Shavuot, the Poor Sister?
On Shavuot we celebrate God giving the Torah to the Jewish people. On the sixth day of the month of Sivan God appeared to the entire Jewish nation and gave them the initial commandments of the Torah.
There is a disagreement in the Gemara regarding exactly what day these events occurred, with some saying that it was on the sixth and others that it was on the seventh. There also seems to be some confusion as to exactly what occurred on the day of Shavuot, what part of the Torah was given, and so forth (see Shabbat 86b). However, what we can say for sure is that the festival of Shavuot celebrates the events of the giving of the Torah. We refer to that day in our prayers as "the time of the giving of the Torah," and we definitely celebrate it as that.
To say that we celebrate Shavuot may be a little misleading. It implies that Shavuot has a special and unique set of laws similar to those of Pesach or Succot. On Pesach we are required to eat matzah and to act as though we came out of Egypt. On Succot we build and live in a succah, an outdoor temporary dwelling. This reminds us that our ancestors came out of Egypt and were afforded Divine protection during their forty-year trek through the desert. In addition, we behave as though we ourselves are in need of the Divine covering and we leave our homes and live in the succah.
There are specific mitzvot in the Torah, entire tractates in the Mishnah and the Gemara, and hundreds of chapters in the Shulchan Aruch dedicated to these two festivals of Pesach and Succot. However, regarding Shavuot we find a very different picture.
The Torah does not prescribe any special rituals for the festival of the giving of the Torah. The only verses that discuss Shavuot either discuss it in terms of the harvest festival, "the harvest festival the first fruits of your labor in the field" (Shemot 23:16), or relate to the sacrifices that are to be offered on the festival (see VaYikra 23:16-21 and BeMidbar 28:26-31).
There is no tractate in the Talmud dedicated to Shavuot. There is a tractate called Shevuot but it deals with witnesses and others swearing an oath in the Beit Din, the court of law.1 Even though there are sixty-three chapters in the first section of the Shulchan Aruch that deal explicitly with Pesach, there is only one that deals with Shavuot. The main concern of that chapter is with the Torah readings of the day, and the second day in the Diaspora. No customs or mitzvot are recorded, no rituals, no ceremonies. All that Rabbi Yosef Caro writes about this important occasion is what we read from the Torah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 494).
The Rema has a note on the Shulchan Aruch stating that there is a custom to eat milk-based foods on the festival and to decorate the synagogue with flowers and plants (Rema ibid., 494:3).
Interestingly, there is no mention of the most widespread custom today, namely that of staying awake all night studying Torah in preparation for receiving the Torah in the morning.2
It is problematic to suggest that the reason that Shavuot does not have the ritualistic and festive trappings of the other festivals is due to the fact that it is less important. How is it possible that Shavuot, the day that we celebrate receiving the Torah, is of lesser importance than the other festivals? Surely Pesach is in essence a preparation for Shavuot. Coming out of Egypt was the forerunner for receiving the Torah. In that case, Shavuot should be greater than the other festivals, not less important.
Maybe we could suggest that Shavuot is so spiritual that it cannot be translated into a physical celebration. The other festivals have physical objects that are associated with them. Pesach has matzah, Succot has the succah. Shavuot does not have such rituals as it is too holy to be contained by physical articles. This seems to be a plausible explanation for the lack of recognizable mitzvot for the festival of Shavuot.
Yet, maybe there is still more to this subject. Rav Yosef’s Party
The Gemara does record a type of celebration that was unique to the festival of Shavuot. Presented in the Gemara is a discussion about the nature of festival celebrations in general. There is one opinion that the celebrations should be comprised totally either of eating and drinking, or alternatively, sitting and learning. Another opinion is that one should divide the time between these two activities. Either it should be totally for you, or totally for God, or half for you and half for God. The Gemara then makes a surprising statement.
"Rabbi Elazar said that everyone agrees that on Shavuot we need ‘for you.’ Why? It is the day that the Torah was given" (Pesachim 68b).
Rashi explains that "one should rejoice [on Shavuot] by eating and drinking." Rabbi Elazar says that even though the rabbis disagreed about the nature of the other festivals, they all agreed that on Shavuot one should rejoice in a very physical way. Rashi explains that one should "show that this day is pleasant and acceptable to Israel, that the Torah was given."
The Gemara then tells us of the special party that Rav Yosef held on Shavuot.
"On Shavuot Rav Yosef would give instructions to prepare the choicest meat.
He said, ‘Were it not for this day, there are plenty of Yosefs in the marketplace’" (Pesachim ibid.).
