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Shavuos – A Yom Tov that Transcends the Limits of Time

Rabbi Yona Reiss, cRc Av Beth Din

Shavuos 5781

The Torah teaches us that there are three regalim – three major festivals upon which there is an obligation of aliyah l’regel – to ascend to the Beis Hamikdash and to bring sacrifices (see Shemos 23:14-17, 34:23, and Devorim 16:16).  However, unlike the two holidays of Sukkot and Pesach, which have set calendar dates that are recorded in the Torah, Shavuos stands alone as the one festival that does not actually have a fixed date.  Instead, the Torah informs us (Vayikra 23:9-21) that one should count seven weeks from the bringing of the Omer sacrifice which took place on mi-macharas haShabbos (on the morrow of the Shabbos) and that the fiftieth day will be a festival on which the sacrifice of the shtei ha-lechem (the two leavened loaves from the new crop of grain that grew during the previous year), shall be brought.  The name of this undated festival is Chag Shavuos (Devorim 16:9-10).

The Sages derived through the traditions of the oral Torah (see Menachos 65b-66a) that mi-macharas haSabbos is a reference to the second day of Pesach, the “morrow” of the first day of Pesach.  Thus, the fifty-day count until Shavuos begins on the second day of Pesach and concludes on the first day of Shavuos.  It follows that if the second day of Pesach would fall out, for example, on a Thursday, that Shavuos would similarly fall out on a Thursday (since the second Thursday would be day eight, and the following Thursday would be day fifteen, and so forth, until the eighth Thursday would be day fifty).

We are all familiar with the fact that Chag Shavuos is the day of the giving of the Torah (z’man matan Tora’seinu), as recorded in the prayers recited on Shavuos, and as highlighted by the Talmud (see Pesachim 68b).  However, not only is the specific date of Shavuos not mentioned in the written Torah, but the fact that the Torah was given on Shavuos is omitted as well.  To make matters even more enigmatic, the Talmud (Shabbos 86b) cites a Tannaitic dispute based on different interpretations of the verses in Parshas Yisro as to whether the Torah was given on the sixth day of Sivan (opinion of the Rabbis) or on the seventh day of Sivan (opinion of Rabbi Yosi).

The reality is that prior to there being a fixed calendar, during the period when the new moon would be declared on either day 30 or 31 after the beginning of the previous month, depending on when there was a sighting of the new moon by witnesses, there were three possibilities as to the day in which Shavuos could occur (Rosh Hashanah 6b).  Shavuos could fall out on the fifth day of Sivan if both previous months consisted of 30 days, or on the sixth day of Sivan if only one of the previous months consisted of 30 days, or on the seventh day of Sivan if both previous months consisted of 29 days.  Nowadays, when we have a fixed calendar pursuant to which Nissan always has 30 days and Iyar always has 29 days, Shavuous always falls out on the sixth day of Sivan, subject to the observance in the Diaspora of a second day (referred to as Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyos) on the seventh day of Sivan.

However, the Magen Avrohom (Orach Chaim 494, introduction) notes that the entire calculation does not seem to work with respect to the timing of the very first Shavuos, following the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt on the holiday of Pesach.  First, the Magen Avrohom notes that our observance of Shavuos on the sixth day of Sivan is only consistent with the opinion of the Rabbis that the Torah was given on the sixth day of Sivan, while in other respects we rule in accordance with R. Yosi in terms of the halakhic considerations that led to his opinion (namely, that there was an obligation of husbands and wives to separate from each other for three full days from the time that they had previously been allowed to be together; see Yoreh Deah 196:11).  While the Magen Avrohom resolves this issue by noting that the halakhic practice to follow R. Yosi in this regard might be a rabbinic stringency, in which case the Torah could still have been given on the sixth day of Sivan, the Magen Avrohom notes a much more significant discrepancy.

According to rabbinic tradition (see Shabbos 87b), the day of the Exodus from Egypt was on yom chamishi – a Thursday.  If so, then the day of mi-macharas haShabbos – the second day of Pesach on which the Omer offering was brought, would have been yom shishi – on Friday.  However, the Magen Avrohom points out that we are also taught by rabbinic tradition (Shabbos 86b)) that the Torah was given on Shabbos.  This would not be on the fiftieth day of the count from the second day of Pesach, but rather on the fifty first day!  It follows that Shavuos fell out one day before the Torah was given!  How, then, can we refer to Shavuos as the day of the giving of the Torah?

