Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, HYPERLINK "mailto:email@example.com" firstname.lastname@example.org
Kibbutz Sa`ad Matan Torah
The giving of the Torah and the Theophany at Mount Sinai are associated with the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). Upon examining their connection, the following questions arise:
What place does the Theophany at Mount Sinai hold in the Bible?
How did the giving of the Torah become associated with the Feast of Weeks?
The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai holds a central place in the Pentateuch. Mount Sinai is mentioned as a place of divine revelation, the place where the covenant was made and the Decalogue delivered (Ex. 19). Hence one wonders that there is so little mention of this important happening in the Bible, outside of the Pentateuch. Until the time of Ezra and Nehemiah it is not mentioned at all. In Nehemiah it says, "You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven" (9:13). The prophet Malachi, from the same period (5th century B.C.E.), said, "Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb (another name for Sinai) with laws and rules for all Israel" (3:22). The name Sinai is also mentioned in the Song of Deborah: "The earth trembled; … the mountains quaked – before the Lord, Him of Sinai" (Judges 5:4-5), and similarly in one of the Psalms (68:9). These latter references are said to allude to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus Rabbah, Yitro 29.9), although Tweig believes otherwise. It seems the reason for this paucity of references is also the answer to our second question, regarding the connection between the giving of the Torah and the Feast of Weeks.
The biblical names of the festival
Three of the names of this festival – the Feast of the Harvest, the Feast of Weeks, and the Day of First Fruits, appear in the Pentateuch:
Exodus: "the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field" (23:16); "You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest" (34:22).
Leviticus: "the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days" (23:15-16, the name being Fifty Days, see below).
Numbers: "On the day of the first fruits … when you bring an offering of new grain to the Lord" (28:26).
Deuteronomy: "Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your G-d" (16:10).
It is interesting that all the details of the holiday's celebration are presented in Leviticus without mentioning a single one of the above-mentioned three names. Perhaps that is what gave birth to the "Feast of Fifty Days" being thought of as a name. Indeed Josephus mentions the Feast of Weeks, writing: "on the fiftieth day, which is Pentecost, but is called by the Hebrews Asartha" (Antiquities, iii.10). The Fiftieth Day is also mentioned in the midrash.
The Sages' names for the festival
This festival has another two names, mentioned in the works of the Sages: Atzeret and Matan Torah ("Giving of the Torah"). The name Atzeret is mentioned in the Torah but not in connection with the Feast of Weeks. It is mentioned once in Leviticus as the eighth day, the atzeret of the Feast of Tabernacles (23:36), and once in Deuteronomy as the seventh day of Passover (16:8). The word Atzeret means two things: (1) a gathering or festive assembly; (2) concluding and joining.
The gemara in Tractate Pesahim 68b discusses the question of which holidays are to be celebrated joyously: "Rabbi Eleazar said: Everyone acknowledges [that one must be joyous] on Atzeret (Rashi-- that one celebrate with food and drink). Why? Because it is the day on which the Torah was given." Here the Feast of Weeks is called Atzeret, and also the connection between the Feast of Weeks and the giving of the Torah is mentioned.
The Feast of Weeks as the Festival of the Giving of the Torah
No such connection exists in the Torah, and hence Isaac Arama (15th century) asks in Akedat Yizhak:
This raises a serious question, namely: why did the Torah not spell out that this day, the Feast of Weeks, is to be remembered and celebrated in commemoration of the divine Torah having been given and received by us, as necessarily follows from the hallowed tradition of our ancestors in our prayers ("this Feast of Weeks – the time of the giving of our Torah") and from the passage we read from the Torah (namely Exodus 19, the Ten Commandments).
R. Arama himself answers this question: the Torah was indeed received at Mount Sinai on the date of the Feast of Weeks, although a special day should not be set aside for this:
Insofar as remembrance of the Torah and our receiving it is not for a specific time, like the themes of the other festivals; rather, the commandment pertains every day, every hour, as it says: "Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night" (Joshua 1:8), and we are commanded that it be fresh and beloved of us as on the day it was given.
Abarbanel goes even further, saying that indeed there is no connection between the festival and the giving of the Torah, since the festival (as set forth in Ex. 23), celebrates the harvest:
The Torah did not include commemoration of receiving the Torah among the reasons for the festival, since this festival was not established in commemoration of our having been given the Torah; for the divine Torah which we have and the prophecy which we received are testimony to themselves and there is no need to set aside a day to commemorate them. The reason for the Feast of Weeks, however, is to mark the beginning of the wheat harvest… The Torah was undoubtedly given on the same day as the Feast of Weeks, but we were not commanded to remember this event in our celebration of the festival.
One explanation why this festival is not mentioned in the Torah as celebrating the giving of the Torah is the sin of the golden calf, which took place only forty days after the Theophany at Mount Sinai. This sin led to the Tablets being broken by Moses and to those who had sinned being killed. In Deuteronomy, Moses' description of this event and the Lord's response to it is cast in strong terms: "Remember, never forget, how you provoked the Lord your G-d to anger… At Horeb you so provoked the Lord…" (Deut. 9:7-8)
The Tannaim and Mount Sinai
E. E. Urbach notes that the sin of the golden calf caused the Tannaim to take a special attitude towards the Theophany at Mount Sinai.
