Judaism: Shavuot: Modesty by Example
Of all the Festivals in our calendar, Shavuot can easily seem like the “unloved child”. Each of the other Festivals has its own special mitzvot: dwelling in the Sukkah and waving the Four Species on Sukkot, the Seder Night and the distinctive chametz-free foods on Pesach, blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, fasting on Yom Kippur. Even the post-Torah Festivals have their own special mitzvot: lighting the candles on Hanukkah, and reading the Megillah on Purim.
Alone among the Festivals, Shavuot has no unique mitzvot.
Each of the Festivals has a complete tractate of the Talmud dedicated to it – called, respectively, Rosh Hashanah, Yoma (for Yom Kippur), Sukkah, Pesachim. Even Purim has its own dedicated tractate, Megillah.
Shavuot has no tractate of its own. In the absence of a Tractate Shavuot, the custom has arisen to study Tractate Bikkurim (“First-Fruits”), which is appropriate to the season.
Our legal codes – the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo four centuries later, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried 130 years ago, the Aruch ha-Shulchan of Rabbi Yechiel Epstein a decade later – each contains a section which lays forth the general laws of Festivals, and then separate sections for the specific mitzvot of each individual Festival.
But since Shavuot has no special mitzvot of its own, it does not merit any individual section in any of our legal codes: it is subsumed under the general laws of Festivals.
The Rambam begins the Mishneh Torah with a listing of all 613 mitzvot, including: “#161: To count 49 days of the Omer… #162: To rest on the fiftieth day”. In the Introduction to the Laws of Festivals, the Rambam writes: “There are twelve mitzvot of Festivals, six positive mitzvot and six negative mitzvot… (5) To rest on the Festival of Shavuot; (6) not to do any work thereon”.
He then lists “six days on which the Torah forbids any work to be done. These are the first and seventh days of Pesach, the first and eighth days of the Festival of Sukkot, the day of the Festival of Shavuot, and the first of the seventh month [i.e. Rosh ha-Shanah], which are called Yamim Tovim [“Good Days”, i.e. Festivals]. And the cessation from labour on all these days is the same – all labour other than that which is needed to prepare food for that day is forbidden” (Laws of Festivals 1:1).
That’s all the mention of Shavuot in the Mishneh Torah. All its laws are subsumed under the general Laws of Festivals.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim chapter 494) covers Shavuot in three brief halakhot:
“(1) The fiftieth day of Counting the Omer is Shavuot, and the prayers are the same as on Pesach except that we say ‘this day of the Festival of Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of our Torah’ and we say the complete Hallel. We take two Torah-scrolls out of the Ark; we read from the first starting with ‘In the third month’ (Exodus 19:1) until the end of the chapter, and the Maftir reads from the second Torah-scroll ‘On the day of the first-fruits…’ (Numbers 28:26), then reads the Haftarah [Reading from the prophets] from Ezekiel’s vision of the Heavenly Chariot (Ezekiel Chapter 1), then adds the verse ‘Then a wind lifted me…’ (Ezekiel 3:12)”
The second halakhah specifies the Torah-reading for the second day (which of course applies only in the Diaspora).
The third halakhah says simply that “it is forbidden to fast at night after Shavuot has concluded”.
That’s all that the Shulchan Aruch has to say on the Festival of Shavuot.
For the Festival that commemorates the Giving of the Torah, there is a surprising paucity of mitzvot. Would we not have expected Shavuot, of all the Festivals in our calendar, to be replete with impressive rituals?
Indeed the custom of staying awake and learning Torah through the night may well have gained popularity over the last three-and-a-half centuries or so precisely because Shavuot has no other unique customs to distinguish it.
Let us add another question. The Torah itself gives two reasons for Shavuot. First, it is the season when the first fruits ripen and are ready to be offered in the Holy Temple (Numbers 28:26). Second, it is the end of the grain harvest, referring to the reaping of the wheat, which is the last grain of the year to ripen (Exodus 23:16, Deuteronomy 16:9-10).
Nowhere does the Torah itself tell us explicitly that Shavuot celebrates the day when G-d gave it to Israel; the Talmud (Shabbat 86b and Yoma 4b) derives this from the chronology that the Torah relates in Exodus Chapter 19. Is this omission not at least as puzzling as the paucity of rituals connected with Shavuot? Would we not have expected the Torah to command the Festival which celebrates its own Giving by telling us directly what we are celebrating?
I suggest that the answer to these two questions can both be derived from the Midrash. “A man’s pride will humble him, but one of humble spirit will attain honour” said King Solomon (Proverbs 29:23), and the Midrash expounds: “‘A man’s pride will humble him’ – this refers to Mount Tabor and Mount Carmel which came from the ends of the world, proudly saying: We are tall, so upon us G-d will give the Torah! ‘One of humble spirit will attain honour’ – this is Mount Sinai which humbled itself, saying: I am low. And because of that G-d bestowed His honour upon it, by giving the Torah upon it” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:3, and compare Bereishit Rabbah 99:1).
By choosing Mount Sinai, the lowest and humblest of mountains, as the place to give us the Torah, G-d taught us the attribute of humility. Don’t look for honor and glory amid the loftiest peaks; rather find the greatest glory in the world on the humblest peak.
The Torah itself teaches us this same attribute with Shavuot. It does not demand honor and glory for itself. Though the Torah commands us to celebrate Shavuot, it self-effacingly does not even mention that what we are celebrating is the Torah itself! It humbly leaves all the honor of Shavuot for the Land of Israel and its produce (fruits and grains). It keeps the celebration of its own Giving in the shadows, and makes its own celebration the humblest and simplest of all the Festivals.
As the Talmud tells us, “the glory of Torah is wisdom, the glory of wisdom is humility, the glory of humility is fear [of G-d], the glory of fear [of G-d] is [obedience to] mitzvot, the glory of [obedience to] mitzvot is modesty” (Derech Eretz Zuta 5:4).
And the Midrash expounds, “The Sages taught: Be long-suffering and modest to all people – and to the people of your family more than any. Where do we learn this from? – Go out and learn this from G-d Himself, Who was long-suffering and modest with His nation in all places; He did not go with them in their ways, neither did He judge them according to their sins, but rather He was for them in His attribute of modesty. From where do we learn this? – From the 120 days from the day that the Torah was given to Israel until Yom Kippur, which were the 120 days from when Moshe first ascended Mount Sinai to bring the Torah to Israel his nation until he descended from Mount Sinai for the third and last time. And had G-d not dealt with them with His attribute of modesty, the Torah would not have been given to Israel” (Tanna de-Vey Eliyahu, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 4).
The true leader leads by example. The Torah, the truest Leader of all, teaches us modesty by its own example. Shavuot, the Torah’s own celebration, the one-day Festival with no special rituals of its own, is the outstanding lesson of modesty and humility.