Shavuot: What are we Celebrating?

Rabbi David Brofsky
Senior Faculty, Midreshet Lindenbaum

The Torah teaches that upon completing the count of the Omer, the Festival of Shavuot is celebrated (Deut. 16:9–10).

In addition to commemorating the conclusion of the counting of the weeks of the Omer, Shavuot also celebrates the wheat harvest (Ex. 23:16), and is therefore known as “ag HaKatzir,” the Harvest Festival. The shetei haleem, two leavened loaves made from the new wheat harvest, are offered with the Musaf offering, and the festival is therefore also referred to as “Yom HaBikkurim” (Num. 28:26). This offering permits the use of new grains in the Beit HaMikdash and ushers in the season of the Bikkurim, the first fruits, which are brought to the Beit HaMikdash (Deut. 10:1–11).

In addition to the themes reflected by the Biblical names given to this festival, the Rabbis refer to this festival as “Atzeret” (Rosh HaShana 1:2), seemingly referring to the fact that it marks the conclusion of the Pesacḥ festival. Indeed, the Ramban (Lev. 23:36) asserts that Pesacḥ and Shavuot are comparable to the first and last days of Sukkot and Pesacḥ, and the days between Pesacḥ and Shavuot are actually similar to Ḥol HaMo’ed. The description of Shavuot as “Atzeret” most likely also refers to the religious/historical connection between Pesacḥ and Shavuot – the Jewish people left Egypt on Pesacḥ and received the Torah on Shavuot.

In addition to the agricultural and ritual reasons for Shavuot, we traditionally associate Shavuot with the giving of the Torah. The Rabbis point to the uniqueness of Shavuot, as “it is the day upon which the Torah was given” (Pesacḥim 68b). In addition, the Torah reading of Shavuot (Ex. 19), as recorded by the Tosefta and cited in the Talmud (Megilla 31a), recounts the giving of the Torah. Furthermore, the Shavuot liturgy refers to the day as “Zeman Matan Torateinu” – the day upon which the Torah was given.

Numerous commentators have questioned why this aspect of Shavuot, Matan Torah, which is so central to our Shavuot celebration, is not mentioned in the Torah. In fact, the Talmud cites a debate between the Chakhamim and R. Yosi regarding whether the Torah was given on the sixth or seventh of Sivan (Shabbat 86b). According to R. Yosi’s opinion that Matan Torah took place on the seventh of Sivan, nowadays, when we always celebrate Shavuot on the sixth of Sivan (forty-nine days after the second day of Pesacḥ), we would actually be celebrating Matan Torah on the incorrect day!

These questions brought R. Yitzḥak Abrabanel (1437–1508) to explain as follows in his commentary to the Torah:

The Torah did not specify that the reason for the celebration for this festival is to remember the day of the giving of the Torah, as no festival was assigned to remember the giving of our Torah; because the Divine Torah and its prophecies, which are in our hands testify to themselves, and there is no need to dedicate a day to remember it. Rather, the reason for the Festival of Shavuot is because it is the beginning of the wheat harvest. (Lev. 23)

The Abrabanel does acknowledge that certain mitzvot and halakhot hint to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. For example, the offering of the shetei haleḥem on Shavuot, which are made from leavened wheat, in contrast to Pesacḥ’s omer offering made from barley, indicates the Jewish people’s spiritual poverty before receiving the Torah. He continues:

[Although] there is no doubt that on this day the Torah was given, no festival was designated to remember it, just as you will find regarding Yom Teru’a [Rosh HaShana], upon which we say, “this is the day of the beginning of Your creation, a remembrance for the first day” (Rosh HaShana 27a), and despite this, God did not command that one should observe Rosh HaShana as an anniversary of the creation of the world, rather as a “Yom HaDin” [day of judgment”].

The giving of the Torah is coincidental and secondary to the primary reason for the observance of Shavuot – the wheat harvest.

Others accept that the giving of the Torah plays a central role in the observance of Shavuot, but maintain that it was deliberately not mentioned by the Torah. R. Yitzḥak ben Moshe Arama (c. 1420–1494) offers two reasons for this omission in his commentary to the Torah, the Akeidat Yitzḥak. First, he suggests that like belief in the existence God, the giving of the Torah is so basic to Judaism that there is no reason to dedicate a day to its commemoration. Second, he proposes that the very nature of the Torah precludes designating a day of commemoration. He writes:

The commemoration of the giving of the Torah cannot be limited to a particular time, like other matters connected with the festivals, but it is a precept that applies at all hours and at times, as it is written, “This book of the Law shall not move from your mouth and you shall meditate in it day and night” [Josh. 1:8]. Every day, we are commanded that its contents should remain as fresh and as dear to us as on the day they were given, as it is written, “This day, the Lord your God has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore keep them and do them.” 

In other words, although the Torah may have been given on a specific historical date, we relate to Torah as if it is constantly given to us anew, and it is therefore not restricted or limited to a specific time. Indeed, the Midrash writes:

What is meant by “this day”? Had the Holy One, Blessed be He, not ordained these precepts for Israel till now? Surely this verse was stated in the fortieth year! Why does the Scripture therefore state, “this day”? This is what Moshe meant when he addressed Israel: Every day, let the Torah be as dear to you as if you had received it this day from Mt. Sinai. (Tanḥuma, Parashat Ki Tavo)

This beautiful Midrash emphasizes the timeless nature of Torah, and how marking the anniversary of the giving of the Torah might ultimately reduce or minimize our relationship to the Torah.

Finally, R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843–1921), in his commentary to Leviticus, explains why there are no mitzvot associated with Shavuot:

No symbolic ritual was instituted for Shavuot to mark the Sinaitic Revelation, for the reason that it cannot be translated into the tangible language of symbol. The Children of Israel had been commanded to take heed “that you saw no likeness on the day that the Lord spoke unto you at Ḥorev from the midst of fire,” so as not to become involved in any idolatrous, anthropomorphic conception of the divinity. They were simply bidden to commemorate the historical experience. They would celebrate on the day of the giving of the Law the conclusion of the harvest as well, to give thanks to Him on bringing the first fruits to the Sanctuary and acknowledge that He is the Lord of all, to Whom it was meet to pay homage and Whose commandments they were to obey. By this they would reenact the promise they made on Sinai, “naaseh venishma” [“we shall do and hearken”] [Ex. 24:7].

While it is impossible to commemorate the giving of the Torah with any symbols, we bring God our first fruits, give thanks to Him, and fulfill our promise to Him at Har Sinai – “naaseh ve-nishma.”

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