Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Festivals / Jewish Calendar > Harvest Festival or Matan Torah? Shavuos As Our Anniversary

Harvest Festival or Matan Torah? Shavuos As Our Anniversary

Many have raised the question of why the Torah fails to mention the giving of the Torah in connection with Shavuos. The Mishnah's understanding of the giving of the Torah as a "wedding day" points us in the direction of a solution.

Sivan 5782 / June 2022

What does Shavuos have to do with Har Sinai? This paraphrasing of Rashi’s famous question concerning Shemittah and Har Sinai means to highlight the difficulty of the Torah’s account of Shavuos, which makes no mention of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. How does it stand to reason that the Torah calls a festival by the simple term “harvest festival,” while the rabbinic tradition refers to the same occasion as “the time our Torah was given”? This question, which has bothered many over the years, stands at the center of the present article.

Shavuos is not the only Torah festival into which Chazal infuse content that the Torah does not mention. The day we term Rosh Hashanah is referenced by the Torah as the “Day of Sounding” and the Torah refers to the seventh day of Pesach as a simple festival day, while the Sages note that it marks the splitting of the sea (Sotah 12b; Seder Olam Chap. 5). However, these discrepancies are less disturbing. The date of Rosh Hashanah, around the end of last year’s agricultural cycle and the beginning of a new one, indicates that it is indeed the New Year – an appropriate time to sound the horn that coronates Hashem as King. And it stands to reason that the last day of the Pesach festival should coincide with the final stroke of our redemption from Egyptian bondage at the splitting of the sea. In contrast with these examples, what could be the connection between the Torah presentation Shavuos as celebrating “the first fruits of the wheat harvest” and the rabbinic version of the giving of the Torah?

How does it stand to reason that the Torah calls a festival by the simple term “harvest festival,” while the rabbinic tradition refers to the same occasion as “the time our Torah was given”?

The question can be divided into two distinct parts. First, why does the Torah not dedicate a festival day to commemorate the giving of the Torah, as we find for the exodus from Egypt; and second, if the Torah does not dedicate such as festival day, how do the Sages make the dedication of Shavuos as the day of receiving the Torah? Several Torah commentaries have mentioned these questions, in particular the first one, and suggested several explanations.[1] My modest contribution below will seek to discern two aspects of the theophany at Sinai: one of law and the other of love. By contrasting these two aspects, I will attempt to make sense of the Torah’s omission of the giving of the Torah from Shavuos.


Torah As Constitution

The Mitzvah to recall our redemption from Egypt occurs many times in the Torah. “Remember the day upon which you came forth from Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Shemos 13:3); “In order that you shall remember the day of your coming forth from Egypt all the days of your life” (Devarim 16:3); “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Hashem your God brought you forth with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Devarim 5:14) – and many besides. The Zohar Chadash (Yisro 3) writes that the Torah mentions the redemption from Egypt fifty times, and commentaries have already noted that we find many more (see Pardes Rimonim 13). Undoubtedly, our redemption from Egypt is thus the most constitutive event in the annals of the Jewish People, deserving of mention far beyond any other historical event.

In sharp contrast with the redemption from Egypt, the Torah seldom mentions the theophany of Sinai that we generally refer to as Matan Torah – “the giving of the Torah.” Only in one place does the Ramban find an obligation to recall the event of Sinai, when Moshe instructs the nation: “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live” (Devarim 4:9). The verse does not entirely clarify the subject matter, but the subsequent Pasuk explicitly mentions the theophany at Sinai: “The day upon which you stood before Hashem your God at Horeb, when he said to me, ‘Assemble the people before me to hear my words.'” Based on these verses, the Ramban disputes the opinion of the Rambam, who maintains there is no special obligation to recall the giving of the Torah at Sinai.[2] Either way, the difference in the Torah approach to the two events is immense. What stands behind this remarkable disparity?[3]

The difference seems to derive from the distinct essence of the two events – the redemption from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Our redemption from Egypt defines the moment of our national birth. The verse “This nation I have created for Myself, My glory they shall tell” (Yeshayahu 43:21) refers to the redemption from Egypt when we were created with the miraculous revelation of Hashem – a revelation that defined our national purpose (“My glory they shall tell”). The moment was constitutional. With our redemption, we became a nation, born “one people from among another” (Devarim 4:33). As the Ramban and other commentaries explain, the fundamentals of Jewish faith are latent in the exodus itself: we are a nation that lives an eternal connection with the One God, and He leads and supervises us with love and care.

The boundaries of life, commonly known as the attribute of Din (judgment), are essential for human function in all areas: relationships, work, community life, relations between groups and states, and the simple ordering of our everyday living. However, they are not a cause for celebration

In contrast with the redemption from Egypt, the giving of the Torah defines a role and charge. It is a matter of Din, judgment: “From heaven You pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet” (Tehillin 76:9). Our national function is latent in the Torah, where we are given laws and ordinances that play an essential role in our covenant with God. Our role and how we discharge it, our duties, obligations, and prohibitions form a fantastic edifice of Jewish life that is an immense privilege to live. Yet, it is not something that one celebrates. A person needs to live his life with boundaries of dos and don’ts, permitted and forbidden, good and evil, pure and defiled, and all these are defined for us by the Torah. The boundaries of life, commonly known as the attribute of Din (judgment), are essential for human function in all areas: relationships, work, community life, relations between groups and states, and the simple ordering of our everyday living. However, they are not a cause for celebration.

As Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner zt”l wrote, the Torah is our constitution: “The Torah is our national constitution, and it thus assumes the existence of a nation upon its own land. The purpose of the first Mitzvah in which Avraham Avinu was commanded, that of Milah, was to imprint upon his body a sign of differentiation between Avraham’s offspring and all other people.” Upon our redemption from Egypt, we became a nation. We began our journey toward our homeland in fulfillment of the two basic promises that God gave to Avraham Avinu – the promise of offspring (Bereishis 13:16) and the promise of the land (13:15). Our national life as the nation of God requires that we also have a God-given constitution that orders our affairs. This constitution was given to us at Sinai, but this itself does not justify a national celebration – just as the giving of the Torah was not included in the promises that God promised to Avraham Avinu.

As with other nations, we celebrate our independence at Pesach. And as with most other nations, we do not dedicate a festival to our constitution, though we appreciate its necessity and (in our case) its Divine elevation. The reason we celebrate the giving of the Torah is that the event included another element, one that no other constitution can rival.


Celebrating Our Anniversary

While the Torah makes no mention of celebrating the giving of the Torah, our Sages saw fit to define the festival of Shavuos, which occurs annually on (or adjacent to) the date of the Sinai theophany, as a celebration of Matan Torah. As we mention in the day’s prayers, Shavuos is “the time of the giving of our Torah” – zeman matan torateinu. If the Torah did not see fit to mark the occasion, how did Chazal make the Sinai event into the core of Shavuos?

To understand this matter, we must first introduce the underlying purpose of the Sinai theophany and the Divine giving of the Ten Commandments. Certainly, the purpose of the event was not simply to “give us the Torah” in the sense of the Five Books that we have today. According to Rabbi Yochanan, the Torah was given to us piecemeal, and even according to Reish Lakish, who states that the Torah was given to us as a complete book, commentaries mention that this cannot be taken at face value (Gittin 60a; Tosafos). The content of the “Book of the Covenant” that Moshe read to the people (Shemos 24:7) is the subject of a dispute between commentaries – Rashi understands it included the Torah until the Ten Commandments, while the Ramban states that it included the Ten Commandments and the subsequent Mishpatim – but it certainly did not entail the entire Torah. What, then, was the purpose of the great theophany of Sinai, and why is this “the giving of the Torah”?

According to the verse in Shemos, the purpose of the theophany was to infuse fear of God among the people: “Moshe said to the people, “Do not be afraid. For God has come to test you, and so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Shemos 20:16). This purpose, in itself, is insufficient to justify a festival. As explained above, we need boundaries and frameworks – red lines that we fear to cross – but we do not celebrate them. However, another verse, this time part of Moshe’s speech in the book of Devarim, indicates an entirely different purpose: “And you said, ‘Hashem our God has shown us His glory and His majesty, and we have heard His voice from the fire. Today we have seen that God speaks with man and yet he lives'” (Devarim 5:20). The emphasis here is not on fear of God, but on His love: on the connection between Hashem and His people.

The theophany of Sinai included an element of Din, of judgment and fear, of rules and regulations that try us. But latent therein was also an element of intimacy and love, of a relationship that Moshe describes as being face-to-face: “Face to face did Hashem speak with you from within the fire” (Devarim 5:4). In a certain sense, this is true of every act of human speech. On the one hand, speech imparts information and communicates knowledge, and it is important to listen to what is being said. But on the other hand, an act of speech is an act of relationship, an act of connection. When Hashem spoke to us at Sinai, He gave us His words – His relationship. And this is certainly worthy of celebration.

[J]ust as we do not celebrate the Ketubah document, so the joy of Matan Torah is not over the laws and ordinances. We celebrate the connection itself

The Ramban writes that the same speech that we heard at Sinai continued to be heard from between the Cherubs of the Aron – the place that symbolizes the peak of intimacy between Hashem and the Jewish people.[4] This is not just speech. It is a speech of love, of closeness, of infinite affection. Chazal give this idea remarkable expression when they interpreted the word “Anochi” that begins the Decalogue as a mnemonic: Ana Nafshi Katvis Yahavis. Hashem, as it were, gave us His own self.

If on Pesach we celebrate our national birth, on Shavuos we celebrate our “marriage” with Hashem, and each year we mark its anniversary. Interpreting the words of the Pasuk “on the day of his marriage” (Shir Hashirim 3:11), this is how the Mishnah represents the event of Matan Torah: it is the day of the marriage between Hashem and His people (Taanis 26b). The connection with Hashem has an aspect of fear and judgment; indeed, even a wedding has legal aspects that we need to heed, as documented in the Ketubah read at the Chupah ceremony. However, just as we do not celebrate the Ketubah document, so the joy of Matan Torah is not over the laws and ordinances. We celebrate the connection itself.


