Tradition Today: Celebrating Sinai

Since it would seem so natural to have a holiday commemorating the theophany, I have often wondered why the Torah does not proclaim such a day.

kotel plaza 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kotel plaza 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As depicted in the Torah, Shavuot seems to come in a poor third in the trio of pilgrimage holidays when all males are commanded to “appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose” (Deuteronomy 16:16). It lasts for only one day whereas both Succot and Pessah are a week long and Succot even has an extra day attached to it, Shmini Atzeret. Furthermore both Succot and Pessah are resplendent with colorful mitzvot and have historical as well as agricultural reasons, while Shavuot has no historical meaning and only the mitzva of first fruits and the offering of new grain (Numbers 28:26).
Pessah, obviously, is the commemoration of the Exodus and Succot of the fact that “future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). It seems quite clear that Shavuot – meaning “weeks” – is really the conclusion of a period of seven weeks that commenced with Pessah (Deut. 16:9-10). Thus it plays the same role for Pessah that Shmini Atzeret does for Succot – a concluding event. That is why the sages called it Atzeret, “the conclusion” (R.H.1:1).
In later times, however, the sages proclaimed that Shavuot indeed did have a historical basis, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Shabbat 86b and Yoma 4b). They called it z’man matan torateinu – “the season of the giving of our Torah.” When one looks at the chronology of events, it indeed seems quite plausible that the time of Shavuot could have been the time of the great gathering at Sinai when God revealed the Decalogue and other mitzvot to Israel and made the covenant in which we became the Lord’s people and the Lord became our God (Exodus 19).
Since it would seem so natural to have a holiday celebrating the theophany at Sinai, I have often wondered why the Torah does not proclaim such a day. Surely that was a more important event than living in succot. Perhaps it is because of the overreaching importance of that event that the Torah does not mandate commemorating it. We can relive the Exodus. We can even relive wandering in the wilderness and experiencing finding shelter. But how does one experience anew such an event as the revelation of God?
The events described in Exodus 19-20 are simply beyond human experience and beyond our powers of explanation and description. We experience God in history and in nature, but the events of Sinai are a mystical experience that one cannot reproduce. It is as if the Torah is indicating that to try to “celebrate” that event and reproduce it would be to trivialize its overwhelming importance.
Generations later, however, when more than a millennium had passed and the event was no longer vivid in the consciousness of the people, there was a need to strengthen belief in what had happened and to reassert the validity of the covenant and the sanctity of the Torah. Therefore the sages reinterpreted Shavuot to commemorate these things and it became what it is today, z’man matan torateinu.
Today Shavuot is even more important than ever. Modern scholarship has demonstrated that the Torah, in the words of Louis Jacobs, “is humanly mediated, that it is colored by its human background and the minds of its human authors.” Therefore many question its sanctity and the validity of the story of Sinai. Yet, to quote Jacobs again, for believing Jews the Torah, a divine jewel in a human setting, retains its sanctity since it records “how man found God and how God helped man to find Him.”
Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “The essence of our faith in the sanctity of the Bible is that its words contain that which God wants us to know and to fulfill. How these words were written down is not the fundamental problem. That is why the theme of biblical criticism is not the theme of faith, just as the question of whether the lightning and thunder at Sinai were a natural phenomenon or not is irrelevant to our faith in revelation. The act of revelation is a mystery, while the record of revelation is a literary fact, phrased in the language of man.”
One cannot prove that the event actually occurred exactly as described or even that it happened at all, but it would be strange indeed if this entire tradition had no basis whatsoever. At Sinai Israel became aware of God’s commanding presence and accepted the basic terms of the covenant which were later expanded and enhanced into the Torah and our other sacred literature. To celebrate what happened at Sinai reaffirms the very basis of our existence as a people, the covenantal relationship with God and the striving to translate that covenant into our way of life. Shavuot, therefore, may be brief, but its importance cannot be overestimated.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.