Was the Torah Really Given on Shavuot?

By David Glasner
Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In Jewish tradition, the holiday of Shavuot is said to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  Both the festival Amidah and the festival kiddush designate the holiday as z’man matan torateinu, the time when our Torah was given.  But, as the Talmud often asks, mena hani mili, how do we know this?  Unlike the Exodus from Egypt commemorated by Passover, whose date, the 15th day of the first month (Nisan), is explicitly recorded in the Scripture, the date of the revelation at Sinai, supposedly commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot, is not mentioned in the Scripture.  Nor, indeed, does the Scripture anywhere identify Shavuot as a commemoration of the giving of the Torah, the festival instead being associated, in scriptural references, solely with its ritual sacrificial offerings. 

To be sure, in the book of Exodus, the narrative of the revelation at Sinai does record that the Israelites arrived at Sinai on the first day of the third month (Sivan).  However, the narrative of the subsequent events leading up to the revelation is too opaque to allow the date of the revelation to be identified.  The narrative records an interchange between the Almighty and the Israelites mediated by Moses in which the Israelites are invited by the Almighty to become His chosen people—a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  The acceptance of the offer by the Israelites is duly transmitted by Moses to the Almighty on the mountaintop.  Their acceptance is followed by a three-day period of purification and preparation for God’s revelation to the entire nation. But no exact chronology is given for these events. 

The Talmud, in the tractate Shabbat, tries to tease out a chronology from the biblical narrative, but, in the end, the ambiguities cannot be resolved, the date of the revelation becoming the subject of a dispute between Rabbi Josi and the Sages.  According to the Sages, the revelation was on the sixth of Sivan; according to Rabbi Josi, it was on the seventh.  A debate ensues in which each side parries the attempts of the other to show that the opposing position is contradicted by the scriptural account.  But what is perhaps most interesting is the talmudic statement that there is one aspect of the chronology on which all are agreed: the Torah was given on the Sabbath. 

Before considering why everyone agrees that the revelation took place on the Sabbath, we must  determine whether the Torah really was given on Shavuot.  There are two key points to bear in mind. First, the day of Shavuot, unlike the other biblically mandated festivals, does not fall on a specific day of the month, but at the end of a 49-day, seven-week count starting on the 16th day of Nisan, when the omer offering was brought in the Holy Temple.  Thus, before adoption of a fixed calendar, Shavuot could fall on either the sixth or the seventh day of Sivan. 

The second key point is that just before the first Passover the Israelites were commanded to take a lamb and publically designate it as a sacrifice on the 10th day of Nisan.  According to tradition, the 10th of Nisan that year was a Sabbath.  Thus, according to this tradition, the Israelites left Egypt on Thursday, and the omer count would have begun on Friday.  Now if the omer count begins on Friday, the 50th day of the count—the day on which Shavuot falls—must also be a Friday.  But the Talmud holds it to be undisputed that the Torah was given on the Sabbath, which would have been day 51 of the omer count.  Thus, the undisputed tradition that the Torah was given on the Sabbath and the tradition that the Exodus took place on a Thursday contradict the tradition that the Torah was given on Shavuot. 

There have been several less-than-satisfying attempts to explain this anomaly.  One, by Rabbi Eliyahu Ki-tov, in his Book of Our Heritage, relies on an opinion in the Talmud that Moses extended by one day—on his own initiative, but with Divine sanction—the time to prepare for receiving the Torah.  Thus, the Torah was actually given one day later than originally planned. The problem with that answer is that it may explain why the Torah was given a day late, but it doesn’t explain why, if Shavuot commemorates the revelation, the formula for determining when Shavuot falls was not adjusted correspondingly, say, by postponing the omer count by one day. 

Another answer might be that, while the timing of Shavuot depends on the omer count rather than the day of the month, the reference in the festival Amidah and the festival kiddush to the time of the giving of our Torah is to the sixth day of Sivan, when, in our fixed calendar system, Shavuot always falls.  But this explanation accords with only one of the two opinions adduced in the Talmud about when the Torah was given, so it’s hardly an ideal solution. 

