How Shavuot became the festival of the giving of the Torah

Despite what you may think, Shavuot is not the holiday of the “Giving of the Torah.” Search as long as we may in the Torah and Scriptures, we can find no evidence that the Torah was given on Shavuot. The Ten Commandments were given on Shavuot, the children of Israel undertook the kingdom of God and pledged themselves to “do and obey all that the Lord has spoken” on Shavuot, but the Torah was not given to them there and then.

What is the Festival of Shavuot, then? Shavuot is the Festival of revelation.

The assembly before Mount Sinai, God’s apparition there, and God’s presentation of the Covenant to His people are the unique events of that time. However, God’s revelation is concealed by fog. The “audiovisual” event at Mount Sinai is more obscured than revealed: God is always within a cloud. The Divine Presence in the Tabernacle is indicated by a cloud of honor, and the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies while covered by a cloud of incense.

When God reveals Himself to the people of Israel at Sinai, nothing is seen: “Then God spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no image; there was only a voice.” (Deuteronomy 4:12). When God reveals Himself to Elijah at Mt. Horeb, it is in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). “The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness,” as King Solomon describes the nature of this unique and limited apparition.

Shavuot was shaped as the Festival of Revelation and the establishment of the Covenant between God and Israel during the Second Temple by different Jewish sects, according to written evidence found in the Book of Jubilees and Qumran Scrolls. They named the holiday “Shevuot” (Vows) – a day of restoring the ancient commitment between Israel and God. Early Christianity celebrates the apparition in the same way, at Pentecost.

However, the central rabbinic movement after the destruction of the Second Temple chose to set Shavuot as the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, thus pushing God into the fog and establishing the religious world and Jewish identity on the Torah. A concise and bold wording of this intention appears in a Midrash that actually rewrites the reason for building the Tabernacle:

It can be compared to the only daughter of a king whom another king married. When he wished to return to his country and take his wife with him, he (the father) said to him: “My daughter, whose hand I have given thee, is my only child. I cannot part with her, neither can I say to thee: “Do not take her,” for she is now thy wife. This favor, however, I would request of thee: wherever thou goest to live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter. Thus God said to Israel: “I have given you a Torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it, but this I would request: wherever you go make for Me a house wherein I may sojourn,” as it says, And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8)

A serious reading of this fable suggests that love of Torah overshadows relations between Israel and God. The Torah is the medium through which God is revealed, being the father of Torah. The Temple and the God who dwells in it are exiled from the center of the camp to a side room, as a result of Israel’s and the Torah’s marriage. The young couple celebrates its marriage with passionate love, with friendship, and with mutual influence upon one another, not really needing the “old father.”

The Tabernacle is built only for granting God’s wish to stay in touch with his only daughter. God wishes to enjoy learning Torah, as well as Israel; however, because the Torah was given to Israel, it is now its true owner. The Festival of Shavuot came to commemorate the wedding anniversary of Israel and the Torah, and so, the apparition of God became less important.

The relationship of Israel and God are simulated by the complex relationship of a groom and his father-in-law, which is secondary to the developing relations of the young couple.

The rabbis of the Talmudic era have passed on this perception to their many disciples over the generations. The Festival of the revelation turned into the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. The Jewish people turned from being a kingdom of priests, from being a holy people and God’s people into being the People of the Book, the People of the Torah. Since then, God has been pushed aside, and only poets, philosophers, and well informed circles deal with God’s image.

This mindset has led to many historical and actual consequences. Jewish culture turned from being that of a prophetic religion, built upon charismatic leadership, into a constitutional religion, built upon the fulfillment of Torah values. This way, messianic tendencies were restrained, but the gates were opened for everybody to learn, interpret and lead, provided they immerse themselves in Torah studies.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the institute's David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence. He co-heads the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis and a faculty member at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel.
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