In What Way Is Shavuot Zman Matan Torateinu?
זמן מתן תורתינו: What Does Torah Mean in This Context?
Already in the Second Temple Period, and certainly from the Rabbinic Period on, Shavuot has been identified as the day of the revelation at Sinai/Horeb. The liturgy expresses this by calling the holiday “the time the Torah was given (זמן מתן תורתינו),” a phrase first found in the 9th century Seder Rav Amram.
This expression is problematic, for the biblical text itself nowhere states that the entire Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan, the date of Shavuot, and the entire Torah is too long to be revealed in a single day. Furthermore, the Torah is a flowing narrative that details not only the creation of the world, the patriarchs and the exodus—events that are placed chronologically before the revelation at Sinai, but the entire wilderness experience as well, ending with the death of Moses.
If Moses had received the entire Pentateuch on Sinai, then he would have known everything that was going to happen in the wilderness in advance. But if Moses knew that he would be punished for hitting the rock—to take the most obvious problem—couldn’t he have stopped himself and thereby avoid punishment? But had he done so, that would have falsified the story in the Torah—the time-traveler’s paradox as it were.
The Writing of the Pentateuch: Piecemeal or at the End of the Fortieth year?
The Sages were well aware of this problem and do not claim that the Pentateuch was actually written down on Mount Sinai. Since they did believe it was written by Moses, they suggest either that it was written by him during the fortieth year at the end of his life, or that he wrote it down piecemeal over the entire wilderness period (b. Gittin 60a).
אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי בנאה: “תורה מגילה מגילה ניתנה, שנאמר: ‘אז אמרתי הנה באתי במגילת ספר כתוב עלי.'” רבי שמעון בן לקיש אומר: “תורה חתומה ניתנה, שנאמר: ‘לקוח את ספר התורה הזאת.'”
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Banah: “The Torah was given scroll by scroll, as it says (Psalms 40:8): ‘Then I said: ‘Here, I have come. In the scroll of the book it is written of me.’” Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: “The Torah was given complete, as it says (Deut. 31:26): ‘Take this book of the Torah.’”
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish references a verse from Deuteronomy that describes Moses handing the Torah over to the Levites during his last day on earth. Only two verses before that (31:24), the Torah states that Moses wrote the book down.
כד וַיְהִ֣י׀ כְּכַלּ֣וֹת מֹשֶׁ֗ה לִכְתֹּ֛ב אֶת דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה הַזֹּ֖את עַל סֵ֑פֶר עַ֖ד תֻּמָּֽם: כה וַיְצַ֤ו מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶת הַלְוִיִּ֔ם נֹ֥שְׂאֵ֛י אֲר֥וֹן בְּרִית יְ-הֹוָ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר: כו לָקֹ֗חַ אֵ֣ת סֵ֤פֶר הַתּוֹרָה֙ הַזֶּ֔ה וְשַׂמְתֶּ֣ם אֹת֔וֹ מִצַּ֛ד אֲר֥וֹן בְּרִית יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָֽיָה שָׁ֥ם בְּךָ֖ לְעֵֽד:
24 When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Torah to the very end, 25 Moses charged the Levites who carried the Ark of the Covenant of Yhwh, saying: 26 Take this book of Torah and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of Yhwh your God, and let it remain there as a witness against you.
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish interprets this as the first (and only) time Moses writes the Torah, and thus he wrote the entire Torah, from beginning to end, at the end of his life.
Two Approaches to the Meaning of “Torah” in this Context
Rabbinic literature has two basic approaches to explaining what is meant by Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah. The first I will call the Decalogue approach and the second the mitzvot approach.
The Decalogue as Torah
In rabbinic literature, the “giving of the Torah” is sometimes interchangeable with the giving of the Decalogue, as can be seen in b. Shabbat 86b, during the debate about what day the revelation at Sinai occurred:
תנו רבנן: בששי בחדש ניתנו עשרת הדברות לישראל. רבי יוסי אומר: “בשבעה בו.”
Our rabbis taught: On the sixth of the month, the Decalogue was given to Israel. Rabbi Yossi says: “On the seventh.”
אמר רבא: “דכולי עלמא – בראש חדש אתו למדבר סיני… ודכולי עלמא – בשבת ניתנה תורה לישראל… כי פליגי בקביעא דירחא…”
Rava said: “Everyone agrees that they arrived in the Sinai wilderness on Rosh Chodesh…. And everyone agrees that the Torah was given to Israel on Shabbat…. They are merely debating about the fixing of the new moon…”
The baraita discusses the giving of the Decalogue, but when Rava glosses the baraita he refers to the giving of the Torah. Apparently, to Rava as well as to the editors of the Talmud, the two phrases mean the same thing.
In keeping with this usage, a number of commentators take for granted that זמן מתן תורתינו refers to God’s recitation of the Decalogue. For example, Rabbi Ovadia Hadaya (1889-1969), in a responsum defending the practice of standing while the Decalogue is recited by the Torah reader during services, writes (Yaskil Avdi vol. 2, Orach Chaim 1):
וצא וראה החג השבועות הקדוש קבעה לנו התורה לחוג את חג זמן מתן תורתינו מעמד הר סיני יום קבלת עשרת הדברות.
Take as evidence that on the holy holiday of Shavuot, the Torah requires us to celebrate the giving of the Torah, the revelation at Mount Sinai, the day of receiving the Decalogue.
In short, according to this intuitive approach, Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai, an event specific to this date alone.
