Shavuot and Matan Torah


According to Jewish tradition the festival of Shavuot is referred to as “the time of the Giving of our Torah”, as appears from the Amidah for the festival (cf. the ArtScroll Siddur, p. 665). Remarkably, this association between the date of the festival and the date of the Giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) is not made by the text of the Torah itself. It is never said in the Chumash that the Theophany on Mount Sinai happened on the date of Shavuot

In Ex. 19:1 it is said: “In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai”. The words “the same day” seem to signify that the arrival at Sinai happened on the 15th of Sivan. In rabbinic exegesis (e.g. Rashi’s Chumash commentary) it happened on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, but this reading cannot be taken for granted. Ex. 19:1 seems to refer back to Ex. 12:41, and thus to the day on which the Exodus from Egypt (which happened on the 15th of the first month — Nisan) did take place, and to Ex. 16:1, the day when the Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Sin (the 15th of the second month — Iyyar). If the first day of the month was meant one would expect the wording of the text to be different, and more like Ex. 40:2, 17. 

If the three days mentioned in Ex.19:10-11 began immediately on Sivan 15, and if the counting of these days should be inclusive, then the 17th of Sivan was the earliest possible day for Matan Torah. This is a day that is completely incompatible with the rabbinic date of Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan. It should be noticed that it is also incompatible with a Sadducean reckoning of Shavuot, which has this festival always happening between Sivan 5 and Sivan 12. The only way the 17th Sivan could be a possible date of Shavuot is by admitting that Shavuot according to Dt. 16:9 was determined agriculturally and was dependent upon the state of the fields, i.c. the ripening of the barley. This is in accordance with the stipulations given in Lev. 23:9-11 about the Omer. In Lev. 23:9 a new section of the text begins that has no immediate connection with what was said before, and from Lev. ch. 23 alone a direct relation between Pesach and the counting of the Omer cannot be proved. 

In normal circumstances, however, the barley would be ripe around the time of Pesach. And I guess that only in times of bad and late harvests it could happen that Shavuot would be as late in the year as Sivan 17. 

While in the Tanach we never see a direct relation, as far as I know, between Shavuot and Matan Torah, in rabbinic literature, from the second century CE on, we find the two identified. There may have been an earlier oral tradition, though, because in the Apostolic Writings this identification appears to be alluded to. There are in fact interesting comparisons. In Ex. 32:28 we have three thousand people dying because of the sin of the golden calf, a sin which happened almost immediately after Matan Torah. In Acts 2:41 we have three thousand people being baptized and the Body of Messiah formed by the Ruach HaKodesh as a new and distinct group within Israel. Another similarity is to be noticed between the fire on Mount Sinai and the fiery tongues descending upon the Apostles. (Both events mark a new beginning and show a certain resemblance to what happened on the first day of creation, when the Ruach HaShem was above the waters and the light was created.) 

Thus the conclusion might be justified that qua theological content there is a relation between Shavuot and Matan Torah but not qua calendrical date. The fact that Shavuot is the only yearly festival which has no fixed date in the Torah may already point in this direction. The rabbinic idea that Matan Torah happened on the 6th of Sivan should perhaps be considered a forced attempt to emphasize the celebration of Matan Torah in a diaspora situation in which the agricultural aspects of Shavuot could no longer be given due weight. To be clear, this rabbinic idea is only to be regarded as “forced” in relation to the actual date of Sivan 6, not in relation to its thematic content. Israel is the firstfruits of mankind, a nation dedicated to HaShem and which received its constitution at Mount Sinai. The Messianic Assembly is that part of Israel which has the firstfruits of the Spirit as the Apostle says in Rom. 8:23, and which was constituted on the Shavuot day of Acts ch. 2. 

The thematic identification of Shavuot and Matan Torah is thus probably a later but legitimate development of the oral tradition. It appears to be based on a grown understanding of the symbolism of the festival. And in a broad sense there’s still a calendrical connection between Shavuot and Matan Torah, since both events are related to the third month.


2 Responses to “Shavuot and Matan Torah”

  1. 1 faithbasedworks June 18, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Dear Geert

    Interesting comparisons on Pentecost. I could add another one. (You probably know) A midrash said when the Torah was given, it was given in 70 languages for the 70 nations of the world. But the nations doesn’t accept it, only Israel did, therefore it was particular for Israel. At Pentecost it (also) was given global and therefore the people of Galilee spoke suddenly in several languages to spread the Torah, the good news. The fulfilled Torah came to all people in the oral way but particularly by the Holy Spirit for the faithful.

    kind regards

  1. 1 Observations June « Christian for Moses Trackback on July 4, 2009 at 12:14 pm

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