Following close upon the acceptance of the Torah is the story of the golden calf. Some Tannaim emphasized the gravity of the sin into which the whole people fell, so that a shadow was cast upon the revelation at Mount Sinai and its lost its positive significance.… The diminution of Israel’s prestige at the revelation on Mount Sinai weakens the impression of treachery produced by the episode of the calf, and reduces the tension that finds expression in the complaint. But reference to the story of the calf sufficed even for the Sages who in no way impugned the integrity of the act of receiving the Torah to moderate the complaint. By the incident of the calf the Israelites lowered the status that they had attained at the revelation on Mount Sinai.
The Amoraim and Mount Sinai
Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah (1.12.2) presents the following commentary on the verse, "for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people" (Ex. 19:11):
Israel slept all that night, because the sleep of Pentecost is pleasant and the night is short… G-d came and found them sleeping, so he began to rouse them with trumpeters, as it says, And it came to pass on the third day, and Moses roused Israel and brought them out to meet the supreme King of kings…
In his article about Tikkun Leil Shavuot, Meir Bar-Ilan discusses this homily, writing:
The Amoraim in the land of Israel were aware that the Israelites had acted negligently when receiving the Torah, for not only did they sleep that night, but also the Holy One, blessed be He, had had to rouse them… The beginning of the above homily (1.12.1) relates to the sin of the golden calf: "WHILE THE KING SAT AT HIS TABLE. R. Meir and R. Judah [two tannaim, from among the disciples of R. Akiva] expounded this differently… Israel sent forth an offensive smell and said to the calf, This is thy god, O Israel."
Can it be that the custom of studying all night on the eve of the Feast of Weeks is to atone for the sin of the golden calf? It is generally said that Tikkun Leil Shavuot originated with the Kabbalists in the 16th century, in Salonika and Safed, and from there spread to most Torah-studying groups. The Tikkun is observed because most of the Israelites slept that night, as mentioned in the above homily. Moshe Halamish, in his article about Tikkun Leil Shavuot, and Meir Bar-Ilan (in the above-mentioned article) do indeed mention similar customs that are referred to in the Zohar (from the 13th century) and elsewhere, but these customs were observed by the select few and by groups of Hassidim. In these articles and other sources there is no mention of any connection between the Tikkun and the sin of the golden calf, even though some people do suggest such a theory.
We conclude with an interesting parallel and contrast between the revelation at Sinai and the revelation to Elijah after his battle against the prophets of Baal. At Sinai it says, "there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud … and a very loud blast of the horn; … and the whole mountain trembled violently" (Ex. 19:16-18). In contrast to the thunder, lightning, and horn blast which made the mountain tremble, the midrash describes this event in other terms (Exodus Rabbah, Yitro 29.9):
Said R. Abbahu in the name of R. Johanan: When G-d gave the Torah no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, none of the Ophanim stirred a wing, the Seraphim did not say "Holy, Holy", the sea did not roar, the creatures spoke not, the whole world was hushed into breathless silence and the voice went forth: I AM THE LORD THY G-D."
In contrast, in the description of the revelation of the Lord to Elijah at Horeb, it says: "but the Lord was not in the earthquake… but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a soft murmuring sound" (I Kings 19:11-12). All this should be read in the light of the well-known parallel between Moses and Elijah.
To sum up, in the light of what we have presented above, one could say that the sin of the golden calf, committed after the giving of the Torah at Sinai, led to the paucity of references to this event throughout the Bible, and may have led to the Feast of Weeks not being mentioned in connection with the giving of the Torah.
See the indications in Aryeh Tweig's book on this subject: Matan Torah Be-Sinai, Jerusalem 1977, p. 2, 12.
Horeb is also mentioned once in I Kings 8:9, and in the parallel verse in II Chron. 5:10, as well as Ps. 106:19, regarding the sin of the golden calf.
Tweig, pp. 100-101, distinguishes between these references and references to the Theophany at Mount Sinai.
Antiquities of the Jews, Book xxx.10 ( HYPERLINK "http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm" http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm). We should add that The Wars of the Jews contains references to the Fiftieth Day – Pentecost (the Latin name used by Josephus to denote the Fiftieth Day), and also to the Feast of Weeks.
Pesikta Zutreta has the following to say on the words, "On that same day you shall hold a celebration" (Lev. 23:21): "That was the fiftieth day, the day on which Israel stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah."
A similar text appears in Yoma 4b, Shabbat 86b (and somewhat differently in Ta`anit 28b). Interestingly, the phrase, "giving of the Torah," is frequently mentioned in the gemara, but not necessarily in connection with the Feast of Weeks (see under this entry in Otzar Leshon ha-Talmud).
These two commentators are quoted in Nehamah Leibowitz, Studies in Parashat Emor. See there for further reading.
E. E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, trans. Israel Abrahams, Jerusalem, 1975, vol. i, p. 535.
In the journal Mehkarei Hag 8(1997), pp. 28 ff. Tikkun Leil Shavuot refers to the custom of studying Torah through the night of the festival.
Mehkarei Hag 6 (1994).
Mor Altshuler, in "Tikkun Leil Shavuot Be-Mesoret ha-Kabbalah," writes: "This is an opportunity to repair (t-k-n) the Torah, that was given on the Feast of Weeks but was smashed to pieces in the wake of the sin of the golden calf" (published in Haaretz, 22/5/07).
For further elaboration, see Uriel Simon, Kria Sifrutit ba-Mikra: Sippurei Nevi'im, Jerusalem – Ramat Gan 1997, "Milkhemet Eliyahu," esp. pp. 261-263.