The Beginning of Revelation: The Mitzvot (Torah she-be’al peh) Approach
Alternatively, the phrase זמן מתן תורתינו refers to the beginning of the process of revelation of the Torah to Moses, which continued on the mountain for forty days. Since, as pointed out earlier, the Torah Moses receives on the Mountain cannot be the Pentateuch, the rabbis suggest that Torah in the phrase זמן מתן תורתינו does not refer to the written Torah that we have, composed of stories and laws, but to the totality of mitzvot only (i.e., not the stories), including the explications found in the Torah she-be’al Peh (oral law).
To take just one example, R. Moshe ben Avraham Met of Przemyśl (c. 1550-1606) describes Shavuot as the beginning of Moses’ halacha training (Mateh Moshe, Laws of Shavuot, 690):
וחג השבועות גם כן אינו אלא יום אחד לא היה ראוי לומר זמן מתן תורתינו אלא יום מתן תורתינו, אבל אנחנו אומרים זמן מתן תורתינו, לפי שיום זה אינו יום מתן תורה ממש, כי מיום הנ’ עלה משה להר ונתעסק בקבלתה ימים רבים מן ההר אל העם ומן העם אל ההר.
The Holiday of Shavuot, which is only one day, it should not have been fitting to say “the time of the giving of our Torah,” but rather, “the day of the giving of our Torah.” Nevertheless, we say “the time of the giving of our Torah” because this day isn’t actually the day the Torah was given, since, from the fiftieth day [of the Omer], Moses went up the mountain and was busy receiving it for days—[going] from the mountain to the people, and from the people back up the mountain.
We see this usage—Torah as mitzvot including Torah she-be’al Peh—when the rabbis speak of Moses receiving the Torah at Sinai (m. Avot 1:1).
משה קבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע ויהושע לזקנים וזקנים לנביאים ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it on to the men of the Great Assembly.
As many traditional commentators note, the word “Torah” here refers to the mitzvot of the Torah, as interpreted by the rabbinic oral tradition. The point of the Mishna is to defend the rabbinic claim that the correct interpretation of the mitzvot lies with them, since they received it from their teachers, who themselves received it from their teachers, all the way back to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Indeed, the term “Torah” is interchangeable with mitzvot in rabbinic literature. For example in Leviticus Rabbah (1:10), which comments on the first verse in Leviticus, where God speaks to Moses from the Tent of Meeting:
‘מאהל מועד’ – אמר ר’ אלעזר אפעלפי שניתנה תורה סייג לישראל מסיני לא נענשו עליה עד שנשנת להן באוהל מועד. משל לדיאטגמא כתובה ומחותמת ונכנסה למדינה, אין בני המדינה נענשין עליה עד שתפרש להן בדימוסיה שלמדינה. כך אפעלפישנתנה תורה לישראל מסיני לא נענשו עליה עד שנשנת להן באהל מועד. הה”ד עד שהבאתיו אל בית אמי ואל חדר הורתי. אל בית אמי, זה סיני. ואל חדר הורתי, זה אהל מועד, שמשם נצטוו ישראל בהוראה.
‘From the Tent of Meeting’ – R. Elazar said: “Even though the Torah was given to bind the Israelites from Sinai, they were not punished for its [violation] until after it was taught to them in the Tent of Meeting. This can be compared to a sealed, written ordinance that enters a land. The citizens are not punished for violating it until it is explained to them in the popular assembly. In this way,even though the Torah was given to Israel at Sinai, they were not punished for violating it until it was taught to them in the Tent of Meeting. This is what scripture [means when it] writes (Song 3:4): ‘To my mother’s house’ – this is Sinai, ‘to my parents’ room’ – this is the Tent of Meeting, for it was from there that Israel was commanded in the laws.
Although the text discusses the “Torah,” which was given to Moses at Sinai, it is clear that it refers only to laws. The midrash is attempting to prove that the Israelites were not culpable for violating the laws of the Torah until Moses went over them publically in the Tent of Meeting.
What does the Biblical Text Mean by the Term “Torah”?
This analysis offers two clear readings of the rabbinic phrase זמן מתן תורתינו,–the time of the revelation of the Decalogue, and the time when God began to impart laws, some written, some oral, to Moses. But what does Torah mean in Exodus 24:14:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְ-הֹוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶהְיֵה שָׁ֑ם וְאֶתְּנָ֨ה לְךָ֜ אֶת לֻחֹ֣ת הָאֶ֗בֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה֙ וְהַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתַ֖בְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָֽם:
Yhwh said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets and the torah and the mitzvah which I have inscribed to instruct them.”
God here explicitly says that the Torah and Mitzvah is something written. It is possible that the phrase “והתורה והמצוה” is meant to qualify the previous phrase, and explain what appears on the stone tablets. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the verse may be describing something much more comprehensive than the Decalogue.
This verse so bothered medieval interpreters that they went to great lengths to make it mean anything but what it appears to mean, i.e. that Moses received some sort of written “Torah and mitzvah” already at this point. But what is the torah and mitzvah which God wrote? From context, the referent appears to be the Covenant Collection, i.e., the laws listed in the previous chapters (Exod 20:19-23:19). And thus, a peshat reading of Exodus leads us to a third translation of Torah miSinai, albeit one that is certainly not the intent of the rabbis: the Torah that we received at Sinai according to Exodus is the Covenant Collection, which was written down by God in a book (or on tablets), and handed to Moses on the mountain.
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May 20, 2015
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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