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Shavuot

by Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky
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Shavuot, Yom HaBikkurim, Zeman Matan Torateinu, Atzeret.

QUESTION: Why is the festival called "Shavuot?"
ANSWER:

  1. "Shavuot" means "weeks": From the time the Jews left Egypt they waited for seven weeks until they were worthy of receiving the Torah. We, too, count Sefirah for seven weeks starting from the night following the first day of Pesach, and then we celebrate the festival of "Shavuot" "weeks."

  2. "Shavuot" means "promises": When Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people, they promised to obey it and remain faithful to Him. In return, Hashem promised that He would cherish the Jews and not exchange them for any other people.


QUESTION: The holiday is also called "Yom HaBikkurim," "The day of the first-fruits" (Bamidbar 28:26) as well as "Chag Hashavuot" "festival of Shavuoth" (Devarim 16:10), and "Zeman Matan Torateinu" "the season of the giving of our Torah" (in the davening and Kiddush). What is the significance of these three names?
ANSWER: Thursday morning, the fifteenth of Nissan, the Jewish people left Egypt. That year Nissan and Iyar were both full months of thirty days. The Torah was given on a Shabbat, and halachic authorities have accepted the view that it was the sixth of Sivan. By adding the sixteen days of Nissan (from the Jews' departure till the end of the month) and the thirty days of Iyar and six days of Sivan, we learn that the Jews received the Torah fifty-two days after leaving Egypt (see Shulchan Aruch Harav 494:1).

Our present-day calendar is pre-determined, and Nissan is always thirty days while Iyar is always twenty-nine days. Thus, counting the forty-nine days of sefirah from the second night of Pesach, the festival of Shavuot always occurs on the sixth of Sivan, which coincides with Zeman Matan Torateinu the Season of the Giving of the Torah. However, when the calendar dates were based on the testimony of witnesses seeing the new moon, Shavuot, which is forty-nine days from the second day of Pesach would not always occur on the day of 6 Sivan when the Torah was given. It could sometimes be celebrated on the fifth of Sivan (when Nissan and Iyar were both only thirty days) and sometimes on the seventh of Sivan (when Nissan and Iyar were both twenty-nine days).

Consequently, in the first year of the Jews' departure from Egypt, on the sixth day of Sivan, fifty-two days after Pesach, they received the Torah and celebrated Zeman Matan Torateinu. In the following year, they observed the commandment of counting forty-nine days from the bringing of the omer offering and after a seven week period they celebrated Chag HaShavuot the Festival of Weeks.

Forty years after leaving Egypt the Jews came to Eretz Yisrael, and were required to bring Bikkurim first fruits to the Beit Hamikdash (see Kiddushin 37b). This was to be done when they made their pilgrimage for Shavuot, and thus the holiday acquired the new name of Yom HaBikkurim Day of the First Fruits.


QUESTION: Why [in the Gemara (Pesachim 68b)] is the festival referred to as "Atzeret?"
ANSWER: "Atzeret," means "refraining" or "holding back." On all festivals, in addition to refraining from work unconnected to food preparation, there is also a special mitzvah to perform the following: on Pesach one eats matzah, on Sukkot one sits in a sukkah, on Rosh Hashanah one blows the shofar, and on Yom Kippur one fasts. Shavuot, however, has no special mitzvah connected to it, except for refraining from work. Thus, we emphasize that the obvious mitzvah of the festival is "Atzeret" refraining and holding back from doing any forbidden work.


The festival of Shavuot is called "Atzeret" in the Gemara but not in the Chumash because, according to the Torah, the unique aspect of this holiday was the offering of the shetei halechem two loaves of wheat which made permissible the use of the new crop for meal-offerings in the Beit Hamikdash (see Yayikra 23:16-18). However, the Gemara was compiled in Babylon, after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, since that time the only unique thing about the holiday has been that it is "Atzeret" a time to refrain from work unconnected to food preparation.


The word Shavuot is an acronym for the four titles of the festival. The shin is for "Shavuot." The beit is for "Bikkurim." The ayin is for "Atzeret." The taf is for "Torah."


Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidut, interpreted the verse, "You shall make the festival of Shavuot" (Devarim 16:10) as follows. "Shavuot means 'vachen' 'weeks' and is the root of the word 'vachedigkeit' the quality of weekdays, i.e. secularism or profaneness and this must be converted into a festival."