The Magen Avrohom provides two answers (which could also be read as one answer in two parts) that contribute much insight to the festival of Shavuos: (1) the fact that the Jews of the Diaspora celebrate a second day of Shavuos is a testament to the giving of the Torah on that day (one day after the holiday of Shavuos actually began); (2) the Talmud (Shabbos 87a) relates that Moshe Rabbeinu added an extra day of waiting until the Torah was given, so that while the Torah was scheduled to be given on the fiftieth day of the Omer court (which would have coincided with Shavuos), Moshe Rabbeinu extended the period for one more day based on his own exegetical interpretation (see Shabbos 87a), resulting in the Torah being given on the fifty-first day of the count, one day after Shavuos.  Nonetheless, we celebrate the day of the giving of the Torah on the day of Shavuos when it was originally “intended” to be given.

According to the Magen Avrohom’s first answer (which was quoted from the sefer Asarah Ma’amaros written by the Rema Mi’Panu), it was through the rabbinic innovation of the second day of Shavuos that the true purpose and message of the giving of the Torah is truly fulfilled.  The giving of the Torah requires, as the first Mishna of Pirkei Avos denotes, “asu seyag l’Torah” – building fences around the Torah to ensure that it be properly observed.  The Rabbis (see Beitzah 4b) enacted a second day of holiday observance for Jews in the diaspora who would not always know the date upon which the festivals had been declared in the land of Israel by the Sanhedrin.  However, the Chasam Sofer (1:145) observed that since the date of Shavuos is not observed based on the calendar date but rather based on the count of fifty days, the reality was that the Jews of the Diaspora would surely have known by the time Shavuos came around when the count was supposed to have begun.  Nonetheless, the theme of observing a second day of Yom Tov in the diaspora on all holidays was so important, that even on Shavuos, when the reason for the second day of Yom Tov was not applicable, it was observed to maintain a consistency with the other holidays.  In this sense, the Chasam Sofer explains, referencing the answer of the Magen Avrohom, that it was appropriate for the Torah to have been given a day late to teach the vital lesson of how important it is throughout all the generations to enact guard posts around the Torah to preserve and promote its observance.

The second answer of the Magen Avrohom, which celebrates the power of the Rabbis to teach the Torah based on the hermeneutic principles of interpretation of the Torah, highlights Shavuos as a day of Torah Sheba’al Peh (see Pri Tzadik, Shelach, s.v. v’zeh she’amru) – a day in which we rejoice over the gift of the oral law, which was also handed over at Mount Sinai.  Thus, Moshe “added a day,” but at the same time, Hashem assented to this determination.  According to this explanation, Moshe did not delay the observance of the Shavuos holiday, but he did delay the receiving of the Torah by one day, based on his rabbinic authority to participate in the derivation of the oral law, a privilege and responsibility that would be bequeathed to subsequent generations as well.  This also gives us a better understanding as to why there is a particular custom to study Torah Sheba’al Peh on the night of Shavuos (see Shulchan Aruch HaRav 494:3).

This message is especially pertinent with respect to the timing of Shavuos, because the Tzidukim, who denied the oral tradition, interpreted the phrase mi-macharas haShabbos in its literal sense as meaning “the day after Shabbos,” in which case both the day of the bringing of the Omer offering and the holiday of Shavuos would always fall out on a Sunday, the day after Shabbos.  The Talmud relates that when the Rabbis who were the true transmitters of the Torah tradition vanquished the Tzidukim, exposing the nonsense of their spurious arguments, it was considered a time of great celebration (see Menachos 65a).  It is thus no coincidence that this was also the holiday in which Moshe “added a day” in determining when the Torah was given, because Shavuos represents not only the giving of the Torah, but also the giving of rabbinic authority to interpret the Torah according to the principles of Torah Sheba’al Peh (as opposed to being guided by the literal reading of the Torah Shebichtav, which was the approach of the Tzidukim), which indeed was exercised by Moshe Rabbeinu on Shavuos, one day before the actual giving of the Torah, by adding an extra day based on his exegetical interpretation.

The Maharsha (Avoda Zara 3a, s.v. “yom hashishi”) provides a third answer.  The occurrence of Shavuos one day prior to the day that the Torah was given underscores the critical message that yiras chet kodem l’chochma – that fear of G-d must precede Torah wisdom.  It was on the fiftieth day following the offering of the Omer that the Jewish people became purified of their previous impurities in Egypt and became spiritually eligible to receive the Torah.  According to this answer, there was indeed a manifestation of matan Torah – of the giving of the Torah – on the day of Shavuos itself.  However, this did not consist of the giving of the laws of the Torah, but rather of the instilling a fear and reverence of G-d in the hearts of the Jewish people to prepare us for receiving and learning the Torah.

