Shavuos; The Festival of…
We tend to try and look at central issues when it comes to the Festivals, and I can think of no more central an issue than the question which the Magen Avraham asks at the start of hilchos Shavuos. So here it is! The gemarra[1] cites a dispute between the Chachamim and Rebbi Yossi as to when Bnei Yisrael were told the Ten Commandments; in other words when did what we call ‘Mattan Torah’ take place? The Chachamim say that it was on the sixth of Sivan, whilst Rebbi Yossi maintains that it was on the seventh of Sivan. Their dispute hinges on a certain detail in the laws of niddah; which would determine how long the men had to separate from their wives before Mattan Torah.[2] The problem is, says the Magen Avraham, that in this law of niddah, we seem to hold that the halacha is like Rebbi Yossi . And if so, this would mean that we follow Rebbi Yossi as to the date of Mattan Torah. So why do we celebrate Shavuos, the giving of the Torah, on the sixth of Sivan – we should celebrate it on the seventh? In other words, the Magen Avraham has opened up the central issue of Shavuos; what are we really celebrating if Mattan Torah did not happen until a day later? This is the issue we shall discuss.
The Magen Avraham himself suggests a more technical answer. He suggests that in hilchos niddah we really hold like the Chachamim, but we added a stringency that we should (also) cover the view of Rebbi Yossi. However, there are two other answers to this question, parts of which the Magen Avraham might need to use to answer other questions about Shavuos in general. For example, due to the sin of the golden calf, we really did not receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments until the following Yom Kippur (Rashi Shemos 33:11); so what are we celebrating on Shavuos? So, bearing in mind the Magen Avraham’s original question, here are two alternative answers and understandings of Shavuos in general. The approaches are not mutually exclusive; have in mind any possible links between them.
Last year, we suggested the following answer.[3] On Shavuos we celebrate not the giving of the Torah, but the spiritual level that the Bnei Yisrael were able to achieve in HaShem being prepared to give them the Torah on that day. We are celebrating and reliving our ability to reach spiritual heights worthy enough of receiving the Torah. This also explains why we call the festival ‘Shavuos’ (lit. ‘weeks’). Why does the Torah name a festival after a time period that has preceded it as opposed to a word which would describe the festival itself; why not name it ‘Chag HaTorah?’ The answer is that this is the festival; we are commemorating the spiritual level Bnei Yisrael managed to reach after those weeks of effort in working on their characters from Yetzias Mitzrayim until Shavuos. And this is also why we call the Yom Tov ‘zman mattan toraseinu’ – the day of the giving of the Torah. For we did not receive it then (we received it on Yom Kippur ); but we were spiritually ready for it to be given.
This year, I came across another answer to the Magen Avraham’s question; from the Beis Halevi.[4] He begins by quoting a gemarra,[5] which reveals a fascinating account of what happened when Moshe ascended Har Sinai to receive the Torah. The angels disputed HaShem’s plan to give the Torah to humans, (after all, it is nearly impossible for a human not to stray from a commandment of the Torah at one point in his life – better to give it to us, the angels reasoned, who have barely any freewill and thus will not sin) and the gemarra cites Moshe’s victorious response to them. Moshe simply quoted a whole list of mitzvos and pointed out that none of them are relevant to angels. For example, the Torah says ‘I am HaShem your G-D who took you out of Egypt.’ The angels were not slaves in Egypt; we were. Refraining from work on Shabbos; angels do not do melacha that they should need to refrain from doing so on Shabbos - but we do. Honouring one’s parents, not having jealousy, and not murdering; angels have no parents, do not get jealous, and have no inclination to murder. This argument, the gemarra says, clinched it for Moshe Rabeinu and the Jewish People. The Beis Halevi asks the vital question here: what were the angels thinking when they laid claim to the Torah; did they not realise that they could not perform the mitzvos therein, as Moshe correctly informed them? Rather, says the Beis Halevi, the angels wanted something else. There are two parts to receiving the Torah: the responsibility for performing the mitzvos in the Torah, and the responsibility upon the leaders of the generations to interpret the Torah via the G-D-given ways of elucidation; the Oral Law (Torah she’be’al Peh).[6] Often, many halachos and details can be learnt from one pasuk in the Torah via such drashos and interpretations. This is the power of the Oral Law, and about which HaShem says that He agrees with whichever halachic conclusion the elders reach; what they determine as law is law.[7] The angels argued that they should be given the responsibility for interpreting the Torah – this awesome power to determine objective, G-D-given truth in the world. But Moshe argued that both aspects of the Torah were given to humans; its observance and its interpretation. This, says the Beis Halevi, is the key to why we celebrate Shavuos on the sixth of Sivan.