The message is that one should endeavor to change and elevate vachedigkeit (the profane) into Yom Tov, for the goal of Torah is to sanctify the profane.


"Our children shall be our sureties." (Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs 1:3,1)

QUESTION: According to the Midrash, when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem asked for a guarantee that they would keep it. They replied, "Avoteinu orvim otanu" "Our ancestors will be our guarantors." When this was unacceptable, they offered, "Nevi'einu areivin lanu" "Our prophets will be our guarantors." This, too, Hashem did not accept. When they said "Baneinu orvim otanu" "Our children will be our guarantors" Hashem replied, "Indeed these are good guarantors. For their sake I will give it to you."
Why did Hashem favor the children over the ancestors and prophets?
ANSWER: Homiletically the Midrash can be explained as follows: Hashem wants the Torah to be studied diligently and observed meticulously throughout history, so He asked the Jews for the requisite assurance.

With their first reply, "Our fathers will be the surety" the Jewish people were actually saying "When our parents reach old age and no longer are an asset in the business world, we will set them up in a senior citizen's club or a home for the retired, and to keep them busy we will arrange Torah study groups for them." Hashem rejected this as an assurance that Torah would flourish among the Jewish people. With only the elderly learning, little would be accomplished.

Afterwards the people responded, "Nevi'einu areivin lanu." The Hebrew word for prophet "navi" is derived from "niv sefataim" "speech of the lips" (Isaiah 57:19). With this they indicated that they would hire Rabbis who would serve as orators; they would study Torah, and the laymen would be free to engage in business. Wanting Torah to be studied and observed by all, Hashem rejected this offer too.

Finally, the Jews said, "Our children will be our surety." Although their intention may have been to send the children to yeshivah when young and to put them into business when older, Hashem accepted this knowing that once a child is in yeshivah, he would be molded into a Torah-loving Jew and refuse to leave. Moreover, the children will influence their parents to also learn Torah and to observe mitzvot. Thus, through them, the continuity of Torah study and observance is guaranteed for posterity.


"They stood on the bottom of [lit. under] the mountain." (Shemot 19:17)

QUESTION: When Hashem offered the Jewish people the Torah they immediately responded "na'aseh venishma" "We will do and we will listen (study)." If so, why was it necessary for Him to suspend the mountain over them and warn them that if they do not accept the Torah, they would be killed? (See Gemara, Shabbat 88a, Tosafot)
ANSWER: The Torah consists of two parts, the Written and the Oral. The Jewish people were ready to accept the Written Torah, but not the Oral Torah, which explains the written one, transmitting the entire corpus of Jewish law. To persuade them Hashem held the mountain threateningly over them.


Alternatively, it was not a great surprise that the Jews readily accepted the Torah and proclaimed, "na'aseh venishmah." After all, in the wilderness all their needs were provided for: they ate manna from Heaven and drank water from Miriam's well. Their clothing miraculously enlarged as they grew, and were cleaned by the Clouds of Heaven, which also protected them. Under such conditions, there was absolutely no reason not to adhere to the teachings of the Torah.

By placing the mountain over the people, Hashem was asking them a question: "There is no guarantee that the tranquility you are currently experiencing will last forever. How will you conduct yourselves when a 'cloud' hovers above you, i.e. what will happen when problems befall you? When you will experience difficult times and your very existence is threatened, will you still keep the Torah?"

"If you have any doubts," Hashem told them, "You should know that it is to your advantage to keep the Torah under all circumstances. For as soon as you forsake the Torah, Sham tehei kevuratchem That will be your burial."


"They stood on the bottom of [lit. under] the mountain." (Shemot 19:17)

QUESTION: According to the Gemara (Shabbat 88a), Hashem lifted the mountain over the Jewish people and threatened to kill them if they did not accept the Torah. Rabbi Acha said, "This is an important defense for the Jewish people: If they should violate the Torah, they can claim that they accepted it only under duress," implying that acceptance under duress is not considered true acceptance.
Tosafot asks, "The nations of the world complained to Hashem, 'Why didn't You also force us (in a similar fashion) to accept the Torah?'" Doesn't their complaint imply that, even if they would accept Torah due to the mountain being suspended over their heads, their acceptance would be proper and never have a claim of "duress?"
ANSWER: According to halachah, there is a rule that "Devarim shebeleiv einam devarim" "What one has in his heart [not expressed verbally] is considered invalid" (Rambam, Mechirah 11:9). However, when a person is forced to do something and he makes a vow or takes an oath, he is not bound to it if he nullified it in his heart (Rambam, Nedarim 4:2). If so, the Jewish people should have nullified their consent in their hearts and, since they did not, is not their claim of duress invalid?

