Two Jewish holidays focus on the Torah: Shavuot, Weeks, which falls on the 50th day after the first day of Pesach, and was transformed by the first rabbis from Yom Ha-Bikkurim, the Day of First Fruits, into Z’man Matan Torateinu, the Season of the Giving of our Torah; and Simchat Torah, a post-biblical rabbinic innovation to mark the conclusion and recommencement of the Torah reading cycle of the end of the autumn festivals. So, what’s the difference between the two?
While Simchat Torah, as its name suggests, centres on the ‘Joy of the Torah’ and the pivotal role of the Sefer Torah, the scroll of the Torah, in Jewish life from week to week, Shavuot as Z’man Matan Torateinu marks the sacred moment of Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai, following the Exodus from Egypt. However, the chronological connection between the two festivals belies a mystery: How is it that the Ineffable One came to be captured in a scroll?
According to the narrative of the Torah, it was a staged process: First, the Divine spoke (Yitro, Exodus 19 & 20), then the words of the Eternal were engraved by the Eternal on tablets of stone (Mishpatim, Ex. 24:12; Ki Tissa, Ex. 31:18; 32:16) – and only much later, were the words written in black ink on parchment by scribes.
Regardless of whether you understand the words of Torah as the unmediated words of the Eternal, which is the traditional concept of Torah Min-Ha-Shamayim, ‘Torah from Heaven’, or you consider the Torah to reflect a process by which human beings translated into words their experience of the Divine over a period of several centuries, which is the progressive perspective, the Ineffable cannot be reduced to words. Indeed, an earlier Revelation of the Divine at that sacred mountain goes as far as words can go to express the essential, ungraspable nature of the Eternal. We read at Sh’mot, Exodus chapter 3, that when Moses led his father-in-law’s flock achar ha-midbar – ‘behind the wilderness’, and ‘came to Horeb, the mountain of Elohim’ (:1), he requested to know the identity of the One apprehending him out of the flames of a burning Bush, so that he could relay his experience to the slaves (:13). But the answer he received made it clear that this was impossible: ‘Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I am that I am… Thus shall you say to the Israelites, Ehyeh sent me to you’ (:14). If the translation is unfathomable enough, the original Hebrew is even better at conveying the elusive nature of the Divine: just try articulating the barely non-consonantal, Ehyeh…
Jewish teachers and students have generated millions of words in the process of making sense of our ancestors’ experience of Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai. This Shavuot, let us pause to acknowledge the Eternal Mystery beyond words and beyond our understanding. Chag Samei’ach!