The festival of Shavuot is an enigma relative to the other yamim tovim! Shavuot is lacking some of the essential features that appear in all of the other holidays. There are several questions that immediately become apparent: Why is the name of the festival not mentioned explicitly anywhere in the Torah?! Why is the date of the festival not identified other than by the counting of the Omer?! Why does the Torah never call the yom tov the “Celebration of the Giving of the Torah”?! At least there should be some symbol or mitzva associated with the holiday that connects it to the giving of the Torah?! One other point that is most enigmatic is the celebration of the giving of the Torah on the fiftieth day of the Omer? The Torah at Har Sinai was actually given on the fifty-first day?!
We will attempt to answer beginning with the following comment. There is a philosophical connection between Pesach andShavuot beyond there linkage in time by the Sefirat HaOmer. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the Exodus from Egypt was not the ultimate freedom. It was only the means to reach it – that is, the Torah. The reason for the linkage between Pesachand Shavuot is to demonstrate that after we were liberated from Egyptian bondage we still aspired to the ultimate freeedom – that is the Torah. The Sefer HaChinuch adds that we want to display our tremendous desire for the Torah as it says in Pirkei Avot: “The only truly free person is the one who engages in the study of Torah”!
The Abarbanel, in his commentary on the Torah, addresses the second question. He says that the Torah does not refer to the festival as the commemoration of the giving of the Torah because we do not require a specific day in the year to do so! The Torah that is in the Aron Kodesh and the daily study of Torah are the testimony to the “Giving of the Torah”.
In order to attempt to understand the explanation of the Abarbanel we ask, “If so, why do we study Torah the entire night ofShavuot? Is not our assiduous daily study sufficient? We answer by quoting the Mishna Berura, “The Zohar states thatchasidim and men of deeds would stay up all Shavuot night and study Torah. The reason, according to a simple understanding, is that the Jewish people were sleeping at the time of the Giving of the Torah and G-d needed to wake them up. Therefore we need to correct this…” Accordingly, we see that the study of Torah at night is intended to rectify the faux pas that the people of Israel made on that night and not as a commemoration of Matan Torah!?
The Kli Yakar discusses why the date of the holiday is not mentioned in the Torah: “G-d did not want to limit the “Giving of the Torah” to a specific day. This is because each person needs to feel that every day of the year is as if he is receiving the Torah. As such, every day is “Matan Torah” for those who engage in its wisdom.”
We see that every person needs to study each day as if he received the Torah that day from Sinai. Therefore the Torah did not want to distinguish a certain day of the year. An additional proof to this can be seen in Rosh HaShana 6b, “… there is no Scriptural significance to the date of Shavuot. The date of the festival depends on Sefirat HaOmer. The holiday could actually take place on the 5th, 6th, or 7th of Sivan!!!
Rabbi David Hoffman, in his work on VaYikra, tackles the issue of the lack of any tangible symbol. He responds that there is no symbol because the entire event was a spiritual one! “The epiphany of Sinai does not lend itself to any physical icon.” Therefore, no physical representation was given in order not to lend any physicality to the description of Matan Torah. This is in contrast to Pesach and Sukkot where the miracles were tangible – so the symbols are tangible. Beyond this, any attempt to make an icon for the festival may bring a person to idolatry!
The Torah was given to us on the fifty-first day after our leaving Egypt. The counting began on the day after “Shabbat” that was the 16th day of Nissan, which the Gemara in Shabbat 86b relates was a Thursday. If we count seven weeks we will arrive again at a Thursday. The same Gemara articulates that the Torah was given on Shabbat itself. Thus one concludes thatMatan Torah was on the fifty-first day and not on the fiftieth – the day that was established as the official celebration of the Giving of the Torah!?
The Maharsha suggests that the Jewish people were not ready to receive the Torah on the fiftieth day. It was only on that day itself they achieved purity from the spiritual depravation of Egypt. It took 49 days to purify themselves from the 49 gates of impurity into which they had sunk and culminated in their total spiritual “decontamination” on the fiftieth day. On the fifty-first day they were ready to receive the Torah! Nevertheless, for all subsequent history, they Jews celebrate the holiday on the fiftieth day – not the fifty-first – because of the special significance of the number 50 (as evidenced in Yovel, etc).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds another dimension to this thought pattern. He claims that the essence of the festival commemorates the completion of their preparations, for on the fiftieth day the shloshet yemai hagbala/three days of separation were concluded. “And he (Moshe) said to the nation, ‘Be prepared for three days – do not approach a woman.’ And, it will be on the third day in the morning, that there will be thunder, lightning, and a heavy cloud on the mountaintop and the sound of the shofar will be very strong. The entire camp trembled…”
We see that these days were days of preparation for the receiving of the Torah. Rav Hirsch introduces a novel idea that on that day we did not receive the majority of the Torah – only its foundation and basic principles. For, in truth, the Torah was given over the course of 40 years in the desert and not on one night! He proves this from an analysis of the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad in which Moshe did not have the answer and found in necessary to inquire of G-d! If the entire Torah had been given at Sinai Moshe should have known the answer and not needed to ask of G-d (similarly in the story of the blasphemer and the wood gatherer on Shabbat)!
This is proof that it cannot be that the festival is a commemoration of the Giving of the Torah, rather we are celebrating the completion of our preparation for the Torah. We know that the Torah is compared to water, as it says, “All who are thirsty should go to water.” Without a vessel it is impossible to accept the water. During the days of preparation we are building that vessel. We see that the primary emphasis is on the preparation – the fashioning of the vessel. This is the reason for our observance of Shavuot – it celebrates our effort to create the means to receive the Torah and not the giving itself!
Another example of this is that from Rosh HaShana until Hoshana Raba is fifty-one days. Rav Yosef Kairo in his Shulchan Aruch, Section 664 writes that there is a custom to remain awake the whole night (of Hoshana Raba) for it is the day of the final sealing of judgement. This is also the significance of the days of Elul and the Yamim Noraim – they are days of preparation for the day of judgement. Without proper preparation there is no meaning to the Day of Judgement. Precisely in the same way any test lacks significance if there is no preparation for the individual will fail. Therefore preparation is required for it is that which gives true meaning to the ultimate purpose. Likewise the festival of Shavuot celebrates the nation’s completion of its hard work to receive the Torah joyously. Our Sages in Pirkei Avot have stressed how much effort is requisite to acquire the Torah, “The Torah is acquired in forty-eight ways…”
As such, one can understand the importance of preparation for each and every thing. How much more so when our goal and objective is the Torah!