Shabbat 86

Remaking Shavuot.

Shavuot is one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals during which Jews traveled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Unlike Passover (celebrating the Exodus from Egypt) and Sukkot (the wandering of the Israelites in the desert), the Torah does not connect Shavuot to its historical narrative, rather it describes it solely as an agricultural holiday.

The name Shavuot (literally “weeks”) is connected to the counting of the Omer (an offering of sheaves of grain), which begins on the second day of Passover and continues for seven weeks (49 days), culminating with Shavuot, which is celebrated on day fifty (Deuteronomy 16:9-10).

In ancient times, Shavuot did not always fall on the same date. This is because Judaism follows a lunar calendar. It takes the moon 29 and a half days to revolve around the earth, so lunar months are sometimes 29 and sometimes 30 days. A new month begins after a confirmed sighting of a new moon, so the holiday of Shavuot could fall on the 5th, 6th, or 7th of Sivan depending upon whether the preceding months of Nissan and Iyyar were 29 or 30 days.

Nowadays, Shavuot always falls on the 6th of Sivan (continuing on the 7th for many Jewish communities outside of Israel). And it’s predominant themes is not agricultural, but historical: that of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. So how did these changes come about?

Part of the process appears on our daf today:

Our sages taught: On the sixth day of the month [of Sivan] the Asseret Hadibrot (the Ten Commandments) were given to the Jewish people. Rabbi Yossi says: On the seventh day [of the month].

The debate between the sages and Rabbi Yossi begins a midrashic (interpretive) analysis of verses from Exodus 19 in an attempt to establish a timeline for the events of the narrative and to arrive at a clear date when the revelation at Sinai took place. Rava explains that when Exodus 19:1 says that the Israelites arrived at the Sinai desert “on this day (bayom hazeh)” it means the first of the month (the new moon) because Exodus 12:2 used the same word, “this” (hazeh) to refer to the new moon: “This new moon (hachodesh hazeh) shall be to you the beginning of months.” Based upon this midrash, Rava declares that “everyone agrees” that the Israelites entered the Sinai desert on the first of Sivan. The position of the sages was ultimately adopted, thereby attaching the giving of the Torah to the holiday of Shavuot to the 6th of Sivan.

It’s likely that creating a clear timeline was not the only goal that motivated the rabbis’ midrashic conversation.The discussion on today’s daf is also an attempt to adapt an agricultural, Temple-based holiday to the post-Temple era by attaching it to a new theme, one that was central to the rabbis’ notion of what Judaism is about: the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

Like most of us, I do not have any new crops to bring as an offering after the late-spring harvest. I do, however, have the Torah, which provides me with insight, direction and purpose. For this reason, I am grateful for the rabbinic innovation that transformed the holiday of Shavuot, providing us with an opportunity to rejoice in the gift of Torah each and every year.

Read all of Shabbat 86 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 31, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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