Whose Torah Do We Celebrate on Shavuot?
Why “Our” Torah?
The phrase that appears in the Amidah and Kiddush of Shavuot, זמן מתן תורתינו “the time our Torah was given,” strikes me as unusual. In most cases, our liturgy uses a version of the phrase “God’s Torah”:
Blessing on the Torah (morning)
וְהַעֲרֶב נָא יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ אֶת דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָתֶֽךָ בְּפִינוּ
Please, Lord our God, make the words of Your Torah…
Blessing on the Torah (morning and when receiving an aliyah)
אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ
Who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us his Torah.
Second Blessing on the Shema, Shacharit
וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּֽנוּ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל לִשְׁמֹֽעַ לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת וּלְקַיֵּם אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ בְּאַהֲבָה.
Instill in our hearts the desire to understand and discern to listen, learn, and teach, to observe, perform, and fulfill all the teachings of Your Torah in love.
Why on Shavuot do we speak of “our Torah” rather than “God’s Torah”?
The Torah- Pentateuch was Completed c. the 7th of Adar
According to Jewish tradition, Shavuot celebrates the day the Decalogue was revealed at Sinai, and this is most likely what the phrase meant by describing Shavuot as a celebration of the giving of the Torah (=the Decalogue). But what about the complete Torah itself, i.e., the Pentateuch? When, according to Jewish tradition, was this given?
According to the rabbinic understanding of Deuteronomy, the Torah was written or at least completed on Moses’ last day:
דברים לא:כד וַיְהִ֣י׀ כְּכַלּ֣וֹת מֹשֶׁ֗ה לִכְתֹּ֛ב אֶת דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה הַזֹּ֖את עַל סֵ֑פֶר עַ֖ד תֻּמָּֽם:
Deut 31:24 When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Torah to the very end
The Talmud in b. Kiddushin 38a calculates this as the 7th of Adar. If Moses wrote the Torah (perhaps minus the last eight or twelve verses, which according to some were written by Joshua), and the Torah records his last day, this would mean that the Torah was completed on the 7th of Adar, or a few days later when Joshua finished writing it. Surprisingly, there is no tradition that celebrates or even marks this momentous day. Why?
The Torah Was Given on “This Day”
The Torah states that Israel arrived at Sinai “on this day” (Exodus 19:1). Rashi quotes the midrash that has become famous for its dictum:
ביום הזה – בראש חודש. לא היה צריך לכתוב אלא “ביום ההוא.” מהו “ביום הזה”? שיהיו דברי תורה חדשים עליך כאלו היום נתנו.
“On this day” – On the New Moon (Mechilta, Shab. 86b). It could have said only, “on that day.” What is the meaning of “on this day”? That the words of the Torah shall be new to you, as if they were given just today.
The midrash makes a homiletic point that is central to Judaism: the significance of Torah is not that it was revealed on a particular day in the past. Rather, its significance lies in what it reveals to us today. In other words, the Torah is to be experienced and celebrated as if it were revealed today.
Is There Really Nothing New Under the Sun?
קהלת א:ט מַה שֶּֽׁהָיָה֙ ה֣וּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶ֔ה וּמַה שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂ֔ה ה֖וּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂ֑ה וְאֵ֥ין כָּל חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ:
Eccl 1:9 Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; There is nothing new beneath the sun!
Despite this claim, the world changes. Since Kohelet was written, for example, technology has transformed every aspect of our lives, whether medicine (antibiotics, vaccinations, pain-killers, etc.), transportation (cars, trains, airplanes, space flight, etc.), or communication (cell phones, internet, email, Facebook, etc.). The world is truly a different place.
What about Torah? Has it changed in a similar fashion? Rashi uses this verse as a way of contrasting the constancy of the physical world with the continuing newness of Torah:
אבל ההוגה בתורה מוצא בה תמיד חדושי טעמים כענין שנאמר (משלי ה) דדיה ירווך בכל עת מה הדד הזה כל זמן שהתינוק ממשמש בו מוצא בו טעם.
But one who studies Torah constantly finds new ideas in it, as the verse says (Prov 5:19), “let her breasts satisfy you at all times.” [Torah] is just like [a mother’s] breast: every time babies suckle at it, they find its flavor.
This is beautiful conception of Torah, but is it realistic? Compare the advanced methods used by scientists, who design complex and expensive particle colliders to uncover the tiniest details about the makeup of the universe, to the stagnation of a Chumash class, in which we (and our children) study the six days of creation in the same way our forebears did in the pre-Copernican world.
A Torah that is so far removed from the real world of science and technology, not to mention basic philosophical notions such as freedom of religion and the basic equality of all people, feels foreign. Instead of feeling new, as it is traditionally taught, it often feels antiquated and irrelevant. Consider a person sitting on a Plane 33,000 feet in the air, connected to the internet on a laptop, reading the Torah comes up against Torah’s requirement to stone a Shabbat violator to death.
