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
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.
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
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
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).