Perhaps I am biased, but I think the best answer to the problem, though perhaps requiring the most radical adjustment of our customary notions, is the one given by my grandfather, Rabbi Akiva Glasner, who, before the Holocaust, served for over 20 years as the Chief Rabbi of Klausenburg, succeeding his father, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, a founding father of Religious Zionism and author of the classic commentary Dor Revi’i on the tractate Hulin.  After the Holocaust my grandfather wrote a book, Iqvei ha-Tzon, about the Sabbath and  festivals whose main theme is that the day in the Jewish calendar that specifically commemorates the revelation at Sinai is not Shavuot, but the Sabbath. 

Let us come back to the question I posed earlier: Why did the Talmud take it as indisputable that the Torah was given on the Sabbath?  According to my grandfather, this premise is derived from the first scriptural mention of the Sabbath in the second chapter of Genesis: 

1. And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. 3 And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.

A famous question about this passage is the contradiction between the first and second verses. The heaven and earth had been completed on the sixth day, so why does the Scripture write that God finished His work on the seventh day?  My grandfather suggested that the reference in the second verse is not to the seventh day of Creation but to the seventh day—the Sabbath—when the Torah was given at Sinai, the Creation having remained incomplete and contingent until the Torah was finally given.  Indeed, the Talmud records the tradition that the Creation was conditioned on the future acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people.  If the Israelites had refused the Torah, the world would have reverted to its original condition at the Beginning, unformed and void. 

The point is also implicit in the fifth Commandment of the Decalogue: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  In all the other instances in which the Israelites are enjoined to remember, for example, to remember the attack by Amalek on their way out of Egypt, they were enjoined to remember an event that they had experienced themselves.  But the injunction to remember the Sabbath day does not seem to refer to a concrete event of their experience.  My grandfather therefore argued that the fifth commandment was to remember the very Sabbath day, the day of revelation, which they were experiencing when they received that commandment and entered into an eternal Covenant with God, of which the Sabbath is a sign.  That is why the Talmud could take it as axiomatic that the Sabbath, having already been hallowed at the time of Creation as the day on which the Torah would be given, must necessarily have been the day on which the Torah was given. 

If the day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the giving of the Torah is not Shavuot but the Sabbath (and perhaps it is no coincidence that the letters of Shavuot contain the letters of Shabbat and that Shabbat is a synonym of shavua, the singular of Shavuot), then it is not so puzzling that the Scripture never associates Shavuot with the revelation in the way that Passover is associated with the Exodus.  In the scriptural scheme of things, Shavuot was then primarily an agricultural festival celebrating the first fruits of the harvest.  However, after the destruction of the Temple, the original symbolism of the festival having been eradicated, it became necessary to find an alternative motif to make the festival meaningful. The alternative motif may in fact account for the fact that the Talmud almost never refers to Shavuot by that name—the biblical name—and instead adopts a completely new, and apparently unrelated, name: Atzeret. 

What does Atzeret mean, and why did it replace Shavuot in talmudic usage?  Atzeret is usually understood to be related to the verb atzor, to cease, a day on which one ceases and desists from prohibited work.  In fact, Scripture uses the term atzeret to designate the last day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and the last day of Passover, both days on which constructive work is prohibited.  But the targumim, the Aramaic translations of Scripture, related atzeret to the verb “to gather,” meaning a day in which people remain in their homes rather than go out to work in the field.  My grandfather noted that in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses refers to the day of the giving of the Torah as yom hakahal, the day on which the entire people was gathered together to receive the Torah.  Thus, by referring to Shavuot as atzeret, the talmudic sages signaled a change in the symbolism of the festival from its original agricultural and temple-based character to a new motif more attuned to the increasingly intellectual and introspective nature of religious practice after the destruction of the Temple. 

David Glasner is an economist in the Washington, D.C. area and writes about economics on his blog uneasymoney.com.

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