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Zman Matan Torateinu

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

Chag Shavuot is "Zman matan Torateinu", though in the Torah itself there is no reference to the connection between Chag Shavuot, the chag of "weeks", and Matan Torah. Apparently, possibly at a later stage[1], Chazal instituted this connection and established that Shavuot, in addition to being Chag Hashavuot , Chag Hakatzir, the festival celebrating the wheat harvest, Chag Habikurim and Chag Ha'atzeret, is also to be celebrated as Chag Matan Torah.

This Dvar Torah is not going to discuss why the Torah refrains from indicating this connection or why the Torah indeed does not dedicate a special day to commemorate Matan Torah.[2] I would like, instead, to question the meaning and purpose of having a Chag devoted to Matan Torah.

It has been suggested[3] that Chazal based this idea on the following verses:[4]

"But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children:

The day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to Me, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn to revere Me as long as they live on earth, and may so teach their children.”

You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark with densest clouds.

The LORD spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.

He declared to you the covenant that He commanded you to observe, the Ten Commandments; and He inscribed them on two tablets of stone.

At the same time the LORD commanded me to impart to you laws and rules for you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy."

The Ramban writes on this verse:

"… this verse, in my opinion, is a negative commandment, [which] it warns about very much. As when it stated that we should be careful with all of the commandments and guard the statutes and the judgments to do them, it went back to state, "However I am warning you very much to be on guard and guard yourself very, very much to remember from where the commandments came to you, such that you not forget the stand at Mount Sinai with all of the things that your eyes saw there - the voices and the torches, His glory and His greatness, and His words that you heard from the fire. And you shall inform your children and your children's children for all time [about] the thing that your eyes saw at this great stand. And the explanation of the reason is in order that you should learn to fear Him all of the days, and teach your children for all generations. If so, you shall do this and not forget Me." And behold, before it mentions the [Ten Commandments], it warns with a negative commandment, that we should never forget anything from this stand and never remove it from our hearts. And it [also] commanded with a positive commandment that we should inform all of our progeny from one generation to another [about] everything that was [perceived] there through sight and hearing..."

In summary of the verses as understood by the Ramban, the Torah is demanding that we safeguard our memory of Ma'amad Har Sinai and Matan Torah and forever transmit these memories to future generations as it is the basis of our belief in the eternal truthfulness of our Torah. The Ramban understood this to be one of the 365 negative Mitzvot and included it in his list of the 613 mitzvot in contrast to the Rambam who did not.[5]

Based on this Ramban, it is possible that Chazal instituted that on Chag Shavuot we actively fulfill this Mitzvah of remembering and transmitting Matan Torah, since it is a Mitzvah and occurred historically at the same time as Chag Shavuot.  It is similar to the way Chazal decreed the fulfillment of the Mitzvah to remember what Amalek did to us on the Shabbat before Purim - even though inherently it is independent of Purim and preceded it, it is appropriate to be performed then because of the connection between Haman and Amalek.

However, the problem is that apparently we do not do this on Chag Shavuot or on any other day either. There is no ceremony where we have to recall and reconstruct in any way the actual event of Matan Torah. In truth, apparently we have to admit that it would be quite impossible to do as well. Besides the fact that it seems to be an event of supernatural characteristics, which is impossible to recreate, the simple fact is that we don't know what exactly happened beyond those verses that the Torah describes.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Ztz"l pointed out this difficulty and wrote:[6]

"Upon inspection, the events at Sinai turn out to have been very complex….

Thus, everyone experienced the revelation from a different place, and had a different point of view.

With regard to the duration of the revelation, too, there is some complexity: from the point of view of Am Yisrael it lasted one day, while from Moshe's perspective it lasted forty days. Another difference between Moshe and Am Yisrael arises from a comment of the Ramban (20:6), who explains (in accordance with the Gemara in Makkot 24a) that Am Yisrael heard and comprehended directly from the Holy One only the first two of the Ten Utterances; they heard the rest from the Holy One but did not comprehend, and they understood only after Moshe had translated for them…

If we wish, then, to understand and to remember this experience, we shall need to clarify the manner in which Moshe received the Torah. An examination of the event from the perspective of Am Yisrael can provide only a partial understanding."

What's interesting to note as well is that Rav Lichtenstein Ztz"l does not resolve these difficulties by relating the specific Mesorah (tradition) regarding the nature of Matan Torah as you would expect us to have according to the above Ramban and the comments of Rav Hirsch in the footnote.

De facto it would seem that the Ramban's opinion is not practiced. Most of the commentators indeed did not explain those above mentioned verses as a Mitzvah to recollect and transmit the events of the Revelation at Har Sinai. The Gemara itself understood the verses as a Mitzvah to teach Torah itself to one's children and grandchildren.[7]

Particularly interesting is the commentary of the Sforno who explains that when the Torah says: "And make them known to your children and to your children’s children", it’s saying to the generation that physically saw the revelation that they have to inform the next generation about the revelation and Matan Torah in an intellectually compelling way and not by recollecting the events themselves.[8]

It would seem that the purpose of Chag Shavuot as Chag Matan Torah is not to serve as a day of recollection of the events of that historical day, which as mentioned before is apparently impossible. The purpose of Chag Matan Torah is intended to be a recreation of a present and immanent experience of Matan Torah. In a similar way, Chag Pesach is not intended to be a day of reminiscing about the exodus from Egypt, rather is meant to be an opportunity of creating a present exodus from a current "Egypt". Obviously in order to do this it is imperative to learn and understand as best possible those historical events, but the history is not the aim, rather the present. Apparently all of the Chagim are to be understood in a similar way.

With this in mind, it requires of us to make the effort to prepare ourselves sincerely for this fantastic event that is about to happen in a just a few days , more so, to create for ourselves a genuine experience of connecting to Torah itself in the most intense possible way – all to create our own personal Matan Torah.

Chag Sameach.



[1]See Ben Melekh, Minzberg, on Shavuot pg. 131-132.

[2] These issues have been addressed extensively by the Rishonim and Achronim.

[3] Ben Melekh, ibid.

[4] Devarim 4; 9-14.

[5] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Chapter 4

"And you shall give notice to your sons and your sons. You have seen these things with your eyes and have become a solid foundation for all your thoughts and actions. You must deliver them to your sons and your sons, so that they "know" them, and not only "believe" them. Give them all the certainty and decisiveness that a person delivers things he saw in his eyes, and so your eyes will be the basis of knowledge of all your descendants. This is the tradition that has been accepted by the entire nation and is always given to all its descendants; And this is the only way to bring historical facts to the attention of recent generations. For even the reliability of the written lists is fundamentally dependent on the unquestioned tradition, which is handed down publicly from all the fathers to all the sons."

[7] Bavli, Kidushin 30a. See also Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 1;2.

[8] Sforno, Devarim 4;9. (In disagreement with the Sefaria translation).


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