Revelation: Just The Starting Point
With the conclusion of Shabbat this Saturday night, we simultaneously initiate the holiday of Shavuot. In large part Shavuot commemorates the divine revelation that took place thousands of years ago at Mt. Sinai, 50 days after the exodus from Egypt. Our holiday prayer makes mention of this key feature of Shavuot. The middle blessing of every Yom Tov “Amidah” expresses its unique nature. For Shavuot we insert the phraseחג השבועות הזה זמן מתן תורתנו, ,“the festival of Shavuot, the time of the giving of our Torah.”
Yet while the sages of the Great Sanhedrin instituted this phrase to be inserted in our Shavuot prayer, the Torah itself makes no mention of this fact. In the list of holy days mentioned in parshiot Emor and Pinchas, the Torah doesn’t even use the term חג השבועות. It only describes the offerings to be brought on the 50th day from Pesach. Parshat Re’eh does call the holiday, Shavuot, but only speaks about a personal voluntary offering to be brought commensurate with how much Hashem has blessed the individual. Missing from all of these references to Shavuot is any mention of “the time of giving our Torah.” The question is why?
The first Mishnah of chapter 5, tractate Tamid, tells us that in the Temple service each morning the priests read the עשרת הדברות, commonly but incorrectly called “the Ten Commandments.” The Talmud Brachot, 12a, mentions “Outside the Temple the people wanted to do the same but they were stopped by the sages on account of the insinuations by the heretics.” Rashi explains “the heretics were saying that the rest of the Torah isn’t true, and we only read these special verses because only these verses were said by God and heard from His mouth by the people at Sinai.” In other words, the most important verses of the Torah and Judaism, the only ones that need to be practiced, are the עשרת הדברות To prevent this false and heretical view from taking hold, the sages abolished the recitation of the עשרת הדברות from our morning prayers.
It is for a similar reason that the Rambam, in a responsa, ruled against standing specifically for the reading of the עשרת הדברות when it occurs during the yearly Torah readings of Yitro and V’etchanan. Standing is a demonstration of respect. We stand up, for example, when our parents or teacher enters our presence. By standing for the reading of the עשרת הדברות we are displaying special respect for them over the rest of the Torah. Just as in the laws of physics, one law isn’t more important than another. Rather together they form one complete system governing the physical universe; so too, one mitzvah or group of verses in the Torah isn’t more crucial to the system of Judaism than any other.
Our custom, to stand for the עשרת הדברות , according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, is based on another aspect of their reading. If it were just the regular mitzvah of public Torah learning, that the public should not go more than 3 days without learning or hearing Torah, then we should not stand when they are read as the Rambam rules. However, if we are standing as a reenactment of the event of Har Sinai, the event of God’s revelation to the world, then not only should we stand but we should read them with the “Upper Cantillation” rather than the “Lower Cantillation” used on a regular day or Shabbat. The “Upper Cantillation” breaks the verses into דברות, “Statements,” (that contain more than 10 mitzvot). The “Lower Cantillation” breaks the Torah into verses. There is a prohibition to read a Torah verse in a way that Moshe didn’t establish. This issue, for example, becomes a problem every Friday night. One should not start the Kiddush half way through the verse with “ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום הששי” Such a verse was never established by Moshe and should not be said. Kiddush should begin by reciting the entire verse. (Bereshit, 1:34). Standing, then, for the reading of the עשרת הדברות on Shavuot is to fulfill the enhancement of “reenacting the event of Har Sinai.”
All of this being said, my mentor and primary teacher, Rabbi Israel Chait, explained to us the reason why the Torah never refers to Shavuot as “the time of receiving the עשרת הדברות” Focus on “the Ten Commandments” given on Shavuot would cause similar damage as mentioned by the Talmud. Such a reference would make all of the other holy days pale in comparison. People would wrongly attribute to Shavuot a significance in the system of Torah that it doesn’t have. The Torah, thus, purposely shunned any reference to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. However, when the Sages formulated our holiday prayer and inserted the description of Shavuot as “the time of our receiving the Torah,” they properly directed our attention. Shavuot is the time when we received the entire system of Judaism, the Torah. In this system Shavuot and even the עשרת הדברות for that matter don’t occupy any special place over any other aspect of the system.
