Does Matan Torah Really Matter?

So the return to Washington Heights for Shavuot was really nice. From what I can tell, the drasha went pretty well, although I think the delivery went better the second time when I was at the bridge shul. Anyway, here’s the quickie write-up of the shiur.

According to popular Jewish tradition, the festival of Shavuot is “zeman matan torateinu” – the time at which the Torah was given. It is on this day that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and the entire Jewish people witnessed the revelation beginning with the 10 commandments. Consequently, Jews have adopted several customs for Shavuot including the tikkun leil shavuot – staying up all night learning, eating dairy, and decorating the house or synagogue with various greenery, all of which for various reasons commemorate the event at Sinai.

Despite all these rituals, there is very little evidence connecting Matan Torah to Shavuot. Biblically, it is only known as “the festival of weeks” – the time at which the first fruits are brought to the Temple with no mention of matan Torah. While there are several homiletical attempts at reconciling the absence of matan Torah in the context of Shavuot, each is based on two related assumptions. First, that we know that matan Torah happened on Shavuot and perhaps more importantly, that matan Torah is an event which ought to be commemorated. However, as we will see, neither assumption is convincingly justified in sources of Torah.

Calculating Matan Torah
It should be reasonable to expect that for the event of matan Torah to be commemorated on an annual basis, the Torah should provide some clear date as to when matan Torah occurred. However, the traditional sources are less than forthcoming. Biblically, the Torah just writes that the Jews arrived at the Sinai desert in the third month “on that day” (Shemot 19:1), and after a three day waiting period, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai (19:16). All we can tell is that the Torah was given 3 days from some unknown date.

When the Bible omits an obvious detail, we normally look to the Rabbinic sources to fill in the gaps. B. Shabbat 66b records a dispute between the Rabbis and R. Yosi, with the Rabbis saying the Torah was given on the 6th of the month, R. Yosi claiming it was on the 7th. Rava reconciles the two opinions first by explaining that the ambiguous term “on this day” refers to Rosh Hodesh, the first of the month, and then asserting that both the Rabbis and R. Yosi agree that the Torah was given on Shabbat. The dispute is not a matter of on which day Matan Torah happened, but rather which day was Rosh Hodesh. For the Rabbis, that Rosh Hodesh was Monday, making Shabbat the 6th of the month; and for R. Yosi Rosh Hodesh was Sunday, making Shabbat the 7th of the month.1

Not only does this gemara not provide us with a definitive date for commemorating matan Torah – note that Shavuot is not mentioned at all – but there are other conflicting rabbinic sources. Seder Olam Rabba, usually attributed to R. Yosi, has two possible versions neither of which match the gemara in Shabbat 66b. The popular Leiner edition cites only the position of the Rabbis2 and Millikowsky’s critical edition writes that the Torah was given on the sixth of the month, but the day was Friday contradicting Rava’s reconciliation (Chap. 5 of both). Furthermore, the gemara itself may also contradict the sugya in Shabbat 66b. According B. Shabbat 67b, the plague of the first-born and yeziat mitzrayim occurred on a Thursday. Assuming the Torah was given 50 days after the exodus, then the latest the Torah could be given would be on a Friday.

Connection With Shavuot
Despite the ambiguity in the date of matan Torah, I have found three rabbinic sources which link matan Torah to Shavuot. The first and most explicit is B. Pesachim 68b. In the context of discussing festivals being 1/2 for us and 1/2 for God, R. Elazar says that Shavuot has a theme of being for us because it is the day on which the Torah was given. Though not as direct of a connection, one opinion in B. Megillah 31a assigns the 10 commandments as the Torah reading for Shavuot, although it does not explain why. Finally, Midrash Zuta on Rut writes that the reason we read Rut on Shavuot is because, “the Torah is only given through pain and suffering” (Parasha 1). Thus, we have two sources which can only implicitly link Matan Torah to Shavuot, and R. Elazar’s statement is uncooberated and simply assumed without any justification.

Possible Solutions
If our initial assumptions regarding Matan Torah are correct, why then is there so little textual evidence in the Torah to support them? Why is there virtually nothing indicating Shavuot as a celebration of Matan Torah? We have no date of Matan Torah, tenuous connections to Shavuot, and no source indicating that Shavuot as a holiday commemorates the event.

One possibility could be to say that the celebration of matan Torah is really the conclusion of the Exodus – that the whole point of yeziat mitzrayim was to bring us to Har Sinai. Furthermore, the holiday of Shavuot by its nature is connected to Pesach in that Shavuot’s date is determined by Pesach. Perhaps, as some argue, it is because of this relationship that Shavuot is most often called in Rabbinic Hebrew “Azeret” which means “stopping,” in this case the stopping of the Exodus narrative. Consequently, Matan Torah would not receive its own dates or significance because it is only part of the larger story of yetziat mitzrayim.