Rav Yosef directed his household to celebrate in a special way, to take the best meat and prepare a feast on Shavuot. His rationale was that this is the day that makes him Rav Yosef. "Were it not for the Torah that I learned and through which I elevated myself, there are plenty of other people in the market with the name Yosef, and what is the difference between them and me?" (Rashi ad loc.).
Obviously, Rav Yosef felt a special affinity to the festival of Shavuot. He saw it as his festival and therefore he made a particular effort to celebrate Shavuot in the best possible way. He ate a feast of the best meat and reserved this type of festivity only for Shavuot.
However, the question could be asked about Rav Yosef’s method of celebration. This same question could be asked about Rabbi Elazar as well, who said that all agree that we need to feast on Shavuot as it was the day that the Torah was given.
If Shavuot celebrates a spiritual event and is itself a holy, ethereal day, how is it that all agree that it requires a feast? When Rav Yosef came to show his deep connection with the day, he could have chosen a more spiritual method. He could have learned the entire day to show the special quality of the festival. Why did he choose to make a great feast with special meat? Not in Heaven
Rav Yosef and Rabbi Elazar are both making a powerful statement regarding the nature of the Torah. The Torah existed before Shavuot. Indeed it is written that God looked in the Torah and created the world (Zohar, Terumah 161b). The Torah acted as a spiritual, cosmic blueprint for creation. However, before the Torah was given it stayed in Heaven.
Then there was Shavuot and everything changed. Since the first Shavuot the Torah is no longer located in Heaven (see Baba Metzia 59b); rather it is the lot of Man. When God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, it ceased to be a theoretical concept and became a real way of life. As such it is relevant and relates to the physical world. The mitzvot are all physical and all of them are performed with physical objects. We eat matzah, wear tefillin, pray with words, and give money to tzedakah, to charity.
In the same way that all the mitzvot are of a physical nature, so, too, is the celebration. Rav Yosef feasted on the festival of Shavuot in the most grand and delightful way that he could. This was a physical rejoicing as Rav Yosef saw and felt the magnitude of the physical Torah. Only one who really understood the Torah could translate that joy into such physical and material terms. Such is the greatness of Torah, not in Heaven, but here in the physical, tangible world. Who Deserves the Torah?
This brings to mind another piece of Gemara that discusses events surrounding the giving of the Torah.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi related that when Moshe ascended to the heavens [to receive the Torah] the angels asked God: "Master of the Universe, what is one born of woman doing among us?" "He came to get the Torah," He replied.
"The hidden treasure that You stored for 974 generations prior to the creation of the world, You want to give it to flesh and blood? What are humans that You should remember them, the son of man that You should consider him, God our Master how great is Your Name throughout the land, that You give Your glory on the heavens" (Tehillim 8:5, 2).
God said to Moshe, "Answer them."
"Master of the Universe, I am frightened that they will burn me with their breath."
"Grab onto My throne and answer them," He said.
"Master of the Universe, what is written in the Torah that You are giving us? I am the Lord, your God who took you out of the land of Egypt (Shemot 20:2); did you [the angels] go down to Egypt, were you slaves to Paro? Why do you want it?"
"What else is written? You shall have no other gods, but Me (ibid., 3); do you reside amongst the nations that serve idols?"
"What else is written? Remember the Shabbat to sanctify it (ibid., 8); do you do any work that you need to rest?"
"What else is written? Do not swear [falsely] (ibid., 13); do you conduct business between yourselves?"
"What else is written? Honor your father and your mother (ibid., 12); do you have parents?"
"What else is written? Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal (ibid., 13); do you know jealousy, do you have an evil inclination?"
They immediately agreed with God, and became his [Moshe’s] friend and gave him gifts, as it says, "You went up to Heaven and took a bounty, and received gifts of man" (Tehillim 68:19), as a reward for calling you ‘man’ you received gifts. Even the Angel of Death gave him a gift, as it says, "He put the incense and atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living" (BeMidbar 17:12-13), if he [the Angel of Death] did not tell him, how did he know? (Shabbat 88b-89a).
This Gemara is fascinating for the picture and images that it conjures up. Moshe enters the heavenly plain and is stopped by the angels who are incredulous that God would relinquish hold over such a fortune as the Torah to mere mortals. Eventually Moshe convinces them through a debate and claims his reward, the Torah, and several special gifts for himself.
