“The Anonymous Holiday”
(updated and revised from Shavuot 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This Thursday night, Friday and Shabbat, the joyous festival of Shavuot will be celebrated, marking the giving of the Torah at Sinai (in Israel it is celebrated only on Thursday and Friday). On the Hebrew calendar, it is the sixth and seventh days of Sivan.

According to traditional calculation, the Torah was given at Sinai 3332 years ago, in the year 2448 on the Jewish calendar, corresponding to the year 1313 BCE. Because this Shabbat is Shavuot, the normal Torah portion for the week is postponed until next Shabbat, and instead, this Friday we will read from Exodus 19:1-20:23, and on Shabbat day from Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17–readings which concern the festival of Shavuot.

Despite the tradition that the Torah was given on the holiday of Shavuot, many of the commentators are astounded that nowhere in the Torah is there any mention that the Torah was given on that day.

Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni, in his observations on the weekly parasha, cites a number of traditional commentaries and their remarks regarding this peculiar omission.

Rabbi Nachshoni notes the writings of the Akeidat Yitzchak, who suggests two reasons for the seeming omission. In his counting of the mitzvot, says the Baal Akeida, the Bahag did not count the existence of G-d among the 613 mitzvot, simply because the existence of G-d is a given, and the most fundamental principle of all the mitzvot. If there is no Commander, there can be no commands. So, obviously, there is no need to count the existence of G-d among the 613 commandments. Similarly, with Shavuot, says the Akeida, the giving of the Torah is such a primary philosophical principle, and so self-evident, that for the Torah to mention it would be extraneous.

A second reason recounted by the Akeida, is that most of the holiday mitzvot depend upon time, but the giving of the Torah can never be constrained by time. As it says in the book of Joshua 1:8: לֹא יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ, וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה , This Torah shall not depart from your mouth, and you should contemplate upon it both day and night. The words of the Torah need to be fresh and beloved in our eyes at all times as if they were newly given. Consequently, Scripture did not fix a time for the giving of the Torah, and only mentions the mitzvah of bringing bikurim, the first fruits, that are observed on the festival of Shavuot.

The Abarbanel, goes even further, arguing that the relationship between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah is merely coincidental. Shavuot is a holiday of thanksgiving to thank G-d for the harvest and the first fruits. While it is true that on the sixth of Sivan the Torah was given to the Jewish people, that is not really what necessitates the celebration. Rather, the first fruits and the harvesting of the wheat are the reasons to rejoice. The Abarbanel suggests that while there is no specific mention in the Torah to celebrate the Revelation, there are certain symbolic allusions in the celebration of the festival of Shavuot that relate to the giving of the Torah. The Abarbanel notes that on Passover an offering of the first barley is brought, which is a coarse food for animals, whereas on Shavuot the Shtei ha’Lechem, the two loaves of bread and the first offering of the very fine wheat are brought. The implication, clearly, is that the Exodus was the coarse liberation, while Shavuot and the giving of the Torah is the refined elevation. Similarly, the fact that we count the Omer from the second day of Passover until Shavuot, shows how much we long for Shavuot and yearn for the Torah.

As published in Shiurei Ha’Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, delivered some impromptu remarks concerning the study of Torah to his class at Yeshiva University, that put the centrality of Torah and the festival of Shavuot into proper perspective. Rabbi Soloveitchik commented on the ceremonial blessings that are recited at the completion of the learning of a Talmudic tractate. Jews, he noted, yearn for both kedusha, sanctity, and Torah. Just as Jews always refer to Shabbat in their prayers as the day to which they long, by referring to the other days of the week as, today is the first, or the second, or the third day in the Shabbat cycle, so does the counting of the Omer reflect the Jews’ awareness that the ultimate goal of the exodus from Egypt was really receiving the Torah.

So it is with the Jews yearning for mastery of Torah. Torah is not only to be studied, it must be an all-encompassing involvement. That is why the blessing that Jews recite every morning is, לַעֲסוֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה , Blessed art thou, L-rd our G-d, לַעֲסוֹק , to be involved in, to make our business, our careers, in the words of Torah.

Usually, when a Jew makes a blessing and departs from an activity, such as leaving a Sukkah after eating and drinking, and then re-enters the Sukkah to again eat or drink, the Sukkah blessing must be recited again. But, the blessing for Torah is recited only once in the morning, and never again, even though a Jew may open the Torah to study many times a day. The reason for this is that the obligation of Talmud Torah, of studying Torah, never ends. This is what is meant by the verse from Joshua that was cited above, וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה , You should be aware and conscious of the mitzvah of Torah study all day and all night.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that there are two kinds of awareness. The first is acute awareness, while the second is latent awareness. Acute awareness is obviously lacking when one thinks about other matters, but latent awareness is always present, even though one may be engaged in other matters. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes insightfully, that when a mother plays with her child, there is acute awareness of the child. But, even when the mother is at work at a job, or distracted by some other activity, there is always a latent awareness of the child, and so it remains throughout the mother’s lifetime. This is an awareness that typical parents have that can never be extinguished. The infant is the center of gravity of the parents’ lives. That is why parents often feel that they cannot live without their child.

Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, the same is true with regard to Torah. A Jew may not be acutely aware of Torah at every moment during each 24 hour period, but the latent awareness never ceases. לַעֲסוֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה , to engage in the words of Torah, implies that even when Jews are mentally involved in something else, they are always aware of Torah. This awareness of Torah becomes part of a Jew’s innate consciousness. Just as one is always aware of one’s existence without having to confirm it by constantly repeating: “I exit, I exist,” so must a Jew be aware of the Torah.

Concludes Rabbi Soloveitchik, it is for this reason that we make a special siyum, conclusion ceremony, at the end of learning a Talmudic tractate, by saying the words, הַדְרָן עֲלָךְ , Hadran alach, “We shall return to you.” As far as acute awareness is concerned, we are through with the tractate, we are leaving this chapter, but the latent awareness remains, and for that reason, we still return again to learn. It is similar to the mother who leaves her child and says, “I’ll be back.” She does not say this merely to encourage the infant, she is expressing a basic truth. A mother leaves only to return, otherwise, she would never leave.

We pray that this Shavuot will be an all-embracing celebration of Torah, not only of holding it, but making it an intimate part of our lives. With Torah as our guide, we will surely be blessed.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3332 years ago is observed this year on Thursday evening, May 28th, and continues through Saturday night, May 30, 2020.