Shavuot and the Covenant

Did the early rabbis know of the connection between the Torah and the holiday?

By STEPHEN ROSENBERG
May 30, 2006 22:45
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Whether we regard Shavuot as the conclusion of Pessah or the beginning of the wheat harvest, we are not about to start clearing away the matzot or begin waving a loaf of bread on that festival. The talmudic rabbis called Shavuot "Atzeret" (the closing "Solemn Assembly"), which implies that it is the conclusion to Pessah, and the Torah tells us to wave two loaves of the new wheat, as part of an offering of the first fruits. Today we cannot perform these Temple functions. In their place we hear all the time, over and over again, from our rabbis at the pulpit, in their writings and at their shiurim (lessons) that Shavuot is Zman Matan Toratenu, the "Time of the Giving of our Law." But what does that phrase really mean? We can trace the concept back to the claim in the Talmud, where Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua of the second century CE, says that "everyone knows that the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Atzeret (Shavuot)"; and Rava, of the fourth century, worked out that the Commandments were given on the sixth day of the third month, Sivan, the date designated by the Pharisees for Shavuot. The Torah however does not name a date for the Ten Commandments; it states only that they were given in the third month, just as it does not mention a date for Shavuot, saying only that it should be 50 days from the day after the Pessah "Sabbath." THE EXACT day, as is well known, is a matter of dispute between the early Jewish authorities. If the Ten Commandments were indeed given on a certain date, how does that come to mean that the whole Torah (Law) was given on that same day? From the Torah itself, it is quite clear that Moses delivered it over a long period of time, and that the law-giving was spaced out over the 40 years in the Wilderness. As far as the Torah is concerned, the Shavuot ceremonies of bringing the new wheat and the first fruits cannot be fulfilled in the absence of the Temple. Some kibbutzim, secular ones, have instituted impressive agricultural customs related to the festival, but the Orthodox have not adopted these ideas, although they have included a synagogue reading of the Scroll of Ruth, which takes place at the end of the barley harvest. Apart from that small gesture, the Orthodox custom is purely to emphasize the relationship of Shavuot to Matan Torah (even the flowers and the cheesecake are related to Sinai) whereby the rabbis have managed to imply that the Torah was given on one day, complete, that day being 6 Sivan, their accepted date for Shavuot. THE LOGIC of this assertion by the rabbis rests on three unattested assumptions which led them to this surprising conclusion. I say unattested, because none are stated in the Torah. The three assumptions are that the Ten Commandments were given on the sixth of Sivan, that the giving of the Commandments includes the whole of the Torah, and that the date of Shavuot is 6 Sivan. Ergo, they say, Shavuot is Zman Matan Toratenu! There is a good rabbinic principle that if there is a doubt on a matter that rests on another doubt, or if there are too many queries about a particular assertion, then the whole argument falls apart. But here an assumed premise, based on another assumed premise, based on a third assumed premise, is considered to have been proved conclusively and is put as such into the public domain. Since Talmudic logic itself does not apply, there must be something else at play. It is the way of the rabbis to look for a precedent, and it would not be their way in this case to come to such an unwarranted conclusion without finding a precedent. And when there is a precedent it is the rabbinic custom to mention it and to give it credit. In this case there is a good precedent, but it is not acknowledged, and we shall soon see why. IN THE time of the Maccabees, there was an extensive Hebrew literature consisting of original prayers, moral tales and expansions of the biblical texts, whose writers thought it legitimate to explain and forestall many of the problems inherent in those texts. One such problem was the lack of a clear calendar, another was the significance of all the historical events of our forefathers. How were they to be related to the overall picture of the world created by God, and how could they be made to fit into a pattern that would show the overarching Will of God in history? One work that attempted to do just that, probably the best-known of the collection today called the Pseudepigrapha, was the Book of Jubilees. It set out a rational fixed calendar and attempted to understand all the events of the past, and the festivals, in relation to a seven-year cycle, and particularly a seven-times-seven, or 49, year cycle, hence the name Jubilees. This of course had its grounding in the "Yovel" (Jubilee) regulations of the Torah, when the shofar was blown and land reverted to its original owners amid general rejoicing. The author of Jubilees was using that commandment to try and explain many items of our early history. To help in his calculations, he also set out a calendar year of 364 days, which was most convenient as it contained a full number of weeks, the week of six days plus the Sabbath being, of course, another of the fundamental laws of the Torah. Thus all dates and festivals would fall on the same day of the week and, under that system, he calculated that the first day of Pessah would always fall on a Thursday. Shavuot was reckoned to be 50 days from the first morrow of the Sabbath after the whole of Pessah; that way Shavuot always fell on a Sunday, the date being 15 Sivan. This was very convenient as it brought Shavuot in line with all the other festivals that fell mid-month, like Pessah, Succot, the New Year for Trees and the Wine Harvest festival of 15 Av. NOW THE 49-year (Yovel) cycle was used by the author to correlate all the events of our history, and in particular to tie together the various covenants made between God and Israel. The author started with the Covenant made with Noah after the Flood, when God promised not to bring another flood and Noah, for his part, was to refrain from eating any blood. The Covenant was extended to Abraham, who was promised an extensive land and a numerous people, and finally the Covenant was extended to all Israel at the great national assembly at Mount Sinai. And that last major Covenant fell on 15 Sivan which, according to the author's calculations, was Shavuot. It had to be Shavuot, as that festival had no other intimate connection with the Exodus from Egypt, unlike Pessah and Succot. So here we have it, Zman Matan Toratenu was not just the giving of the Ten Commandments, it was the whole Covenant implied by the great Theophany, the awesome appearance of thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, when the crux of the Laws of the Torah was given. In other words, the author of Jubilees solved the whole problem. The giving of the Ten Commandments was the basis of the complete Covenant (or Torah) of God with Israel, and the date was that of Shavuot, the festival that had to be singled out for this honor, in order to give it more than just an agricultural significance. NOW, DID the early rabbis know of this idea of the conjunction of the Torah and Shavuot? Yes of course they did, for how else, without knowing them, would they have banned the reading of the apocryphal Sefarim Hahitzonim, the External Books (particularly the Pseudepigrapha), that were outside the official canon agreed by the Sanhedrin at Yavne? Although some of the ideas were acceptable, many of them were not. The solar year of 364 days was never sanctioned (it did not even work in the end), and the date of Shavuot was not in line with the ideas of the Pharisees, who set it at 6 Sivan. Thus the Book of Jubilees was banned. But the Covenant of the Torah and its relationship to Shavuot must have resonated with the early rabbis, even though Rava had to recalculate the date. For Shavuot, Zman Matan Toratenu it was to be, even though it was not politic for the talmudists to acknowledge their source. The writer is a Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.

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