The attempts to defend the Torah’s words through dogmatic statements or apologetics fall flat. How do we make our engagement in Torah real, new, and satisfying as in the way we engage with the world of science?
When Revelation Ceased Prophecy was given to the Scholars
The rabbinic statement about the gap between a world based on prophecy and their world, which had no prophets, reflects one attempt to grapple with this problem:
אמר רבי אבדימי דמן חיפה מיום שחרב בית המקדש ניטלה נבואה מן הנביאים וניתנה לחכמים
Rabbi Avdimi from Haifa said: “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from prophets and given to scholars.”
R. Avdimi’s solution was that what once made the Torah vital, namely prophecy, has been exchanged for the more relevant and accessible discipline of scholarship. This idea gave the rabbis the freedom to take ownership of the Torah and make it theirs, by utilizing the type of study familiar in their world. And thus, they interpreted the text homiletically, as their non-Jewish contemporaries, the Greeks, did, and they wrote law codes like the Mishnah, as the Romans were doing with their traditions. The medieval rabbis also made Torah their own, whether by devising innovative peshat readings, kabbalistic readings, or philosophical readings.
A Torah Study for Jews in a Modern World
A subject comes to life and feels relevant when we allow ourselves to engage it with all our critical faculties, just as we would a scientific problem. Torah is not science, and we cannot devise experiments to confirm or deny all of our ideas. Nevertheless, the ability to engage questions honestly, without fear that we will undo our religious commitments, is the key to making Torah come to life today.
For example, we read about the execution of a Shabbat violator:
במדבר טו:לה וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֔ה מ֥וֹת יוּמַ֖ת הָאִ֑ישׁ רָג֨וֹם אֹת֤וֹ בָֽאֲבָנִים֙ כָּל הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה מִח֖וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה: טו:לו וַיֹּצִ֨יאוּ אֹת֜וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָ֗ה אֶל מִחוּץ֙ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וַיִּרְגְּמ֥וּ אֹת֛וֹ בָּאֲבָנִ֖ים וַיָּמֹ֑ת כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶת מֹשֶֽׁה:
Num 15:35 Then YHWH said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” 15:36 So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death—as YHWH had commanded Moses.
We must have a conversation about the fact that this sounds barbaric to us. We should then also ask how this idea entered Judaism and what it might teach us about the history of our traditions, and what it implies about the meaning of Shabbat.
Some still believe that we should simply draw a red line, and respond that it is our “mesorah” that “God said so,” and ignore such questions—but I disagree. Indeed, I would urge anyone who takes such a rigid position to watch a video of what stoning actually looks like.
Studying Torah with Academic Disciplines: Making Torah Ours
When I developed the idea for Project TABS (Torah And Biblical Scholarship), and its website, TheTorah.com, it had become clear to me that only by incorporating academic scholarship, with its commitment to critical methods, could we make Torah study relevant and engaging. Scholarship is an ever-evolving discourse, open to new ideas, and constantly updating, refining, and revising old ones, and such ideas are crucial for keeping the Torah fresh, meaningful, and central to Jewish life.
The last three years have offered me an opportunity to see such new ideas in action. As one of the main editors of TheTorah.com, along with Marc Brettler and Zev Farber, I have had the privilege of working with nearly two hundred scholars, seeing firsthand, how much time and effort goes into their research, and how they develop, refine, and defend their ideas. This type of study is critical for making the Torah feel relevant, turning it into “our” Torah rather than an ancient book to which we only offer lip service.
Studying the Torah Makes It Ours
The Talmud in b. Kiddushin 32a discusses the precise issue that I opened with: Whose Torah is it? It notes of a Torah teacher:
אמר רבא אין תורה דיליה היא דכתיב ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה.
Rava said: “Yes, the Torah is his, as it is written (Psa 1:2), ‘And he studies his teaching day and night.’”
כי אם בתורת ה’ חפצו ובתורתו יהגה בתחילה היא נקראת תורת השם ומשלמדה וגרסה היא נקראת תורתו.
“Rather, the teaching of YHWH is his delight, and he studies his teaching…” – At the beginning it is called the Torah of God, but once he learns it, it is called his Torah.
I would like to take the opportunity on the TheTorah.com’s third anniversary, to thank our thousands of readers, and especially to thank all the scholars who have shared “their” Torah ideas with us, and to thank our supporters for making this project possible. I wish you all a chag sameach and I hope that you will experience this Shavuot as a זמן מתן תורתינו “the time of the giving our Torah.”
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June 9, 2016
March 12, 2020
Rabbi David D. Steinberg is the co-founder and director of Project TABS. He learned in Manchester Yeshiva, Gateshead Yeshiva, and Mir Yeshiva. Steinberg took the Ner Le’Elef Rabbinical Outreach training course and moved to Huntington, NY to work as an outreach rabbi for the Mesorah Center. In 2007 he joined Aish Hatorah NY as a Programs Director, managing their Yeshiva in Passaic and serving as a rabbi in their Executive Learning program.
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