Eight Answers for Shavuos

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by R. Gil Student

Every holiday has its unique practices and spirit… and its own question. Rav Yerachmiel Zelcer became famous for his Sefer Ner Le-Me’ah on Chanukah, in which he offered 100 answers to what is commonly known as the Beis Yosef‘s question: Why are there eight days of Chanukah when the miracle was only seven days? He followed up with a 1981 volume of Ner Le-Me’ah on Shavuos offering 100 answers to what is known as the Magen Avraham’s question: Why is Shavuos (the sixth of Sivan and the fiftieth day of the Omer) considered the holiday of Matan Torah when the Torah was actually given on the next day (the seventh of Sivan and the fifty first day of the Omer)?

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 6b) says that sometimes Shavuos fall on the fifth of Sivan, sometimes this sixth and sometimes the seventh. It depends on whether Nissan and Iyar are 29 or 30 days long. Nowadays, Nissan is always 30 days and Iyar is always 29 days so that Shavuos falls out on the sixth of Sivan. However, in the past, before there was a set calendar, Shavuos could vary year to year. The Gemara (Shabbos 86b) says that according to the rabbis, the Ten Commandments were given on the sixth of Sivan, while according to R. Yossi they were given on the seventh. The Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 196:11) rules like R. Yossi on the underlying issue regarding purity. Therefore, according to the Shulchan Arukh, the Ten Commandments were given on the seventh of Sivan. If so, how can we say in our prayer that Shavuos is the “time of the giving of our Torah” (zeman matan Toraseinu), which was on the sixth of Sivan? How is Shavuos the holiday of Matan Torah?

What follows is a short selection of the answers that Rav Zelcer collected from other authors (75 of the answers) and offered himself (25 of the answers).

1) Rav Yitzchak of Dampierre (Ri Ba’al Ha-Tosafos; 12th cen.; Hadar Zekeinim, Lev. 23:16) asked this question about four centuries before the Magen Avraham. Ri explains simply that one day doesn’t make a difference. Even if we celebrate Shavuos on the day before the Torah was given, it is still an appropriate time of commemoration.

2) Rav Yitzchak Ben Sheshes (Rivash; 15th cen., Algeria; Responsa, no. 96) says that Shavuos does not have to fall out exactly on the date of Matan Torah. Apparently he is not concerned with the exact matching of dates in order for Shavuos to be called the time of Matan Torah. We can add that in the prayers we do not say “the day of Matan Torah.” We say the “time” rather than “day.” Perhaps this allows for a little deviation from the exact day.

3) Rav Aryeh Leib Ginzberg (18th cen., Lithuania; Turei Even, Megillah 31a, s.v. ve-haidna) explains the Gemara’s conclusion to be that Matan Torah was on the sixth of Sivan. Even though in ancient time Shavuos could have been on the fifth, sixth or seventh, since most years Shavuos fell on the sixth we follow the majority and refer to Shavuos as the time of Matan Torah.

4) Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham 996) suggests that really we rule like the rabbis and not R. Yossi. However, as a matter of strictness, in practice we follow R. Yossi. Therefore, we really follow the view that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan.

5) Rav Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha; 17th cen., Poland; Commentary to Avodah Zarah 3b, s.v. yom) explains that when the Jews left Egypt, they needed to purify themselves for 50 days. On the fiftieth day, the sixth of Sivan, they achieved the necessary level of purity and were ready to receive the Torah, which took place on the next day. We celebrate on the sixth of Sivan because that is when we became ready to receive the Torah.

6) Rav Menachem Azariah (Rama of Fano; 17th cen., Italy; Asarah Ma’amaros, Chikur Ha-Din 2:15) points out that the Jews received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which is outside the biblical land of Israel. It turns out the the Torah was given in the diaspora on what we celebrate today in the diaspora as the second day of Shavuos. Rama of Fano suggests that this shows the divine pleasure with our creating times of holiness. Indeed, according to R. Yossi, Moshe added a day of preparation for Matan Torah, which pushed it to the seventh of Sivan. This all happened due to human initiative for sanctity.

7) Rav Yehudah Loewe (Maharal; 16th cen., Czech; Tiferes Yisrael, ch. 27) says that from our perspective, Matan Torah was on the seventh of Sivan because that is when we received it. However, from the divine perspective the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan because that is when it was ready to be given. It did not reach its recipients until the seventh.

8) Rav Yechezkel Landau (18th cen., Czech; Tzelach, Pesachim 68b, s.v. ha-kol) explains that Matan Torah was a three-day process. According to Rashi (Ex. 24:4), the Jews said “Na’aseh ve-nishma, we will do and we will hear” on the fifth of Sivan. This was the beginning of the receiving of Torah, which continued until the end of the giving of the Ten Commandments on the seventh of Sivan. This is all called Matan Torah. On the fifth day of Sivan, we accepted the Torah. On the sixth, the Torah was supposed to be given (except that Moshe added a day of preparation). On the seventh of Sivan, the Torah was actually given.

Perhaps we can even suggest that Matan Torah lasted for seven days. On Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the Jews arrived at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:1). Moshe went up the mountain on the second of Sivan (Rashi, Ex. 19:2) and thus began a multi-day process of Moshe going up and down the mountain culminating in the Ten Commandments. Perhaps this entire process is considered Matan Torah.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Maadanei Yom Tov suggests that “Zeman Matan Toraseinu” is not a date in Sivan, but the day after the count. And, to further complicate things, he says that day zero counts. Thus you count to 49 days since day zero, which is “tisperu chamishim yom” — 0 is the 1st day, 1 is the 2nd day, 49 is the 50th day. And the 51st day is Zeman Matan Toraseinu.

    Nowadays, Pesach starts at sunset. So, Zeman Matan Toraseinu is 6 Sivan.

    But that year, the ge’ulah happened in two stages — we were released at midnight and actually left at noon. Neither were sunset. So, that couldn’t be day 0, it was incomplete. So “chamishim yom”, the Zeman Matan Toraseinu” was on 7 Sivan that year.

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