According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pe'ah 1:1) when a Jew plans to do a good thing and for reasons beyond his control does not bring it to fruition, Hashem gives him credit as though he actually had done it. When a gentile plans to do evil, even if he does not do it, Hashem considers it as if it is done. On the other hand, a Jew is not punished for bad thoughts and a gentile does not receive credit for good thoughts that are not followed by appropriate deeds.

A possible explanation: that are Jews believe that Hashem not only sees what we do, but also reads their minds and hearts, but the gentiles do not share this belief. Consequently, since Jews believe that Hashem knows what is in their hearts, Hashem indeed gives them credit for their good thoughts. However, the gentiles, who do not believe in this, do not receive any remuneration for their good thought, but to prove that Hashem knows what is in their heart, they are punished for their bad intentions.

The concept of nullifying something in one's heart applies only when one makes a vow under duress from someone to whom one's real intentions can be concealed. Thus, Hashem will not hold him responsible when he nullifies it in his heart. However, when a person makes a commitment to Hashem, nullifying it in his heart would be an absurdity since Hashem also knows what is in the heart.

Hence, had Hashem forced the gentiles to accept the Torah, they would have been able to nullify their acceptance, since, according to their belief, Hashem does not know what is in their hearts, and so they would not have recourse to Rabbi Acha's argument. However, the Jewish people, who believe that Hashem knows what is in their minds and hearts, cannot mentally nullify their acceptance, and therefore they can claim that they accepted the Torah under duress.


"How many Yosef's are there in the market place?"

QUESTION: The Gemara (Pesachim 68b) informs us that on Shavuot Rabbi Yosef would make a festive meal and proclaim, "If not for this day, how many Yosefs would there be in the market place?" That is, if not for Torah, the sages might have been ordinary folk. Why was it specifically Rabbi Yosef who celebrated like this and not any of the other sages of the Talmud?
ANSWER: On Shavuot, Moshe received the first set of Tablets. When he came down with them from heaven on the seventeenth of Tammuz and witnessed the worshipping of the golden calf, he threw down the Tablets, shattering them to pieces. After beseeching Hashem to forgive the Jewish people, he came down again from heaven on Yom Kippur with the second Tablets.

Superficially one may wonder: "Since it was the second set that lasted, why isn't the period of the giving of the Torah celebrated on Yom Kippur rather than Shavuot?"

Since Shavuot commemorates the giving of the first Tablets, it can be derived that although they were broken they were also holy and precious. In fact, Rabbi Yosef declares (Bava Batra 14b) that both sets of Tablets were holy and that they were both placed in the Ark. The Gemara (Berachot 8b) warns about properly respecting an aged Torah scholar who has forgotten his learning, citing by way of analogy that the complete Tablets and the broken Tablets were placed together in the Ark.

The Gemara (Nedarim 41a) relates that Rabbi Yosef once became very ill and forgot all his Torah knowledge, which was a severe blow to his self-image. Therefore, it was Rabbi Yosef who said, "Were it not for this day (Shavuot), when the first Tablets were given and later broken (from which it can be derived that even a sage who has forgotten his Torah study still deserves honor), I in my present state would be like one of the many Yosefs who are in the market place. Thus I, in particular, have good reason to celebrate."


Dairy Meal

QUESTION: Why is it customary to eat a dairy meal the first day of Shavuot?
ANSWER:

  1. In The Song of Songs (4:11) Hashem says to the Jewish people, "The sweetness [of Torah] drops from your lips; like honey and milk it lies under your tongue." Since the Torah is compared to milk, we eat a dairy meal on Shavuot, when the Torah was given.


    Honey is made by the bee, and milk is a byproduct of blood (see Bechorot 6b). Both the bee and the blood are forbidden to be eaten.

