What is the difference between Shavuot and Simhat Torah? Both are occasions for celebrating the Torah.

Oddly enough, as celebrated today both are post-biblical creations, for while Shavuot is mentioned in the Torah and Simhat Torah is part of Shmini Atzeret, which is also commanded in the Torah, neither one is connected there to the Torah. It was Rabbinic Judaism that contended that the revelation at Sinai took place on Shavuot and that Shmini Atzeret would be the time for finishing and commencing again the annual reading of the Torah.

Shavuot was designated by the Sages as “the time of the giving of our Torah.” In other words, it became the anniversary of the day when we stood at Sinai, entered into an eternal covenant with God and were given the Decalogue on two tablets of stone, as well as some other commandments revealed orally to Moses. If it is the time of “giving,” then the main actor in this event is the giver – God.

Simhat Torah, on the other hand, celebrates our completing the reading of the entire Torah and beginning to read it again. On the same day, we finish Deuteronomy and begin Genesis – without a pause so that the cycle never stops. Therefore, the main actor here is the reader or the listener, the recipient – the people of Israel.

The two holidays, then, complement each other beautifully and complete each other. The one emphasizes God’s part in revelation, the other Israel’s part in studying, learning and internalizing that revelation. What point would there be in a revelation if there were no one to listen to it? The scroll is silent until the reader sounds out the words and the listener absorbs them.

On Shavuot, all we had to do was to say “We shall obey.” On Simhat Torah, on the other hand, we had to spend a year reading the entire Torah. That is a tremendous accomplishment that well deserves a true celebration. The problem is that not enough people really do it.

We have been called “The People of the Book,” and “the Book” is the Torah. Unfortunately, that Book remains unread by all too many and is not always well understood by those who do read it. In the first place, one of the tragedies of modern Jewish life in Israel and in the Diaspora is that the majority of Jews do not attend the synagogue regularly on Shabbat and therefore do not hear the Torah reading. What used to be taken for granted is simply not so anymore.

One would assume that in Israel, at least, the Torah would be transmitted to children in school, but obviously that is not the case except for religious schools. There is a certain amount of study of Tanach (Bible) in general schools, but by no means enough to ensure that a graduate of such a school knows the Torah. Except for the Tali schools within the general system, there is not enough emphasis on the religious, moral and ethical content of the Torah. And whereas the academic study of the Bible was once a major part of Israeli university studies, that, along with the humanities is general, has shrunk considerably. The glory days of biblical studies seem to have passed.

The Torah was a revolutionary work at its time, rebelling against the common beliefs of ancient religions and civilizations and bringing enlightenment in place of superstition. Its basic teachings remain revolutionary today and are well worth our time and our study. The keys to understanding the Torah have been given to us by great scholars such as the late Yehezkel Kaufmann, Nahum Sarna, Moshe Greenberg, Yochanan Muffs and Jacob Milgrom and by others now active such as Shalom Paul and Jeffrey Tigay. Reading and studying the Torah with both traditional commentators and these modern scholars will open our eyes to the beauty and the significance of the Torah. If we can spread this knowledge to ever greater numbers among our people, there will really be something to rejoice about on Simhat Torah.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).

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