However, reflecting upon this seminal event once a year is crucial. It reconfirms the source for all that we should and should not do as human beings, both Jew and non-Jew alike. In this latter regard, a fundamental question and answer becomes crucial. Can a person have knowledge of the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai? Are we just to believe that this event took place or can we know it the same way we know other events of history? The Torah itself answers this question. In Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:9 Moshe states, “Only beware for yourself and greatly beware for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life, and make them known to your children and your children’s children.”
What should you make known to them? The Torah answers with the very next verse, “The day that you stood before Hashem, your God, at Horeb (Mt Sinai).” This verse refers to the event of God’s revelation at Sinai to the entire nation and His giving of the Torah at that time to them.
The Torah is clear. There is a command to make this event known to those coming after the event. So there is a way, though living thousands of years later, that we can know that the event we are celebrating really took place. According to the Ramban, one of the 365 negative commands of the Torah stems directly from the verse above. “Do not forget the event of Mt. Sinai.” However, according to the Rambam, knowing the proof of the Revelation at Sinai is not a separate command by itself. Rather he views knowing the truth of this event as part of the broader mitzvah, “to learn.” Either way, it is incumbent upon all of us to know, rather than just believe, that this event happened.
The knowledge of the veracity of this event is not only for Jews. The Rambam, writing about the 7 Noachide commands in his “Laws of Kings,” states, “Those who observe the 7 Noachide commands are among the righteous of the world. They too receive a portion in the World to Come. This status accrues to them provided they accept that the 7 Noachide mitzvot are commands from God in the Torah and are made known to us through Moshe, that even previously, Noah’s descendants were commanded to fulfill them.” (In Maimonides comments on Mishnah Chulin 7:6 he explains even though Abraham was commanded in circumcision, we only do it because it was re-given to us at Mt. Sinai) Thus the imperative for all mankind is to know the event of the giving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot.
In his famous “Letter to Yemen,” the Rambam writes to the people of the importance in having clear knowledge of the event at Sinai: “Proclaim at public gatherings its nobility and its momentousness. It is the pivot of our religion and the proof that demonstrates its veracity as God challenged in the Torah saying, ‘Inquire about bygone ages that came before you, ever since God created man on earth, from one end of the heavens to the other: has anything as grand as this ever happened or has its like ever been known? Has any people heard the voice of God speaking out of a fire?’” (Devarim 4:32-34)
“However, in truth knowing that the event of Mt. Sinai actually took place is only the beginning or starting point for every person. The ultimate conviction that Torah is the word of God derives from an intrinsic source, the knowledge of Torah itself. This level of conviction is only available and attainable to those who study the actual system of Torah. This level of conviction is produced only via knowledge that comes from direct experience with and study of the Torah. This knowledge is unquestionably superior to the former. God wants us all to have this higher level of conviction. Only then is the ultimate purpose for the giving of the Torah at Sinai realized.
The Revelation at Sinai, while carefully structured by the Creator to appeal to man’s rational principle, to move him only by his Tzelem Elokim, is only a prelude to the ultimate direct and personal realization of the Torah as being the work of the Almighty. The Revelation at Sinai was necessary to create the fundamental conviction which is the bridge for anyone to gain firsthand knowledge of Torah and the truth it contains. As Rabbi Soloveitchick once said, the study of Torah is a ‘rendezvous with the Almighty’. When we begin to comprehend the philosophy of Torah we may also begin to appreciate how the Revelation at Sinai was structured by God in the only way possible to achieve the goals of the Torah, to create a religion, forever secure, by means of which man worships God through the highest element in his nature.” (“Torah From Sinai,” essay by Rabbi Yisroel Chait)
May all of us use this Yom Tov of Shavuot to reconfirm our commitment to make this seminal event in our history and religious foundation known to our children, and may Hashem grant each of us the opportunity to come close to Him through direct knowledge of the fantastic system of life, the Torah, given by Him to all mankind long ago on the very first Shavuot holiday.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan
PS: For a complete presentation of how we know the event of Mt Sinai, please read the entire essay, “Torah From Sinai” by Rabbi Israel Chait (ybt.org, enter website, then click on essays by Rabbi Israel Chait)