Standing at Sinai
By Rabbi Michael G. Kohn

For me, the festival of Shavuot is a riddle shrouded in mystery, wrapped in an enigma. Although it is fixed in our modern calendars as the sixth day of Sivan, no such date appears anywhere in the Torah. In parashat Pinhas, where the additional sacrifices for each of the special days – Shabbat, the Yamin Nora’im (Days of Awe) and the Shalosh Regalim (Three Pilgrimage Festivals) – are specified (Num. 28-29), it is the only one of the holidays and festivals which does not begin with (or even mention) the date of its observance.

In parashat Emor, where each of the special days of the calendar is described (Lev. 23), there is no similar description for Shavuot as we have come to know it. On Pesah, we are to “eat unleavened bread”, on Sukkot, we “dwell in booths”, on Rosh HaShannah, we “commemorate with loud blasts” of the Shofar and on Yom Kippur, it is a “Day of Atonement . . . you shall practice self-denial”. But on Shavuot, “we bring . . . two loaves of bread”.

In parashat Re’eh (Deut. 16), Shavuot is identified as the “Feast of Weeks”, as it is in parashat Ki Tissa (Ex. 34:22): the “Feast of Weeks of the first fruits of the wheat harvest”. But in our Siddurim, Shavuot is called z’man matan Torah – “the time of the giving of our Torah,” yet this description appears nowhere in the Torah itself.

Parashat Yitro, from which we read on the first day of Shavuot, provides a clue, but only after we make certain assumptions. JPS translates the beginning of this section – ba’hodesh hash’lishi l’tzeit b’nei yisrael mei’eretz mitzrayim bayom hahu ba’u midbar sinai – as “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai”. As they left Egypt in the middle of Nisan, the third new moon after that would be Rosh Hodesh Tammuz.

But others, such as Ramban, and following Rabbinic tradition, translate ba’hodesh hash’lishi as “In the third month,” which could refer to Sivan. And Rashi and Sforno each associate bayom hahu, with rosh hodesh, which would be the first of Sivan. Traveling to the foot of the mountain, they prepared themselves for the day when the fire and smoke and lightning and thunder would pour forth and the word of God was heard.

Commenting on parashat Nitzavim (Deut. 29:13), where Moses renews the covenant, the midrash associates the Torah’s words: v’lo it’khem l’vad’khem . . . ki asher yashno po imanu omeid hayom lifnei Hashem Elokeinu v’et asher einenu po imanu hayom – “and not with you alone . . . but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and those who are not here with us this day” as referring to:

the souls that will one day be created; and because there is not yet any substance in them the word standing is not used with them. Although they did not yet exist, still each one received his share [of the Torah] . . . . (Ex. Rabbah 28:6)

And this “you” (in the plural) covers not only the prophets, the priests, or the officials, but all Israel, present and future. Similarly, according to Midrash Tanchuma , “the souls [of future generations] were present, even though they had no bodies as yet.” According to Rabbi Abahu, in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani: “Their souls were there.” (Vilna ed., Nitzavim 3).

Thus, I was there, 3500 years ago, if not standing, at least present at Sinai. Mishnah Avot 1:1, et seq., recites the chain of transmission of the Torah in this fashion: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.” The Mishnah then continues for several generations beginning with Shimon the Righteous, one of the last surviving members of the anshe k’nesset ha’g’dolah.

But the chain of transmission continues long after that recorded in the Mishnah. It runs through me and through every single Jew. The chain continues because we were there. The chain continues because we have passed the Torah onto each succeeding generation. And the chain will continue as long as we will remember that we, too, stood at Sinai.


Rabbi Michael G. Kohn was ordained by AJR this past week!