    Thus, both milk and honey originate from a source which is tamei spiritually unclean and after the product is developed it is tahor halachically clean for human consumption.

    Torah is compared to milk and honey because of its power to elevate and purify even one who has fallen into a state of spiritual contamination.

    Also, the comparison of Torah to milk teaches us that just as milk keeps best in earthenware and spoils quickly in silver or golden utensils, Torah remains with humble people and despises conceited and arrogant people.


  2. One of the Noachide laws (which apply to all mankind) is the prohibition of "eiver min hachai" not eating the limb of a live animal (Rambam, Melachim 9:1).

    The Gemara (Bechorot 6b) asks: Why are we permitted to drink cow's milk doesn't it come from a live animal?

    One of the answers is, since the Torah praises Eretz Yisrael as flowing with milk (Shemot 13:5), it must be permitted since the Torah would not have praised Eretz Yisrael with something forbidden. However, only after the Jews received the Torah, in which Hashem praised Eretz Yisrael for its milk, did it become permitted for them to drink it. Before the Torah was given, however, milk was forbidden because it was considered "eiver min hachai."

    Thus, to emphasize that milk became permitted only after the giving of the Torah, a dairy meal is eaten on Shavuot immediately after the receiving of the Torah.


  3. Moshe was born on the 7th of Adar. Three months later, his mother put him in a basket and placed him among the reeds at the bank of the river. Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, found him and he refused to drink the milk of any of the Egyptian women. Consequently, she was forced to hire Yocheved (his mother) to raise him. This incident took place on the 6th of Sivan, the day when years later Moshe would receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai (Sotah 12b). Since he was miraculously reunited with his mother on the 6th of Sivan through milk, a dairy meal is eaten on Shavuot.


  4. The Hebrew word for milk is "chalav" having the numerical value of 40. Eating a dairy meal recalls the 40 days Moshe was up in heaven to receive the Torah.


  5. According to the Midrash Rabbah (28:1), the angels wanted to attack Moshe for coming to take the Torah down to earth. Hashem altered his face to resemble Avraham's and said to them, "Aren't you ashamed to attack the person who was so hospitable to you?"

    Avraham served the angels cream, milk, and veal (Bereishit 18:8). To commemorate this meal, which contributed to the Jewish people receiving the Torah on Shavuot, we eat a dairy meal, and a meat meal an hour later. (See Shelah, Shavuot 180b: Sha'arei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 3, p. 38.)


  6. In the Beit HaMikdash on Shavuot there was a meal-offering that consisted of two loaves baked from (chadash) the new wheat crop which was harvested or formed roots at least three days before Pesach (see Vayikra 23:17). Until then all the meal-offerings had to be from the flour of earlier crops, and the two loaves made permissible the use of the new crop in the meal-offerings of the Beit Hamikdash. (The omer-offering of Pesach was of barley and made the use of new crop permissible for individuals).

    For the dairy and meat meals, according to halachah, separate loaves of bread have to be used. Thus the eating of a dairy meal, followed by a meat meal (at least one hour later) necessitates the use of two separate loaves which, in turn, commemorates the two-loaf meal-offering offered on Shavuot.


  7. On Shavuot, when the Torah was given, the Jews learned the laws of shechitah slaughtering and kashrut for the first time. Since the Torah was given on Shabbat, they were unable to slaughter any animals on that day, and their vessels needed to be "kashered." Any meat they may have had from before, even if slaughtered, was not usable because no one was a bar zevichah a proper ritual slaughterer when the animal was killed.

    Thus, immediately after receiving the Torah, they did not have kosher meat or utensils available, and their only alternative was eating dairy.


    A hint in the Torah for eating a dairy meal on Shavuot can be found in the pasuk, "Bring your first fruits [Bikkurim] to the house of G-d, your G-d; you shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19). The festival of Shavuot is also known as "the festival of Bikkurim," (Bamidbar 28:26), being the preferred time for bringing bikkurim. Thus, the Torah reminds us that when we bring the bikkurim on Shavuot, we should be very careful while cooking for Yom Tov not to mix any meat together with milk.