There are a number of questions raised by the Gemara as well. God tells Moshe to grab His throne and he will be protected. What does this mean? Why does Moshe have to reply to the angels? The biggest question concerns the angels. They were eventually convinced by Moshe’s argument and thus agreed that the Torah should be given to Man. What did they assume beforehand, that they went down to Egypt, that they have parents? The angels supposedly knew what was in the Torah; how could they ignore the fact that all of the mitzvot speak of events and traits that are only relevant to humans and to the Jewish people? The Human Torah
The rabbis conveyed in this story a number of concepts. One of them is a common misconception of the nature of the Torah. One could think that the Torah is really more suited for Divine beings who never make mistakes but follow God entirely and unquestioningly. How many times do we hear it said, "It is impossible to keep all of these commandments, you’d have to be an angel to keep them all"? The assumption of such a claim is that the Torah is too difficult for humans to follow. As we are mortal and fallible we are bound to break some of the laws - "there is no righteous person who only does good and never sins" (Kohelet 7:20).
Maybe there is some perfect, untainted form of the Torah that exists somewhere in the Heavens. Maybe when the Torah speaks about parents and oaths these are allusions to spiritual concepts. If this is the case then the angels have a good claim to the Torah.
The angels turned to God and were amazed that He was willing to give the greatest world treasure to mere humans. They initially derided Moshe and referred to him as "born of woman." Reminiscent of Macbeth, they meant that Moshe was human, physical, he had been born and would die. What use could man have of the Divine and pure Torah? Indeed the Torah had already been in existence for 974 generations prior to the creation of the world.3 Surely the Torah should remain in the Heavens.
Moshe was frightened to start arguing with the angels. He realized that they are purely spiritual beings, and were he to resort to reason they would simply burn him with their abundant spirituality. A human is no match for an angel when it comes to spiritual matters. However, God said to Moshe that there is one place that you can touch but the angels cannot. That place could serve as a safe haven, that place is the throne of God’s glory, the Kisei HaKavod.
Man was created in order to sanctify God’s Name in this world. When we do this then God becomes King throughout the world. In fact we have an entire day that we devote to proclaiming God as king; that is Rosh HaShanah.4
God’s throne is the symbol of God as King, King of the world, of the universe. Man has the ability to elevate God to this status, the angels do not. This is due to the fact that man has the ability to sin but chooses not to. The angels who have no free choice and no will cannot sin, but they cannot consciously decide to worship God either. Such beings cannot "grab the throne." They cannot make God king, only we can do that. Humans with all their failings can get "closer" to God than even the angels themselves. That is why man received the Torah on Shavuot and it did not remain in Heaven.
God chose not to tell this directly to Moshe but to force him to answer the angels’ claim. Man had to understand his special role by himself. It is as though God said to Moshe, "If you do not understand why you should get the Torah, then you do not deserve to receive it." The implication is that if you have no good answer the Torah will stay in Heaven.
Being born of woman, unlike Macduff in Shakespeare’s play, is not a sore point for us. Rather it is the source of our greatness. We are physical and so we can lay a strong claim to the Torah that talks of and relates to physical objects and mitzvot. The Gift of Life
Even though we are human and prone to disease and death, the Torah is our key to eternity. Indeed, at the end of the episode above, all of the angels gave Moshe a gift; even the Angel of Death gave him the gift of life.
This would seem to be an interesting gift for the Angel of Death to give Moshe. After all, the Angel of Death is concerned with death and yet here he gives Moshe the gift of life, the ability to outlive death.
Maybe the rabbis were teaching a lesson and giving a warning about the physical life. The danger of dealing with a physical Torah is that one would think that this life is totally physical. At that point one tends to neglect and ignore the spiritual. As the entire body of the Torah tells us to sanctify the material of this world, people tend to forget that there is anything spiritual at all.
The Angel of Death comes to teach Moshe how to overcome death. This can be done by rising above the physical. There is a delicate balance between the physical and the spiritual and this must be maintained at all times. In the words of the rabbis, "Half to you and half to God." This is the message that the rabbis were conveying through the description of the Angel of Death’s gift.
The Torah enables us to transcend the physical and gives us a view of the eternal. We can beat death by grabbing hold of the Torah and reaching the highest point of all existence, the Kisei HaKavod.
Rav Yosef definitely had a point when he made a feast on Shavuot. It is the day that makes us appreciate both the physical world that we live in as well as our ability to elevate that world to holiness. The festival does not need any additional aspects, as do the other festivals, as this is enough in itself. If we can comprehend this then we can reach the Divine throne and from there we can elevate the entire world through the Torah and proclaim God as the King of Kings.
Rabbi Gideon Weitzman is the Head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with the Halacha. He studied for many years in Yeshivat Beit El and teaches in various educational institutions.
This essay is taken from his second book, "In Those Days, At This Time - Essays on the Festivals Based on the Philosophy of Rav Kook." The book is available in bookstores or directly from the author. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org