As the gemarra relates,[8] according to Rebbi Yossi, HaShem told Moshe to tell the people to be ready for two days’ time to receive the Torah. That date was to be the sixth of Sivan. But, the gemarra continues, Moshe understood (via one of these rules of elucidation) that HaShem really meant three days’ time, and HaShem was pleased with Moshe’s understanding. And so Mattan Torah was put off until the seventh of Sivan. Thus, concludes the Beis Halevi, it’s true that Mattan Torah was not until the seventh, but the day we showed that we had officially assumed responsibility for interpreting the Torah (for this elucidation by Moshe was the first in history) was the sixth of Sivan; when Moshe’s additional day came into force. In other worlds, it is our ability to become part of the Torah via its ongoing renewal and reapplication in the Oral Torah that we celebrate on Shavuos.[9] Indeed, this is why we call the festival ‘zman mattan toraseinu,’ (the time of the giving of our Torah), because this was the day the Torah became ours via our key role in its interpretation. And it is through the Oral Law that the we become bound with the Torah.
We shall end with a particularly sweet explanation of a gemarra offered by Rav Mendel Weinbach, Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Sameyach, which complements the aforementioned message of the Beis Halevi. The gemarra[10] records that Rav Yosef used to cook a special calf-meat to eat on Shavuos, for ‘if it was not for that day [of Mattan Torah] how many Josefs would there be in the market.’ Rashi explains that Rav Yosef was saying that if he had not toiled in learning the precious Torah, Rav Yosef would have just been plain old ‘Joe’ - and so he made a feast as a sign of gratitude. Rav Weinbach asks: why does it say in the plural ‘how many josefs would there be in the market’ - just say 'I would be a different josef?' He answers that the message here is that without attachment to Torah one is a million different things because one has not found their true self. One day you might like to do 'x' and another day 'y,' and will be always searching for happiness and being another person. If not for the Torah, Rav Yosef would have been many different 'yosefs' - but now he found true attachment to Torah, he was one person; his true, happy, accomplished self.
Have a great Shavuos, [1] Gemarra Shabbos 86b-88b. In fact, it is quoted on 86a as well. [2] See that bit on 86a [3] I heard the crux of this approach from Rabbi Spier; see ‘Thinking Aloud’ pages 551-553 (!) [4] In my version of the Beis Halevi al Hatorah, it’s in parshas Yisro. He says he copied into his Beis Halevi al Hatorah this from his drush 15 in his sefer Beis Halevi [5] Gemarra Shabbos 88b-89a [6] For examples of these rules of elucidation, see the paragraph beginning ‘Rabbi Yishmael omer’ just before Psukei Dezimra (kal vachomer, gezeirah shavah, etc). [7] See gemarra Bava Metsia 59b ‘lo bashamayim hi’ [8] Gemarra Shabbos 87a [9] The Beis Halevi continues that of the two birkos haTorah each oleh say during kriyas hatorah (leining), the first regards the Torah She’Bichtav (the Written Law), and the second regards the Torah She’Be’Al Peh (the Oral Law) [10] Gemarra P’sachim 68b

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