Reading the Book of Ruth

QUESTION: In many communities, it is customary to read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot (see Orach Chaim 490:9).
What is the reason for this custom?
ANSWER:

  1. Ruth was the ancestor of King David, and he is the ancestor of Mashiach. The Book of Ruth concludes with a verse stating the connection between King David and Ruth. King David died on Shavuot (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah, 2:3), and since the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) says, "Hashem completes the years of the righteous from day to day," it follows that David was born on Shavuot. Hence, it is customary to read Megillat Ruth in his honor.

    Incidentally, according to the Gemara (Bava Batra 15b) she was called Ruth, because her descendant David would 'saturate' (rivah) Hashem with songs and praises.


  2. On Shavuot we received the Torah, which contains 613 commandments. The entire world had already been given seven of these commandments to observe, so we actually received 606 additional commandments. Ruth was the daughter of the king of Moav (Sotah 47a); when she converted to Judaism, she accepted upon herself 606 new commandments as the Jewish people did at Sinai.

    To emphasize the fact that we all received 606 new commandments on Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth, whose name has the numerical value of 606.


  3. The story of Ruth concerns a girl, who as a Moabite was seemingly forbidden by the Torah to marry into the Jewish people. However, the sages (Yevamot 69a) interpret the verse, "Lo yavo Amoni uMo'avi bikehal Hashem" "An Amonite or Moabite may not marry into the community of G-d" (Devarim 23:4) to refer only to the Moabite men but not to the women. Consequently, due to the Rabbinic interpretation of Torah, it was possible for Ruth to marry Boaz and become the ancestor of King David and Mashiach. Therefore, the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot to emphasize the immense benefit the Jewish people derive from the Oral Torah.


  4. Ruth was married to Machlon the son of Elimelech. After her husband and father-in-law died, she sought to marry one of their relatives and to purchase the family field. Thus, when she would come to the field, people would say, "This is Machlon's widow," and his memory would be perpetuated (see 3:9, Rashi). Her closest relatives were an uncle named Tov and a cousin named Boaz. Since she was a Moabite, Tov refused to marry her out of fear that he would bring a blemish upon his family. Boaz married her and also acquired the field.

    At that time Boaz, who was also known as Ivtzan and who was one of the judges in the Jewish community, was three hundred years old, wealthy, and head of a large family (see I Chronicles 2:11 Rashi, Bava Batra 91a). Although he had sufficient reasons to avoid marrying Ruth, due to his belief that no opportunity to do a good deed should ever be missed, he decided to marry her

    Shavuot is celebrated as the period of the giving of the Torah, in which there are six hundred and thirteen mitzvot. The reading of the story of Ruth on Shavuot emphasizes the importance of every good deed and teaches that a person may never know how performing a single good deed may bring Mashiach and the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.


"King David died on Atzeret (Shavuot) (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 2:3)

QUESTION: King David died in Eretz Yisrael, where Shavuot is celebrated for only one day. Why is the story of his ancestry read on the second day of Shavuot?
ANSWER: Formerly, the fixing of the new month (Rosh Chodesh) was based on the testimony of two witnesses. Then messengers were sent to the Jewish communities informing them of the day designated as Rosh Chodesh, which would also determine the days on which the holidays would occur. Communities which could not be reached before the middle of the month remained in doubt about the calendar and celebrated an extra day of Yom Tov to account for all possibilities. Therefore, in the Diaspora we always celebrated Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot on two days. Nowadays, although our calendar is based on calculation, we continue to observe the custom of two days of Yom Tov in the Diaspora.

Apparently, there is no need to ever celebrate Shavuot for two days since it is always the fiftieth day from the counting of the omer, and by that time it is known already which day Pesach should have been?

The Rambam (Kiddush HaChodesh 3:12) writes that "in order not to differentiate between the holidays, the Rabbis have instructed that any place which the messengers would not reach by the middle of Tishrei or Nissan celebrates two days of Yom Tov, including Shavuot."

According to the literal meaning of the Torah, it would have been forbidden for Ruth to marry into the Jewish people. However, thanks to Rabbinic interpretation, which explains that the Torah precluded only the males of Moab and not the females, she was able to marry Boaz and their descendants would be King David and Mashiach. Therefore, to emphasize the reverence we have for the teachings of our Rabbis, we read the story of Ruth on a day which is celebrated only because of Rabbinic ordinance.


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