Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 23 May 2015 / 5 Sivan 5775

Shavuot - Not in the Heavens

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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After forty nine days of preparation and counting, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot on the fiftieth day. We refer to this day in our prayers as “zman matan Torateinu”, the day of the giving of our Torah. This title leads the commentators to ask several questions. Firstly, how can we refer to Shavuot as the day we received the Torah when in fact the Gemara tells us we received the Torah on the fifty-first day from the Exodus? Furthermore, what is the meaning behind the word Torateinu, “our Torah” — is it not G-d’s Torah?

Rabbi Zeira, and some say it was Rabbi Chanina bar Papa said, “Come and see! The way of G-d is not like the way of flesh and blood. The way of flesh and blood is that when a man sells something to his friend (without getting much in return), the seller is sad and the buyer is happy. But G-d is not so. He gave them (the Jewish People) the Torah and He was happy (Berachot 5a)

The Vilna Gaon points out that the Gemara’s comparison of G-d to a seller appears to be faulty. When a seller makes a sale he loses possession of the merchandise he sold, yet when G-d gave us the Torah it always remained His. How then can we understand this Gemara?

Chazal teach us that along with the Torah, G-d gave the authority to define truth and falsehood to those who learn it. When one exerts himself in the study of the Torah, and properly uses the laws of derivation that we received at Sinai, then he can have the power to “originate” halacha. These halachot thus become G-d’s own will. The Beit Halevi finds a hint to this idea in one of the blessings that we make on the Torah that states “asher natan lanu Torat emet”, Who gave us the Torah of truth. The Beit Halevi explains that G-d sanctioned man to be the one to uncover the truth within the Torah.

This idea is best illustrated by the Gemara (Temura 16a) in which we are told that with Moshe Rabbenu’s passing was the loss of the rulings for 3,000 halachot. When the nation demanded from Yehoshua to retrieve these forgotten halachot from G-d, he refused, stating that the law is not determined in the Heavens. Yehoshua was explaining to the people that once the Torah was given at Sinai, halacha can only be derived after intense study and resolution by the scholars. In fact, the Gemara continues to describe G-d’s approval with Yehoshua’s decision. When the people became angry with Yehoshua and held him responsible for the loss of these 3,000 rulings, G-d explained that He cannot give Yehoshua the rulings, for the law is no longer in the Heavens for these matters.

The Vilna Gaon uses this principle to explain the comparison between G-d and the seller. The capacity to determine halacha lies solely on Earth in the hands of the scholars. It is in this respect that G-d gave up His Torah to the people, just as the seller gave up ownership over his merchandise.

We can now return to our original questions. G-d intended to give the Torah on the fiftieth day, as the Torah writes: G-d said to Moshe, go to the nation and purify them today and tomorrow, and they should wash their clothes. And they should be prepared for the third day, for on the third day G-d will descend to Mount Sinai in full view of the entire nation (Shemot 19:10-11). The Gemara (Shabbat 87a) explains that Moshe added a third day for the people to prepare themselves for the giving of the Torah, thus changing the day of the giving of the Torah from the fiftieth to the fifty-first day. Indeed, when the fiftieth day arrived, G-d deferred the momentous giving of the Torah by an extra day, obeying Moshe’s words. The Beit Halevi explains that it was on this day that G-d gave the Jewish People the consent to create halacha. It is this very ability that we celebrate every year on Shavuot, the ability to derive and create the law to such an extent that G-d defers His will, so to speak, to conform to man’s. Accordingly, that is why we celebrate Shavuot on the fiftieth day and identify the event as “matan Torah”, the giving of the Torah, instead of “kabbalat haTorah”, the receiving of the Torah, for indeed the Torah was not received until the next day. It is also in this respect that we refer to the day as zman matan Torateinu, the day of the giving of our Torah — our ability to dictate halacha that was indeed given on this day.

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