Jewish Holiday: Shavuot

Religious Meaning
By: Amy J. Kramer

Revelation at Mt. Sinai:

Following the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptian army, (See Passover, Origins) the Israelites began their long wandering through the wilderness toward the land of Israel, where they fulfilled their destiny as an Am Segulah, G-d’s treasured possession.

“If you will obey me faithfully an keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples… you shall be to me a kingdom of holy priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

On the first day of the third month, they reached the desert of Sinai. The people camped opposite a large mountain. Moses went up to G-d.

G-d called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you must say to the family of Jacob and tell the Israelites: You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on eagles’ wings and bringing you to Me. Now if you obey Me and keep my covenant you shall be My special treasure among all nations, even though all the world is Mine. You will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to Me.”

When Moses returned, he summoned the elders of the nation and told them all that G-d had said. The people answered as one: Na’aseh v’ Nishmah, we will do and we will listen.

Moses brought the people’s answer back to Hashem. G-d said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear when I speak to you. They will believe in you forever.”

G-d instructed Moses to tell the people to sanctify themselves that and the next day. They were also instructed to immerse their clothing. On the third day, they were told G-d would descend from the mountain before all the people.

“Set a boundary for the people around the mountain, and tell them to be careful not to climb the mountain, or even to touch its edge.

Anyone touching the mountain will be put to death. You will not have to lay a hand on him, for he will be stoned or cast down. Neither man or beast will be allowed to live. But when the trumpet is sounded with a long blast, they will then be allowed to climb the mountain.”

The third day arrived. There was thunder and lightening. A ram’s horn loudly sounded while a heavy cloud hung on the mountain.

The people camped opposite the mountain trembled. Moses led them to the foot of the mountain.

Mount Sinai was shrouded in smoke because of G-d’s divine presence. G-d was inside the fire. The mountain shook violently. Only the loud shrill of the ram’s horn was heard.

Then, G-d spoke again. “Go down. You can come up along with Aaron. But the priests and the other people must not violate the boundary to go up to the Divine; if they do, He will send destruction among them.”

Then, for the first time in recorded history, G-d revealed himself to an entire nation of people - not to one lone visionary who would report to others what G-d had said. Every Israelite at the foot of the Mt. Sinai saw and heard G-d reveal the Ten Commandments.

It cannot be over emphasized that the holiday of Shavuot commemorates the face-to-face encounter between G-d and the Jewish people. According to tradition, we all stood at Sinai, every Jewish soul, even those not yet born.

“I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt, from the place of slavery. Do not have any other Gods before Me. Do not represent such gods by any carved statues or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the the earth below, or in the water below the land.

Do not bow down to such gods or worship them. I am G-d your Lord, a G-d who demands exclusive worship. Where my enemies are concerned, I keep in mind the sin of the fathers for their descendants, to the third and fourth generation. But for those who love Me and keep My commandments, I show love for thousands of generations.

Do not take the name of G-d your Lord in vain. G-d will not allow the one who takes His name in vain to go unpunished.

Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. You can work during the six weekdays and do all your tasks. But Saturday is the Sabbath to God your Lord. Do not do anything that constitutes work. This includes you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maid, your animal, and the foreigner in your gates. It was the six weekdays that God made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on Saturday. God therefore blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Honor your father and mother. You will then live long on the land the God your Lord is giving you.

Do not commit murder.

Do not commit adultery.

Do not steal.

Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor.

Do not be envious of your neighbor’s house.

Do not be envious of your neighbor’s wife, his slave, his maid, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 19:1-20)

Within the Ten Commandments, there are actually two sets of laws. One reflects man’s relationship with G-d, mitzvot beyn adam l’makom; and one set that reflects man’s relationship toward his fellow man, mitzvoth beyn adam l’chaveyro.

Indeed, Revelation at Mt. Sinai continued beyond the tenth commandment. It actually includes an additional 603 ethical and religious laws to bring the total to 613 commandments. Of those 613 commandments, 248 are positive commandments, said to correspond to the number of bones in the body, and 365 are negative commandments, said to correspond to the days of the year.

When viewed together, they suggest that we as Jews devote every part of our bodies, every day of our lives, to following G-d’s Torah, as revealed to all of us, born and unborn, at Mt. Sinai.