I do not find this option convincing, primarily because there is little evidence to support this theory. First, I have found only one source which only weakly considers Matan Torah to be the ultimate goal of the Exodus (Mechilta R. Yishmael D’Havei). Second, as some may remember from the Haggada, there is virtually no mention of Matan Torah – the possible exceptions being two lines in Dayeinu and one midrash for Hallel (B. Pesachim 118a). Finally, according to the Torah, there is an Atzeret already for Pesach, and that is the last day of the holiday (Devarim 16:8).

Perhaps one could argue that Shavuot and Matan Torah are “close enough.” Since both seem to fall out at the beginning of the month of Sivan, it is possible to assume the principle of commemorating several positive events on one day even if the dates are not exact (B. Ta’anit 29a).4

It is also possible that the Sages were simply being pragmatic in understating Matan Torah to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Not only were the Rabbis challenged by the Tzeddukim regarding the date of Shavuot5, but some Jews themselves did not correctly observe the holiday by bringing the first fruits prematurely (M. Hallah 4:10). Furthermore, in each Amoraic generation minim asserted that the biblical passage of Matan Torah was more important than the rest of the Torah to the point where it was excised from and never reinstated from the daily prayer service (B. Brachot 12a). If the Sages had difficulties with various communities regarding both the holiday of Shavuot and the significance of Matan Torah, it would not make sense for them to emphasize Shavuot as the holiday commemorating Matan Torah.

Biblical Perspectives
While there is truth to some of the above solutions, they are all limited in that they only account for the Rabbinic sources. Biblically, the event of matan Torah is not one of the events which is necessary to be remembered. Although we are told to remember the covenant (Devarim 4:9-10) and the laws from Sinai (Malachi 3:22), the Torah itself seems to downplay the event of matan Torah as a covenant in that a later one needed to be established (Devarim 28:69), or as the defining moment in Jewish history (Vayikra 26:45, Shofetim 6:8, Melachim I 8:16).

Reevaluating Matan Torah
From the above sources, it seems that the understating of Matan Torah in both Biblical and Rabbinic sources is intentional. Since the Torah is ultimately the foundation for Judaism if not the world (M. Avot 1:2), then why downplay the event of its revelation?

My conjecture is that in obscuring and understating the event, the Torah precludes ritualizing and thus trivializing Matan Torah. Meaning, the event of matan Torah was never supposed to be celebrated for its commemoration would actually detract from its purpose. For example, Mircea Eliade identified in many religions what he terms The Myth of the Eternal Return where religious rituals actually re-enact past events which occurred in sacred time.

In religion as in magic, the periodic recurrence of anything signifies primarily that a mythical time is made present and then used indefinitely. Every ritual has the character of happening now, at this very moment. The time of the event that the ritual commemorates or reenacts is made present, “re-presented” so to speak, however far back it may have been in ordinary reckoning. Christ’s passion, death and resurrection are not simply remembered during the services of Holy Week; they really happen then before the eyes of the faithful. And a convinced Christian must feel that he is contemporary with these transhistoric events, for, by being re-enacted, the time of the theophany becomes actual.(Patterns In Comparative Religion 392-393)

Regardless of determining the uniqueness of Torah over the other religions, the notion that matan Torah is to be repeated or re-enacted is contrary to the very notion of a covenant, which is supposed to be eternal (see Devarim 24:19). By its very nature, the covenatnt is not something to be re-enacted because it does not need to be – it was an action which happened once and is supposed to last throughout the generations. If the covenant was intended to be permanent, then while there may be a reaffirmation of what was done, there is no need for any reenactment.

The idea here is more than the trite “every day is matan Torah” – which if people truly believed then they should have a different view of Shavuot. What I am arguing is that the event of Matan Torah was never intended to be commemorated. Matan Torah as a contract is essential, perhaps even as a singular religious historical event, but not to the extent that many people have assumed.

1. The gemara further explains that Benei Yisrael got one day off to rest from the journey – two according to R. Yosi – and the commitment to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” in 19:6 took place on its own day. These 2-3 days account for the extra days in the week aside from the 3 days of separation already mentioned in the Torah.
2. This inconsistency could possibly be explained though misattributing Seder Olam Rabba to R. Yosi or misattributing R. Yosi’s opinion in Shabbat 66b.
3. This assumes the counting starts the day after the exodus not including the day itself in which case Matan Torah would have occurred on a Thursday.
4. Interestingly, T. Ta’anit 3:9 cites this principle in the name of R. Yosi.
5. See R. Soloveitchik’s discussion in “Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefiras Ha’omer and Shevuot.”


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