Chaim Ingram

Shavuot: A Torah island outside of time

It is remarkable that the two greatest events in the history of the universe – namely the creation of man and the Divine Revelation at Sinai – are subject to Talmudic dispute as regards their precise date.

In Rosh haShana 10b, Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua argue whether man was created on 1st Tishri or 1st Nisan. And in Shabbat 86b, Rabbi Yossi and his rabbinic colleagues disagree as to whether the Torah was given on 6th or 7th Sivan.   The Written Torah is purposely ‘unhelpful’ on both counts,  concealing from us the full significance of both (what we call) Rosh HaShana and Shavuot.

Several reasons have been proposed for this concealment, some of which I have discussed elsewhere. I would like to advance here what is perhaps a novel approach, namely, that G-D the Creator and His Torah, the blueprint of Creation are timeless; therefore the two seminal events of man’s creation and the giving of the Torah are also assigned an aura of timelessness (although in practice halacha has now assigned  fixed dates to both events).

G-D is timeless. His Ineffable Name (Y-H + V-H) bears testimony to this. “He was, He is and He will be!” G-D views, as it were, the whole of eternity, the entire span of human history and destiny, in the blink of an eyelid. The lifespans of each one of His creatures is its own epic story, unfolding before G-D like a single page in a book. Yet each moment each of us inhales a breath is infinitely precious in G-D’s eyes. When we ruminate at length on these matters, our heads begin to whirl because it is impossible for a finite human being to comprehend infinity. However, we bring His timelessness into focus every time we approach Him in prayer, each time we acknowledge His kingship in our daily davening. While Rosh HaShana constitutes the quintessential “annual re-coronation” of G-D as our Creator, we are actually mekabel ohl malchut Shamayim,  we actually accept the yoke of His kingship, twice every day when we recite, morning and evening, the second paragraph of Shema; as well as whenever we intone and meditate upon the words melekh ha-olam in every bracha we say, i.e. at least one hundred times daily – as our ancestors have been doing, in the same wording, for millennia!

Similarly, the Torah is timeless.  Ki heim chayeinu ve-orekh yameinu, uvahem nehegeh yomam va-layla. “It is our life, and the length of our days, and we will meditate upon it day and night!” (Maariv service). Minimally this means we should learn a bit of Torah during daylight hours and another bit at night. Maximally, immersion in Torah should fill our every waking hour! And the timelessness of Torah is reinforced every time we engage with a makhloket, a difference of opinion in the Talmud, between Hillel and Shammai, R’ Yehuda and R’ Meir, Rav and Shmuel, Abaye and Rava, and we plumb the profundities of their svarot, their thinking, even as generations upon generations of Torah students have been constantly doing.  It is as if these giants of Torah are with us even now as we learn!

Bearing this in mind, I would like to suggest that the beautiful minhag of tikun leil Shavuot, of staying up at night to learn Torah on the first night of Shavuot, is a way in which we can bring this concept of the timelessness of Torah to bear quintessentially on Shavuot itself.    

The daylight hours are regulated in time.  There is alot ha-shachar, (dawn), generally the earliest time we engage with G-D in formal prayer. There is mi-sheyakir (sufficient natural light for recognition), the earliest we may don tefillin; there is neits (sunrise), the optimum time to recite the morning amida; the latest moment for timely recital of Shema (a quarter of daylight hours) and Amida (a third); earliest Mincha (six and a half daylight hours); pelag (approximately 1.25 hours before sunset),the earliest time we may daven maariv or inaugurate Shabbat; shkia (sunset) and tsait ha-kochavim, (dusk/nightfall), both of which are yardsticks to determine the end of the day in different contexts.

At night – from dusk until dawn  – there are no such time-frames or temporal constraints. What better hours to “timelessly” engage with timeless Torah than the nighttime hours! We need not be looking at our watches to ensure timely compliance with this, that or the other ritual mitsva.  We can ‘lose’ ourselves in the timeless sea of our infinite Torah.

Our sages, in their wisdom, compiled a suggested seder for Shavuot night,, an order of learning, comprising passages from Tanach (Bible), Mishna, Zohar and other kabbalistic texts, spanning centuries of our history and more, But nowadays, most prefer to engage in whatever branch of Torah learning speaks to them, in whatever language, from whatever epoch, from Moshe Rabeinu to Moshe Feinstein! All-night shiurim and lectures are available in most communities for those who find themselves unable to pore over printed volumes all night. And in the southern hemisphere we are talking about an 8-10-hour night, not the five or six of those who reside north of the Equator! But within those blissful hours, whether extensive or less so,  we can inhabit a timeless dimension and immerse in the fragrant mikve-waters of our timeless Torah.

And hopefully we will take the Shavuot-night message of the timelessness of Torah through to the days, weeks and months following. As Rashi famously remarks on the words in the Shema ha-devarim ha-eileh asher anochi metsavecha ha-yom – “these words which I command you today” – they should be “like a new edict towards which everyone runs!”

Indeed, not a day should go by when we do not hear, or discover, a chidush, a Torah concept which we had not hitherto encountered. In this way, we are indeed mekabel Torah every single day of our lives. We may be 3,336 earthly years away from Mount Sinai, but in G-D’s eyes it is as though we were again standing at the foot of the mountain.

Ki heim chayeinu ve-orekh yameinu. Surely we are not just talking about “the length of our days” as individuals.  Torah is the life of our nation and the length of the span of our years as G-D’s eternal  nation. In other words, for ever – timelessly!

May we merit, individually and collectively, to be forever nurtured and inspired by its inexhaustible wellsprings of wisdom – both by day and by night!

Chag Sameakh!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at
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