the obligation to throw a part when one finishes the Torah [Shir Hashirim Raba 1/9]…and so too here when they were married to the Torah they did the same.

While Rashi emphasizes the need to stimulate the intellect/brain in the service of G-d in general, and in fulfilling the command not to forget the Sinai experience in particular, the Ramban believes that the more important fiber of being in eternalizing this event is the heart, the emotions we can stimulate. While Rashi would probably encourage his children and grandchildren to say divrei-Torah at the Shabbat and Yom Tov table, the Ramban would probably encourage the singing.

So who’s right? While both of the above, I assume, did both, which should get the higher “dosage”?

Perhaps this quote from the Maharsha can answers our question; the Maharsha [R’ Shemuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidels, 1555-1631] authored two different interoperations on the Talmud: one of the Judicial/Halachic parts, and the other on the philosophical portions [bka the Aggadic parts.] In his introduction to the former, he choose to….berate himself for this very distinction/for his own work in writing not one but two different interpretations;

-… ובאמת הנני רואה עתה מחכמי התלמוד שעשו חבור אחד מהלכות ואגדות, כי תורה אחת היא לנו…. וע”כ, תהיתי על הראשונות שחלקתי חבור הזה לבחלקים דהיינו חלק אחד מחדושי אגדות

שמן הראוי שלא להפרידן אך לחברן אשה אל אחותה. אבל לי לא היה אפשר בחזרה לחברו שוב חבור אחד מפני הטורח, וע”כ הנני מבקש מאת כל מעיין שישים לבו לזאת גם מהיום שעשיתיו שני חלקים לא יהיה מפריד אותם מלעיין בשניהם … ויהיו שניהם תמים יחדו.(הקדמת המהרש”א לחידושי הלכות)

….in truth, I now see the wisdom of the Talmud that created ONE interpretation from both the legal parts of the Talmud and the Aggadic parts, as our Torah is one for us…and therefore it was strange that I’ve originally divided my own into two parts, namely one part that is my insights on the Aggadic parts, as it’s worthy not to divide them, but rather intertwine them! But I can’t now re-write it, because of the trouble involved. Therefore, I ask anyone who studies them that they should pay attention to this, that even though I made them into two parts, don’t divide between them, but rather see them both,…and together they will be 1 unit. (Introduction of the Maharsha to his insights on Halacha of the Talmud.)

As you can see, the Maharsha, after the fact, felt bad that he divided between the brain and heart, between the intellect and the emotion, as the Talmud itself didn’t divide between them, but saw them both as part-and-parcel of the Jewish experience of both learning and fulfilling the Torah. Therefore, if the Maharsha himself felt that both Rashi [intellect] & the Ramban [emotion] are two part of one whole, berating his own book for making a distinction between them, believe all the more so we, as Jews, parents, educators and more must give equal dosage to both the importance of learning, as well the prominence of singing, giving both the proper thought and investment of time be it in our homes, educational institutions and….our Shavuot Yom Tov table.

In a word, on the day we received the Torah at Sinai, let’s insure that we “dare” not forget it by both learning it as well as eating/drinking/singing in thanks for living a lifestyle in accordance with its teachings.  

[1]  See also the words of the Ramban [Glosses on the Book of Mitzvot  of the Rambam, Mitzvot the Rambam “forgot” # 2]; “…the second Mitzva that the Rambam didn’t bring in his count- that we never forget the Sinai experience and never take it out of our minds, but rather his eyes and heart should be there forever as it’s written; ” But beware and watch yourself very well…”



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