Shavuot: Where’s my Place?Rabbi Grunstein

Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein
Director of Training and Placement, Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Programs


On the [first[1]] day of Shavuot, the public Torah Reading is taken from Chapters 19-20 in the book of Shemot, talking about the events preceding and following the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai at that time[2].

And now what?

While certain commandments are a bit harder than others to try and figure out, the above obligation seems to be rather obvious and natural: we read of the events of that day at Sinai, as this Holiday is indeed the one on which it happened. As we reiterate in our silent and public Amida throughout the Holiday[3]:

ותתן לנו…..את יום חג השבועות הזה, זמן מתן תורתינו

And you have given us….this Holiday of Shavuot, the time of the Giving of the Torah.

However, when reading these two chapters in the Bible, one can’t but notice that the majority of the Torah reading is not devoted to the actual Torah and its Mitzvot; while we read a subtotal of 48 verses, only 13/48 verses [Shemot 20/2-14] describe the 10 commandments, the actual giving of the Torah[4], with just a mere 3 verses [ibid 16, 18-19] describing the scene with the Thunder/Lightning/Shofar blowing etc.

The vast majority of this Torah reading is devoted to one topic – the reaction of the Jewish people to this one-time event[5]:

  • How the people relate to G-d’s offer that they become a holy nation and thus totally revamp their lifestyle to a halachik one, based on the dictates of Jewish law [Ibid 19/3-8.]
  • The preparations of the Jewish people towards the event [ibid 10-11, 14-15.]
  • Where each and every Jew should stand and did stand around the mountain [ibid 12-13, 17, 21-25, 20/18]
  • The reaction of the Jewish people, one of profound awe and fear to the above event [ibid 20/15-17,] and G-d’s response [19-23].

Based on the above, I believe that the message we are left with, with this Torah reading being such an integral part of our Shavuot experience[6], is that the most vital ingredient in having the Torah is not its holiness and uniqueness per-se, but rather…. the Jewish people. Without the Jewish people standing there, willing to learn and keep the Torah, its teachings and values have absolutely no real, tangible relevance, not within our community and not outside of it.  As Ester said to Mordechai, when the former suggested the famous three-day fast prior to her entering the Chamber of Ahashverosh unannounced [Ester 4, 15-17] which would obligate the Jews to fast on none other than Pesach[7], a day in which we are both forbidden to fast[8]  and obligated to eat Matza[9]:

אמר לה מרדכי; “והלא יום שלישי הוא יום ראשון של פסח?” אמרה לו… “ואם אין ישראל לעשות הפסח למי הוא פסח? (פרקי דרבי אליעזר היגר, “חורב” פרק מט)

Mordechai said [to Ester]; “But won’t the third day [of this 3 day fast] be the first day of Pesach?” She said to him….”If there is no Israel to fulfill the laws of Pesach, for whom will there be Pesach?(Pirkei Derabi Eliezer, Chorev edition, chapter 49, d”h Ish Yehudi Haya.)

The Jewish people are the ones who will ensure that the Torah will be relevant and alive in this world; without the Jewish people, there will be no relevance of the Torah on this earth.

Thus, just a second after the above Sinai experience, G-d commands as follows: 

לֹא תִגַּע בּוֹ יָד כִּי סָקוֹל יִסָּקֵל אוֹ יָרֹה יִיָּרֶה אִם בְּהֵמָה אִם אִישׁ לֹא יִחְיֶה בִּמְשֹׁךְ הַיֹּבֵל הֵמָּה יַעֲלוּ בָהָר (שמות י”ט/י”ג)

Don’t allow a hand to touch [Mount Sinai], he [who does] will be stoned or shot down, be it man or beast, he will not live! [But] when you hear the [final] Shofar blow, you can [even] come up to the mountain (Shemot 19/13).

The Rabbis explain:

שכן מצינו בהר סיני שכל זמן שהשכינה שרויה עליו – אמרה תורה “גם הצאן והבקר אל ירעו אל מול ההר ההוא”!, נסתלקה שכינה ממנו – אמרה תורה [שמות י”ט] “במשך היבל המה יעלו בהר”.  (תענית דף כא עמוד ב)

 For as long as G-d holy presence was on Mount Sinai, the Torah said “Even the cattle can’t graze on it!” But once G-d’s presence is no longer there, the Torah said “when you hear the [final] Shofar blow, you can [even] come up to the mountain!” (Tractate Taanit 21b)

To this day, there is absolutely no sanctity to that mountain.  It is very clear that G-d didn’t want the Jewish people making a shrine out of Mount Sinai as to not, G-d forbid, have a situation that we leave the Torah there, and perhaps make a pilgrimage there from time to time.  Quite the contrary; G-d commanded that, following these events, we should שובו לכם לאהליכם”/Return to your Tents” [Devarim 5/27], take the Torah back home with each and every one you, ensure that it has a place in each and every tent!

Therefore, the message of this rabbinic law, as we emerge from the synagogue on [the first day of] Shavuot is that the Torah is not meant for the “exclusive club” of Moshe/ Aharon/ Rabbis/ Scholars only. It’s meant for exactly the way we finish each and every silent Amida [Rama, Code of Jewish Law, 123/1]: 

יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אלוהינו ואלוהי אבותינו, שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו ותן חלקינו בתורתך!

May it be your will, My G-d and G-d of my ancestors, that the Temple be rebuilt speedily, and may we receive our unique portion in the Torah!

We learn from the Torah reading that we each have our portion in the Torah; without us, the Torah would be confined to the Ark in the synagogue.  May we live up to this message and ensure that the Torah not be locked up in the Ark, but learnt and kept by every single Jew, in every single home, for eternity.


[1] See Tractate Megilla 31a as to the Torah reading in the Diaspora when there are two days, and how this is practiced today in the Code of Jewish Law, OC 494/2.

[2]  Code of Jewish Law, OC, 494/1.

[3]  Ibid.

[4] Indeed, see the Sefer HaMitzvot LaRasag/“Book of Mitzvot”, the list of Mitzvot according to Rav Saadaya Gaon, who divided the entirety of the 613 commandments into 10 subcategories of the 10 commandments, suggesting that each of the 613 are subsumed under 1 of these 10.

[5] While the Talmud suggests [Tractate Shabbat 88a] that the Torah was again “re-accepted” at the time of the miracle of Purim, this event of G-d revealing himself to the Jewish people, via thunder, lightning, fire, shofar blowing etc’ at Sinai was never repeated again.

[6] i.e.- being both a fulfillment of the enactment of the Rabbis, enacted by Moshe, to read about the Laws of the Holiday on the Holiday [Tractate Megilla 32a, Rambam’s Code, Laws of Tefilla and Nesiat Kapayim 13/8,] and the fanfare of the customs surrounding this Torah reading [such as preceding it with the reading of the “Akdamut” poem [Mishna Berura 494/2,] and more.

[7] Tractate Megilla 16a

[8] Rambam’s Code, Laws of Yom Tov, 6/17, Code of Jewish Law, OC, 268/1,8 together with ibid 529/1.  See also Code, ibid, 288/1 that forbids even a minor fast, just from Dawn past midday.

[9] Code, ibid, 475.

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