Am Segulah: A Treasured Possession

Probably no other phrase from the Torah has been more mistakenly understood as the term am segulah, which has over time been incorrectly translated as “the chosen people.” These two words have caused more problems for Jews than almost any other label.

The Jewish people were not singled out because of any inherent virtue. The Torah makes no attempt to hide our transgressions and failures throughout the ages. They are the reasons why we were driven from the land of Israel and lost our holy Temple, not once, but twice.

What we are ‘chosen’ for is the obligation to fulfill the Torah as promised at Mt. Sinai.

Maimonides said that prior to the giving of the Torah, all human beings were bound by the seven Noahide laws: do not deny G-d, do not blaspheme G-d, do not murder, do not engage in adultery and other sexual abominations, do not steal, do not eat the limb from a living animal, and establish courts.

From the moment of the Revelation on Mount Sinai, the Jews committed to accept the additional 606 laws that make up our body of commandments.

All the nations of the world were offered the Torah, the Midrash says. Hashem asked the children of Esau, “Will you accept my Torah?” They asked what was written in it. “You shall not murder.” The children of Esau could not agree to that commandment.

So G-d asked the children of Amnon and Moab, who also wanted to know what was written in the Torah. They were told that the Torah forbids adultery. However, committing adultery was too ingrained in their cultures, and both nations refused the Torah.

The children of Ishmael were also offered the Torah, but they could not agree to the commandment prohibiting stealing. When G-d finally turned to the children of Israel, they all said as one, “na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will hear.

The children of Israel promised to obey before hearing what was required of them.

There is an interesting Midrash that says that G-d actually lifted the mountain of Sinai and held it over the heads of the Israelites, saying, “If you accept my Torah, well and good; if not, then here will be your grave.” The rabbis explain that it wasn’t until Purim, (See Purim, Origins & Religious Significance) when G-d was completely hidden from them, that the Jews could accept the Torah in faith rather than in fear.

What is Torah?

What does the word Torah actually mean?

The word Torah is derived from the word, horah, which means to teach. The Hebrew word for teacher is moreh, for a man, and morah, for a woman.

We believe that everything we could ever want or need to know is contained within the Torah: history, ethics, prophesy, psychology. Much is obvious, other information requires delving into layers of meaning.

There are said to be seventy facets to Torah, different ways in which it can be understood. They fall into four distinct categories: pshat, the literal meaning; remez, the suggested interpretation; drash, the moral lesson; and sod, the mystical, or Kabbalistic significance.

What are the Five Books of Moses?

The five books of Moses are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In Hebrew they are, Bereshit, (in the beginning), Shemot, (the names), Vayikra, (and G-d called), Bamidbar, (in the desert) and Devarim (the words), so named for the significant word in the first phrase of the book.

The printed form, as opposed to the meticulously hand-written parchment, is called the chumash, which gets its meaning from the word, chamesh, the Hebrew word for the number five.

The Torah also contains the following books: Prophets, Nevi’im, which details the account of visionaries, spiritual leaders, and kings of Israel; and Writings, Ketuvim, additional texts attributed to prophets, kings David and Solomon, and select sages. Together, all three books are called by the Hebrew acronym, Tanach – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.

Jews believe that at the same time Moses received the written word of G-d, (Torah Sheh B’chtav), he was also given an explanatory edition, (Torah She Ba’al Peh), without which it would be impossible to comprehend much of the written Torah’s laws.

For example, our understanding of how Shabbat is to be observed and remembered, what exactly Tefilin are and how Kashrut, keeping kosher, is to be observed, depends on Torah She Ba’al Peh, our oral tradition.

Moses did not record this information. Instead, he passed it on to his disciple, Joshua, who passed it on to Israel’s judges, who transmitted it to the elders of each tribe, who continued the chain of transmission orally to each succeeding generation.

It wasn’t until 200 C.E., when the rabbis feared that mounting persecution against the Jews would prevent further transmission to future generations that the oral tradition was written and codified in the form of the Mishnah.

Sages later added their commentaries on the Mishnah, which became known as the Gemara. Together, the Mishah and the Gemara comprise the Talmud, from the Hebrew lamad, to study.

Unless we use the Torah in our daily lives, this ultimate gift is useless. Our rabbis tell us that the world is built upon three things: Torah (study), Avodah, (worship) and Gemilut Hasadim, (acts of loving kindness). The second and third depend on the first.