Sunday, May 23, 2010

What Really Happened on Shavuot?

Occasionally one is presented with the assertion that the connection of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah is a late innovation with no real historical basis. For example, Rabbi Shael Siegel states:
Upon closer examination it may appear as though there may have been a distortion made by our esteemed sages and rabbis as to the meaning of the holiday. In reality, Shavuot is a national festival celebrating the offering up of the “bikkurim” at the Temple. The holiday is centered on ownership of land and nationhood...

The sages and rabbis in their wisdom, not wanting the holiday to fall by the wayside attributed a new significance to Shavuot as a result of the new reality. Living in the Diaspora it became impossible to fulfill the biblical commandment of bringing the “bikkurim” to the Temple. Without the viability of the command, the holiday would have lost it purpose had the rabbis not made the new connection, the celebration of the giving of the Law.
Such a claim can be made because while the other two of the shalosh regalim are mentioned in conjunction with both historical and agricultural events (Pesach - Ex. 13, Lev 23:10; Sukkot - Ex. 23:16, Lev. 23:39, 43), Shavuot mentions only an agricultural connection (Ex. 23:16, 34:22).

Of course, the traditional point of view accepts unconditionally that the Sinaitic Revelation occurred on Shavuot. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag attempts to demonstrate how one can arrive at 6/7 Sivan for Ma'amad Har Sinai:
In the Mechilta (and in Mesechet Shabbat 86b), Chazal calculate that the Torah was given on either the sixth or seventh of Sivan (see also Rashi on [Exodus] 19:2->19), yet the fact remains that the Torah clearly prefers to obscure the precise date of this event. There is an additional manner by which it is possible to calculate the approximate date of Ma'amad Har Sinai. It is based on the assumption that the specific date of the tenth of Tishrei was chosen as 'Yom Kippur' because it marks the date when Moshe descended from Har Sinai with the second "luchot". If so, then we can calculate 'backwards', using the three sets of 'forty days' as described in the story of chet ha'egel in Devarim chapter 9; thus arriving at the following approximate dates: Forty days - second luchot: 1 Elul -> 10 Tishrei. Forty days - Moshe's prayer: 19 Tamuz -> 29 Av Forty days - first luchot: 6 or 7 Sivan -> 17 Tamuz.
The main problem with such a calculation is that it relies on other assumptions (e.g., the Yom Kippur/2nd Tablets association) and not on any clearly stated textual chronology.

However we do have a very early source (300-400 years earlier than the Mechilta) that explicitly connects Shavuot with an historical event!

For those unacquainted with the fascinating Book of Jubilees, it is the earliest non-(Jewish)-canonical "Biblical book" extant, having been dated to approximately 150 BCE (examples being found among the Dead Sea Scrolls). Jubilees is also known as "Lesser Genesis", since it is a re-working of the books of Genesis and Exodus. Jubilees follows a tradition that is very strict in its approach to halacha. For example, 15:14 states: And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin on the eighth day, that soul shall be cut off from his people, for he has broken My covenant. Fortunately, the Pharasaic rabbis either mitigated the severity of an accepted halachic tradition or relied on a different one. But the important point here is that Jubilees records many early Jewish traditions, some of which are found in later midrashic sources (as well as some that are falsely ascribed as being Christian in origin, such as that of fallen angels!)

So what does Jubilees say about Shavuot? 6:15-17 states:
And He gave to Noah and his sons a sign that there should not again be a flood on the earth. He set His bow in the cloud for a sign of the eternal covenant that there should not again be a flood on the earth to destroy it all the days of the earth. For this reason it is ordained and written on the heavenly tables, that they should celebrate the feast of weeks in this month once a year, to renew the covenant every year.
(Shavuot is again mentioned in chapter 22, but in connection with Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael celebrating it as the feast of first fruits.)

So Jubilees associates Shavuot with a quasi-historical event - the covenantal renewal of God's promise not to destroy the earth! But this was a universal promise made to all of mankind rather than a unique covenant made exclusively with the Jewish people. It would surely pale in comparison with the Revelation at Sinai in the eyes of Jews in the 2nd century BCE. If there were a tradition connecting Shavuot to Sinai - THE seminal event of Judaism - surely the authors of Jubilees would have mentioned it.


Shilton HaSechel said...

How does the strange rabbinic interpretation of "mimacharat hashabbat" fit into all of this?

If the date of 6/7 came b4 that interpretation then i guess they were trying to make shavuot conform to their traditional date of matan torah

otherwise I wonder why they would change the pashut peshat in the torah?

JewishRebel said...

Excellent piece, FH!

Baal Habos said...

Fantastic! Is this your own Chiddush?

Frum Heretic said...

Shilton - it certainly seems that the Sadducees (and later the Karaites during the Gaonic period) had a stronger textual basis for their assertion regarding Shabbat being the start of the 7 week count. I don't find Chazal's counter proofs very compelling; ultimately they must rely on the authenticity of mesorah.

Baal - Thanks, but I wouldn't call it chiddush per se since I'm not presenting any new material; after all, the historical explanation of the chag is more than 2000 years old!

Shilton HaSechel said...

>it certainly seems that the Sadducees had a stronger textual basis for their assertion regarding Shabbat

Duh! What I'm wondering is why Chazal went through the trouble of changing the simple meaning of the verse. I mean i get why they didn't want chop people's limbs off and didn't want execute rebellious children but who cares when shavuot starts? They must have had some goal in mind.

Baal Habos said...

Frum, I'm referring to the fact that Jubilees makes no mention of Mattan Torah. That Diyuk is wonderful.

Shilton, maybe Chazal were bothered by the terminology, if Shavuos was always meant to be on Sunday, then why didn't the torah say something like Bayom Rishon. But that is unlikely

And check this out.

Seems far fetched but the implication is that that Pharisees wanted to hit the Saducees in the pocketbook.

Shilton HaSechel said...

It was obviously not a textual issue because such a radical calendar changing interpretation needs more of an incetive than just some Rabbi's problem with some grammar

An economic issue? Maybe but how did the Sadducees chilling out in the temple benefit from the local hotels making money. Maybe people brought more korbanot. Also Pharisees lived in Jerusalem too surely they also benefited from an extended pilgrimage?

Anonymous said...

I'm stumped.

Doesn't the torah state that the Sinai event took place 50 days after the exodus, which coincides with Shavuot?

Frum Heretic said...


Sam said...

Is it true that there is no reference
to the giving of the torah at Sinai in all of Nach?

Frum Heretic said...

There is no reference explicitly connecting Shavuot to the giving of the Torah in all of Tanach.