This answer underscores that the key ingredient that we celebrate on Shavuos is not the words of the Torah itself per se, but rather the fact that Hashem deemed us spiritually worthy to be recipients of His Torah.  This explanation helps to answer the question as to why we say in the dayenu song on the Seder night, “had He brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah, that would have been enough.”  At first glance, this statement is perplexing, because presumably we would not have gained anything had we simply come to Mount Sinai but not received the Torah.  The answer is that the coming to Mount Sinai itself, memorialized by the advent of Shavuos one day before the giving of the Torah, served as an affirmation of our spiritual readiness to come closer to Hashem through our assiduous preparations in readying ourselves to receive the Torah and follow His precepts.  It is that sense of readiness to submit to the Almighty that is the cornerstone of the acceptance of the Torah.  The Kedushas Levi (Bemidbar – Shavuos, s.v. be’Shulchan Aruch) similarly explains that we celebrate the great illumination that was conveyed to us when Hashem decided to give us the Torah on the day of Shavuos, even though (according to this explanation) the Torah was given the following day.

The commentary Chok Yaakov (Orach Chaim 494:1), written by R. Yaakov Lorberbaum, provides a fourth answer, consisting of a more pragmatically minded answer to the Magen Avrohom’s conundrum.  As indicated by the previously cited Gemora (Rosh Hashanah 6b), Shavuos really could fall out on the 5th, 6th, or 7th day of Sivan.  However, nowadays that we have a set calendar, it always falls out on the sixth day.  Thus, the Chok Yaakov posits that since the Torah was really given on the sixth day of Sivan, and nowadays Shavuos always coincides with that calendar date, we therefore refer to Shavuos as the zeman matan Tora’seinu, as the date upon which the Torah was given, because from a practical perspective, it just so happens to work out that way under our current calendar system (see also Rivash 96).

A fifth answer is supplied as well by the Chok Yaakov at an earlier location in his commentary (Orach Chaim 430:2).  The Chok Yaakov notes that notwithstanding his previously supplied answer (which, despite its appearance in the later text of his commentary, was apparently penned first), the book Seder Olam records an alternate version of the day of departure from Egypt as having taken place on a Friday, as opposed to Thursday.  Based on this version, there is no contradiction between the day of Shavuos and the day of the giving of the Torah, because the fiftieth day from the day of the counting of the Omer (the morrow of the Pesach, which would have been on Shabbos) would in fact have fallen out on the Shabbos of the giving of the Torah, coinciding completely with the holiday of Shavuos.

A different version of this answer can be derived from another tradition regarding the day of the week in which the Torah was given.  The Chofetz Chaim cites an explanation in the Mishna Berurah (OC 494:12) that the reason there is a custom to eat dairy on Shavuos is that after the Torah was given, the Jewish people realized that all their meat and dishes were non-kosher and there was insufficient time to slaughter new animals with properly inspected knives, and to remove the blood from the veins of the animals, and then to utilize new dishes to wash, salt and prepare the meat (since the previously used dishes would have all been non-kosher), resulting in the decision to consume dairy after the Torah was given on the day of Shavuos.  The Penai Menachem (the Ger Rebbe) raised the question that the Chafetz Chaim could have explained that it would have been impossible to slaughter animals on that day since the Torah was given on Shabbos and slaughtering is forbidden on Shabbos.  However, incredibly enough, the Chafetz Chaim himself addressed that question in his sefer Likutei Halachos (in the endnotes section to tractate Chulin, published in the year 5688 – circa 1928), explaining that his comment in the Mishna Berurah was according to the opinion of R. Elazar ben Azarya (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 46) who held that the Torah was given on a Friday.  Thus, according to this opinion of R. Elazer ben Azarya cited by the Chafetz Chaim, it can be argued that that the Jewish people left Egypt on a Thursday (as recorded in Shabbos 87b), and received the Torah on a Friday (as recorded in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer), in which case according to this calculation as well the holiday of Shavuos (calculated as the fiftieth day of counting from the day of the bringing of the Omer) would indeed have been on the day of the giving of the Torah itself.

Some commentators add a final thought regarding the question of the actual date of Shavuos.  One of the cornerstones of the Torah is that it is “le-malah min ha-zman” (see, e.g., Meshech Chochma, Bereishis 50:10) – beyond the dimensions of time, and therefore it is important not to circumscribe the Torah with a particular date.  As the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (6:2) states, “every day a voice goes forth from Chorev [Mount Sinai] and states: ‘woe to those who bear the shame of [not learning] Torah’.”  Torah is meant to be received and experienced each day – this is the true z’man Matan Tora’seinu – the true time frame of the giving of the Torah.  While the Torah was technically given on a particular day, that day extends to every other day as well.  Our Rabbis derive from the verse “that I command you this day” (Devorim 6:6) that the Torah should be viewed each day with the excitement of having received a newly minted decree of the King (Rashi ad locum).  The essence of commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai on the holiday of Shavuos is to reinforce our realization that everyday should be experienced as a new day of receiving the Torah and a new opportunity to strengthen our relationship with Hashem.  Chag Sameach!