A Two-Way Connection

Why does the Torah ignore the dimension of “the day of His marriage” that the Mishnah emphasizes and relates to Shavuos only as a celebration of natural harvest: “The festival of Shavuos you shall make for yourself with the firstfruit of the wheat harvest” (Shemos 34:22). Why is the intimacy of Shavuos left to Chazal to reveal?

The explanation may be latent in that while they were still in the Land of Israel, the Divine word never departed the Jewish people. There was no need to mark the speech of Sinai since it was still present among us. Moreover, while the Mikdash stood, the Divine speech continually heard from between the Cherubs was present in our earthly reality. This is the basic purpose of the Torah: to infuse our worldly interactions with the word of Hashem, elevated by our relationship with Him and by His constant guidance. When this virtue was fully realized among us, we were able to celebrate the continual connection with Hashem in the very joy of the harvest, the earthly phenomenon that encapsulates worldly bounty. As for Sinai, the emphasis during this period was on fear and duty, as found in the book of Shemos.

In our state of exile, when our earthly reality is estranged and lacking Divine revelation, and when the Divine word is no longer revealed in the world – “her king and her officers are among the nations – there is no Torah, and even her prophets did not find vision” (Eichah 2:9) – a need arose to emphasize the presence of Hashem’s word among us even when it is not audible, not from between the destroyed Cherubs and not in the harvest of a foreign land. During this period, we turn to the words of Moshe Rabbeinu in Devarim, which emphasize the dimension of love, of the face-to-face relationship perpetuated by the Torah even if it is concealed from our everyday experience.

And perhaps we can add still another layer. Every human connection, including even the relationship between Hashem and His people, must be two-way; it is impossible to maintain a deep relationship that is one-way alone. This is the reason why we need to go through the Sefiras Ha’Omer period before arriving at Sinai to receive the Torah. In the immediate aftermath of the redemption from Egypt, we were in a state of infancy that did not allow for a full relationship: “On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths […] on the day you were born” (Yechezkel 16:4-5). Only after the Sefirah period, which many commentaries (such as the Arizal and his disciples) define as a period of growth and maturity, are we readied to bring ourselves and constitute the depth of mutual relationship with Hashem at Sinai. 

This is perhaps true even in celebrating “the time when our Torah was given.” In times of exile, when the connection between Hashem and us is concealed, we must first and foremost bring ourselves to the table. This is what the Sages did when they infused the content of Matan Torah into the Shavuos festival – a tradition Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman notes was already extant during our exile in Babylon. As we read on Shavuos morning, Ruth the Moabite was able to bring herself, thereby meriting eternal Divine love. And so do we each year when we observe and celebrate the festival of Shavuos.

Put in other words, a wedding anniversary celebration cannot be coerced. The anniversary of our “marriage with Hashem” at Sinai must be initiated by our sages; otherwise, it would not be a true anniversary celebration. It must come from us. This is the motion of the Shavuos festival. And this is its great joy.

May we all accept the Torah, as we do each year, out of love.


[1] According to Abarbanel, there is no need to sanctify a day in honor of Matan Torah, because “the Divine Torah in our hands […] is testimony to itself, and there is no need for a special day to recall it.” A more famous formulation of the Akeidas Yitzchak states that “there is no special time for recalling the Torah and its acceptance, only its Mitzvah applies each day and each hour.” Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman zt”l adds that no festival was enacted for the theophany at Sinai, out of concern that we would make a physical symbol out of it, which would border on transgressing the instruction to guard ourselves, “for you saw no image” (Devarim 4:15).

[2] It is possible that the Rambam, who does not note a mitzvah to recall the Sinai theophany, understands that the prohibition against forgetting does not refer to the event of Sinai but rather to the exhortation to refrain from any kind of corporeal association with Hashem, which the Rambam sees as being more heinous even than idolatry (see Moreh Nevuchim 1:36).

[3] The question is noted by Rabbi Yissachar Jacobson (in an article published in 6 Maayanot), and he suggests that the Torah was cautious about emphasizing the Sinai theophany out of concern for an idolatrous belief in the physical or corporeal nature of Divine revelation. In my opinion, it is difficult to pin the discrepancy on this “technical” concern.

[4] Commentary of Ramban, Introduction to Shemos.

2 thoughts on “Harvest Festival or Matan Torah? Shavuos As Our Anniversary

  • Shavuot, unmentioned in the written Torah as a commemoration of the giving of the Torah, Shavuot falling on the 6th versus 15th of Sivan like other holidays and as it was celebrated by the Tzeddukim, etc. all demonstrate our commitment to the oral Torah / law of rabbinic Judaism and in particular to its calendar.

    • I think that the Meshech Chachmah mentions exactly what Dr Gewirtz posited

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