Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
The World’s Existence Depends on Torah
From the beginning of Creation, the world was immersed in anxiety, for God had stipulated with His works of creation, saying: “If Israel accepts the Torah on the sixth day of the month of Sivan – you will continue to exist; if not – I will return you to chaos.”
This is hinted at in the verse: “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good…the sixth day (‘yom hashishi’), whereas in all the other days of creation, the Hebrew definite article prefix ‘ha‘ (‘the’), is not used (Shabbat 88a).
Furthermore, we find that just prior to the arrival of that fateful day, Israel reached the number of six hundred thousand individuals – the compulsory number for the appearance of the Jewish nation as a whole. And although upon leaving Egypt, Israel was entrenched in forty-nine levels of impurity – exactly forty-nine days remained until that fateful day was to arrive, just enough time to cleanse themselves from the forty-nine levels of impurity, and to receive the Torah.
Thus, Israel arrived at Mount Sinai prior to that fateful day, exclaimed ‘naaseh venishma‘ (‘first we will do, and then we will internalize’), and were ready to accept the Torah on the sixth day of Sivan – in keeping with the condition God had stipulated with the works of His creation.
The Torah was Actually Given the Following Day
However, in reality, the Torah was given to us on the seventh day of Sivan, the fifty-first day of Sefirat HaOmer (the Counting of the Omer). For when God commanded Moshe (Moses) to inform the people of Israel to sanctify themselves for two days prior to the giving of the Torah, which would take place on the sixth day of the week (Friday), Moshe Rabbeinu added another day, ordering Israel to sanctify themselves for three days. God agreed with Moshe, and revealed Himself on Mount Sinai on the Sabbath day (Shabbat 86b, 87a).
From this amazing fact, the importance of the Oral Torah can be learned – without it, the Written Torah cannot be revealed, for the Oral Torah mediates between the uppermost Written Torah, and Israel. Therefore, even the Giving of the Torah was postponed a day in agreement with the Oral Torah – namely, according to Moshe Rabbeinu’s interpretation.
When is Shavu’ot?
Seemingly, though, this is problematic: Why do we say in the prayers of Shavuot that it is ‘zman Matan Torateinu’ [the time of the giving of our Torah] (S.A. 494:1)? Shavuot falls out on the fiftieth day of Sefirat HaOmer, while in fact, we received the Torah on the fifty-first day! But as it happens, upon completion of Sefirat HaOmer, the sacred day in which God granted us the Torah arrived; and so it was in the Heavens – already on the fiftieth day the Torah was given to us. We, however, needed another day to actually receive it.
But for future generations, Yom Matan Torah was fixed in keeping with the day God sanctified for it – the day the Torah was given to us potentially (Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael Chap. 27. There are two additional opinions regarding the date of Matan Torah, see Pninei Halakha: Moadim 13:1).
The Connection between Pesach and Shavuot
The calendar day of Chag Shavuot is unique, for all the other holidays fall out on a specific date of the month, but the date of Shavuot is not dependent on a specific day, but is determined according to Sefirat HaOmer. Nowadays, Shavuot always falls out on the sixth of Sivan, but that’s only because semikhah (rabbinical ordination) was cancelled, and we sanctify the months according to the calculations of the fixed Hebrew calendar. But in the times when batei din (courts) would sanctify the months according to the sighting of the new moon, Shavuot could have also fallen out on the fifth or the seventh of Sivan.
Essentially, this means that the date of Shavuot is dependent on Pesach, meaning that Shavuot and Matan Torah can only be arrived at via Pesach.
Nationalism and Torah
On Pesach the Jewish nation was born, and God made an eternal covenant with us that we would be His Am Segulah (Chosen People).On Shavuot, God gave us the Torah. Both of these festivals are tied to each other, for Israel cannot exist without the Torah, and there is no Torah without Israel.
And although these two foundations are connected and mutually dependent, nevertheless, each one of them possesses its own importance, and it is forbidden for one to obscure the other. Therefore, we have two separate holidays – one featuring the national aspect of Israel, and the other, the Torah.
Some people mistakenly think that the national aspect is unimportant, and consequently, they despise Zionism. They fail to notice that the idea of Pesach is to give expression to the nationalistic aspect, which embodies Israel’s natural desire for tikkun olam (perfection of the world). True, without the Torah this ambition is obscure and liable to cause serious mistakes, as happened during our long history when Jews often dedicated their energies to foreign ideals. Nevertheless, the very desire for tikkun olam is our national character, and is the foundation without which it is impossible to receive the Torah, and properly fulfill its commandments.
In order that Jews not come to belittle the national aspect of Israel, God gave us Pesach. And so they would not demean the Torah, He gave us Shavuot.
And every year anew, we are required to return to these two values and join them together by way of Sefirat HaOmer, and in that way, merit the complete Redemption.
An Explanation for All-night Torah Learning on Shavu’ot
Many people are accustomed to learn Torah all-night on Shavuot. The basis for this minhag (custom) is explained in the Zohar:
“Chassidim Harishonim (the early pious ones) would not sleep on that night, and engage in Torah…and thus Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said to the chaverim (friends) at night when they gathered by him: Let us prepare the bride’s jewelry so that tomorrow, in the matrimonial service, she will appear before the king appropriately. Fortunate are the chaverim, when the king asks the queen: ‘Who arranged your jewelry, and adorned your crown?’ There is no one in the world who knows how to prepare the bride other than the chaverim. How happy is their portion in this world and the World to Come” (Part 3, 98:1).
It is also related in the Zohar:
“Rabbi Shimon and all the chaverim were joyously studying Torah. Every one of them brought forth a new discovery about the Torah. Rabbi Shimon was rejoicing together with all the friends. Rabbi Shimon said to them: My sons, how happy is your lot, because tomorrow the bride shall not approach the bridal canopy without you. Because all those who prepared the adornments of the bride during this night and rejoice with her, shall all be recorded and written in the Sefer Hazikaron (Book of Remembrance). And the Holy One, blessed be He, blesses them with seventy blessings and crowns from the upper world” (Part 1, 8:1).
In order to understand the words of the Zohar, it must first be explained that the day of Matan Torah is described by our Sages as a wedding day on which God bonded Himself with Knesset Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), similar to a groom and his bride (Taanit 26b). Every year on Shavuot, the encounter of Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, continues to be revealed, and Knesset Yisrael, all of Israel, connects back with God, like a bride with her groom. The Kabbalists said that studying Torah on Shavuot night prepares Knesset Yisrael to receive the Torah in the most beautiful way. And consequently, when the day arrives, Knesset Yisrael merits ascending to God, uniting and connecting with Him on a higher level. As a result of this, Israel merits abundance of Torah, life, and blessing for the entire year.
Not an Obligation
Nevertheless, this minhag (custom) is not obligatory, and there were leading rabbis who preferred to sleep on Shavuot night, reasoning that if they remained awake all night, they would not be able to concentrate properly in the morning prayers, or would not be able to study at night with enough alertness, or would have to make-up lost sleep-time, thereby causing bitul Torah (a waste of Torah-study time), or being tired, they would not be able to rejoice properly on the holiday.
However, those who do remain awake believe that even if the learning at night is not of such high quality and it is difficult to concentrate in the morning prayers, nevertheless, this sacred custom is an expression of love for God and Torah, and possesses a special virtue of misirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) for the honor of Heaven and Knesset Yisrael. Ultimately, each person should choose his custom leshem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven).
This article was translated from Hebrew.