Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 6 May 2023 / 15 Iyar 5783

Celebrating Preparation

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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As the Torah records each of the festivals, a date is provided. Pesach is on the fifteenth day of the first month (Nissan). But for Shavuot, no date is provided. Succot is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei). Instead, the Torah teaches that Shavuot will be the culmination of a seven-week count from the Omer offering (the day after Pesach, the 16th of Nissan). After those seven weeks, the fiftieth day is sanctified as a festival.

In contrast to Pesach and Succot, the Torah does not recount the historical event that is commemorated on this festival. By tradition we know that it commemorates the day of the Lawgiving — mattan Torah. If our exodus from Egypt was on the fifteenth of Nissan, then, according to the description in the Torah, mattan Torah was on or about fifty days later. But was it “on” or was it “about”?

Rabbinic tradition teaches that mattan Torah was on Shabbat. There are two rabbinic traditions regarding the day of the week of the Exodus. According to the Seder Olam, it was on a Friday, whereas according to the Talmud (Shabbat 87b) it was on a Thursday. According to Seder Olam, the Torah was given fifty days after the Exodus, but according to the Talmud, the Torah was given fifty-one days later. In this view, our celebration — fifty days after Pesach — marks not the anniversary of mattan Torah, but the day before the Law-giving!

Now that our calendar has been set, Shavuot always falls out on the sixth of Sivan, but in the Torah ideal, where the month was sanctified by observance of the new moon, this was not always the case. Shavuot could fall on the fifth, sixth or seventh of the month, depending on when the new moon was sighted. If the Torah wanted us to celebrate the anniversary of the Law-giving, it would have provided a set date, just as the Torah did for Pesach and Succot. But it did not. Instead, the Torah teaches that we are to establish a festival on the fiftieth day after the Omer, without consideration of the day of the month.

The day that is elevated to a festival is not the day of the revelation at Sinai, but the final day of counting leading up to that great day. According to accepted Talmudic tradition, the fiftieth day was the day before the Law-giving. Thus, we celebrate our making ourselves worthy of receiving the Torah. This fiftieth day was the day on which the people were ready for their great mission — to be the receivers and bearers of Torah. Even the name of the festival teaches this: Its name does not commemorate a historical event (like Pesach and Succot), but instead is called “Weeks” — after the preparatory counting leading up to the Law-giving.

The event of Sinai itself was not the entirety of the Law-giving. On that day we received only ten of the 613 commandments of the Torah. The rest were taught over a forty-year period. Sinai was an introduction to Torah, which would then be transmitted through Moshe. The purpose of the day was to demonstrate that Hashem can speak to man, and that He had indeed spoken to Moshe. This was made known to us through our own personal experience so that we would receive the whole Torah through Moshe’s transmission with full confidence that it was the word of Hashem. This purpose is explicit in the Torah (Shemot 19:9).

Our celebration of Shavuot is not because Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish nation, but because we were prepared to receive it. As we count the days from the festival of our national birth, we are encouraged to make these days count, so that we celebrate anew our preparedness to receive and bear the Torah.

  • Source: Commentary, Vayikra 23:21

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