It is certainly true that the Torah only mentions an agricultural basis for Shavuot, namely the wheat harvest.However, it is also true that
Shavuot is part of a series that includes Passover and Sukkot, each of which have both agricultural and historical themes in the Torah
The Torah records no holiday at all to commemorate the Revelation at Sinai, which, it seems to me, is at least as worthy of commemoration as the “booths” that the Children of Israel constructed or had G-d provide for them during the Wilderness years
Shavuot comes out just about on the date of the Revelation.
All these reasons make the absence of a historical theme for Shavuot in the Torah sort of suspicious.
The classic Jewish answers to this question focus on Matan Torah as uniquely beyond one-day-a-year or purely symbolic commemoration, with my favorite version being that each of us needs to accept the Torah anew every day, so that Matan Torah should never be seen as a past event.And indeed, it is noteworthy that
the Torah records the date of Matan Torah only obliquely, so that the Rabbis dispute which day of Sivan was the actual date, and that
Shavuot is not given a specific calendar date, but rather scheduled for the 50th day after the second day of Passover.In the original lunar calendar, where the month of Nissan could be either 39 or 30 days, this meant that the calendar date of Shavuot can vary as well, and therefore Shavuot could not reliably commemorate any “this date in history”.
These suggest that the Torah deliberately avoids drawing attention to the remarkable coincidence in time of Shavuot and Matan Torah.
However, the Rabbis and the traditional liturgy do make the connection explicit, and so we must ask: if the Torah deliberately avoids calling Shavuot the time of Matan Torah, why do the Rabbis and liturgy seemingly defy the Torah’s intentions by making the connection explicit?
My favorite answer to that question is given by David Hartman (although I discovered this after I had come up with it on my own).Hartman suggests that there are two aspects to Sinai – the Giving (Matan Torah) and the Reception (Kabbalat HaTorah.From G-d’s perspective, all that matters is the Reception, and that must reoccur each day.From our perspective, however, the Giving is worthy of celebration, because it gave us the opportunity to Receive, and the Giving occurred once, on a specific date in history.
Therefore – the Torah, which is written from G-d’s perspective, does not describe Shavuot as commemorating Sinai, but the liturgy, which is written from ours, should certainy do so.
The Torah describes Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) as a holiday based on agricultural themes. How did it come to be a commemoration of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah, Revelation)?
You are absolutely right: in order to find Z’man Matan Tora-teinu (the Season of the Giving of the Torah) in the Bible, one must engage in a little digging. The Torah refers to this holiday as Hag HaBikkurim, the Feast of the First Fruits (Numbers 28:26), Hag Hakatzir, the Feast of the Reaping (Exodus 23:16), and Hag Shavuot, the Feast of Week (Exodus 34:22). The Torah never explicitly says that the Torah was given on the sixth day of Sivan. It was the sages who named this holiday Z’man Matan Tora-teinu and came up with this connection. But the connection between the giving of the Torah and the Feast of Weeks is a natural and logical one.
It is customary, on the second night of Passover, to begin the counting of the Omer. Actually, this practice was the subject of a great deal of controversy throughout Jewish history. The Torah says, “You shall count from the day after ‘the Sabbath’ when you bring an Omer of grain as an offering, seven full weeks…” (Leviticus 23:15) The sages interpreted ‘Sabbath’ in this verse as referring to the second day of Passover. After all, a holiday is also a kind of Sabbath. We, therefore, count seven weeks starting from the eve of the second day of Passover (or the second Seder). The day following the forty nine days of counting is the Feast of Shavuot.
We learn, in the Torah, that the Israelites reached Sinai ‘on the third new moon’ after leaving the land of Egypt. That means that the counting of the Omer would have coincided, more or less, with the time when the revelation took place. It was inevitable that they would make this connection between Sinai and Shavuot. The point is that the Torah does not tell us what day of the month Shavuot falls on and what day exactly the Torah was given. The sages however ascertained the day by counting out the events that took place prior to the giving of the Torah. This discussion can be found in the Talmud, Shabbat 86b-87a. According to this passage the people arrived at Sinai on the first of Sivan, rested for a day, negotiated for a day (“We will do and we listen”) and, then, were told that they had three days to prepare themselves for the theophany. That would mean that on the sixth day of the month the revelation began; the same day as Shavuot!
There are also thematic and theological reasons for making this connection. Passover, of course, celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and Sukkot the sojourn in the wilderness. It seemed logical that we would also have a special day on which we remember the giving of the Torah and the making of the Covenant at Mount Sinai. Since Shavuot is the third holiday in the ‘triumvirate’ of the Pilgrimage Festivals, it made sense to identify this holiday with this historical connection. In this way, all three Regalim, Pilgrimage Festivals, would have both agricultural and historical roots in the Jewish tradition. The three central themes of Jewish thought are creation, redemption and revelation. Passover is the festival of redemption, Sukkot which marks a time of thanksgiving is the feast of redemption and Shavuot becomes the holiday that celebrates revelation.
One final note: it is interesting to note that Shavuot is called the holiday of the giving (Matan) of the Torah and not the season of the receiving of the Torah. Some of the sages wondered why this was the case. Wasn’t the significant thing that the people of Israel accepted the Torah? There is a lovely Chasidic teaching in which it is said that we celebrate the giving and not the receiving of the Torah because the Torah was only given once, but we each receive it anew each and every day of our lives. However you choose to understand “revelation” – as a onetime event or a continuous event in Jewish life. We care all called on to receive the Torah and respond to its teaching each and every day of our lives.
Your question is very insightful because it picks up on something that most people miss. That is, it senses that there is a striking coincidence between the Jewish Festivals (Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot) and agricultural holidays. It is not just a coincidence.
Every society in every age has an agricultural festival around the planting season, the first fruits and the harvest. Jewish society is no different. It may be true that Pesach (the cornerstone of the Jewish year since it MUST occur in the Spring) actually took place in the Springtime or it may be true that the Biblical writers placed it in the Springtime for, as the Spring is the season of renewal, so too, is the Exodus a renewal of the Jewish people where it morphed into people and not simply a group of tribes under the whim of the Egyptians.
But what does all this have to do with Shavuot?
If the Exodus can be placed (or actually did occur at or near the Spring planting season), then the ‘first fruits festival’ – Shavuot – would celebrate the ‘first fruits of the Jewish people’ – the Torah. And since the date of the matan Torah – the giving of the Torah – is not mentioned in the Bible, it is up to the rabbis to try to determine when it was. These short discussions are found in the Talmud.
As an aside, Sukkot – the agricultural harvest festival – did not have a parallel event occur in the Torah. But the booths – sukkot – which are erected in fields during the harvest for the workers to rest in during the heat of the day, were a perfect parallel for the sukkot that the Jews used in the desert for their journey.
So, you can see what Jewish tradition did: our tradition – beginning with the Torah itself – connected, either intentionally or coincidentally, Passover with the Exodus. From there, the first fruits became the giving of Israel’s first fruit – the Torah. And months later, the harvest became the commemoration of the journey through the desert with the symbolism of the booth.
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