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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Shavuot: Celebrating Human Responsibility and Involvement in the giving and receiving of the Torah

The Torah's treatment of Chag ha-Shavuot relative to its presentation of the other festivals is absolutely unique. Shavuot is the only one of the holidays that is not given a traditional name connected with a specific theme or salient performance associated with that holiday (like Chag ha-Sukot, Chag ha-Mazot). In parshat Reeh, the Torah does designate the festival as Chag ha-Shavuot (see also the formulation in Pinchas), but does not explicate the significance of this title. Moreover, Shavuot is also the only holiday whose purpose is not explicated. The mesorah, reflected in our tefilah and birkat ha-mazon and keriat ha-Torah, links it with the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, but it is particularly striking that this critical fact is not explicated in the Torah itself. Why would the Torah omit this central theme? Moreover, the gemara (Shabbat 88) records a debate regarding the exact date of mattan Torah. According to the view of R. Yose, the Torah was actually revealed on the seventh of Sivan, a day after Shavuot (See Tosafos Avodah Zara 3a and Magen Avraham Orach Chaim 496; Teshuvos Rivash no. 96)! It is astonishing that the date of gilui Shechinah, the greatest day and climax of human history, is shrouded in some obscurity and subject to debate.

Furthermore, the Torah conveys that Shavuot falls fifty days after the initiation of the counting of the omer, which takes place "mimacharat ha-Shabbat". This intriguing, yet obscure reference sparked a heated debate between the tzedukim and the rabbis. The tzedukim literalists argued that the count always commences on motzai Shabbat; while the mesorah (rabbinic tradition) asserts that this phrase refers to motzai yom tov. Why did the Torah formulate the date of the holiday of Shavuot in a manner that relies exclusively upon rabbinic tradition, practically defying the unvarnished literal text? Why is the very purpose of Shavuot made contingent upon the rabbinic mesorah?

Perhaps the Torah's perspective on Shavuot underscores that the true focal point of Revelation and the giving of the Torah transcends the event and experience itself, and even goes beyond the received content of the Torah. While mattan Torah (the giving of the Torah) was, indeed, pivotal, it was Klal Yisrael's acceptance of the yoke of observance and their anticipated role and involvement in Torah life that was truly unique. The Torah was given with an accompanying mesorah of information and interpretation that ensured and accentuated responsible human participation. In addition, the concepts and principles of Torah law were entrusted to the chachmei ha-mesorah. Their comprehension, analysis and judgment in accordance with the transmitted methodology enabled the halachah to extend its scope across all geographic and temporal boundaries. Thus, the very theme of mattan Torah as the centerpiece of Shavuot is specifically transmitted by means of the oral tradition entrusted to human transmission because it is precisely the human component that singularly characterizes Torah life that is uniquely celebrated on this day. In the same vein, the Torah grounds the timing of Shavuot in the obscure phrase "mimacharat ha-Shabbat", that highlights the need for rabbinic interpretive tradition with all that it implies about the halachic system, to accentuate man's responsible and contributing role.

According to this perspective, the greatest moment of human history, Divine Revelation, is celebrated not merely as a passive albeit awesome experience, but also as the foundational moment for the establishment of a covenant-partnership in which Klal Yisrael would play a crucial function. It is noteworthy that the Yam Shel Shlomo (introduction to Baba Kama) emphasizes that each individual present at this historic and transcendent moment received the Torah according to his own understanding and personality. He argues that this initial personal reception of the Torah was the basis for the concept of eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim chayim, which validates a range of authentic understandings of the mesorah.

The gemara in Pesachim (68b) explains that while generally R. Eliezer rules that one can apply an exclusively spiritual focus (kulo la-Hashem) to yom tov, he acknowledges that Shavuot must include a personal and physical component, "as it is the day in which the Torah was given". This ruling and explanation seems counterintuitive, as one would have anticipated that the awesome Divine Revelation at Sinai would actually more likely underscore the theme of "kulo la-Hashem". However, in light of our analysis, we may posit that Klal Yisrael's role, exhibited and symbolized by the role of gatekeepers of the mesorah and repository and practitioners of Torah she-baal peh, specifically projects the centrality of human input and responsibility. The responsibility to transmit the mesorah faithfully from generation to generation demands exceptional devotion and investment. Moreover, the oral Torah includes not only information but particularly halachic principles and a methodology of their application. This tradition dictates that the Torah can be applied across the ages and in all circumstances by responsible halachists whose contributions constitute a vital part of process and content of Torah.

We noted earlier, the debate surrounding the actual date of mattan Torah. Some sources (Tos. A.Z. 3a) indicate that even according to R. Yose, Shavuot is celebrated on the sixth of Sivan because Hashem was prepared initially to give the Torah that day had not Moshe Rabbeinu prevailed upon Hashem to delay one more day so that Klal Yisrael might be more fully prepared to receive it. The very notion that even someone of the stature of Moshe could and would request a delay of the telos of creation and that Klal Yisrael's state of readiness would justify a postponement seems astonishing at first glance, but is perfectly consistent with the perspective that kabalat ha-Torah, alongside mattan Torah, was an essential dimension in the gilui ha-Shechinah and transmission of the Torah at Sinai. Surely, it is no coincidence that Shavuot's korban shetei halehem, which is projected so prominently in parshat Emor, requires no kemitzah, the component of the minchah generally dedicated exclusively to Hashem. [The fact that this korban consists of chametz is symbolically significant and consistent with this Shavuot theme of "lachem". It also reflects and expresses the dramatic transition from Pesach, perhaps by means of the sefirah process which is also a decisive factor in bridging between Pesach and Shavuot. I hope to speak more extensively about these themes elsewhere.]

The gemara in Pesachim (68b) cited previously records that R. Yosef used to celebrate Shavuot with a lavish feast, declaring that if not for this day and the celebration of mattan and kabbalat ha-Torah, he would not have been able to have made the singular contributions that defined the very uniqueness of his existence ("kamah yosef ika beshuka" ). By means of its intentional obscurity and ambiguity, the Torah's presentation accentuates the indispensable role of mesorah and Torah she-baal peh and thereby dramatically captures the authentic character of the Shavuot celebration.

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