Shammai’s Jewish Standard Column (publishing date: May 31, 2024)
For Shammai’s previous columns, click here.
A Shavuot Wish Unfulfilled Years ago, in a pre-Shavuot column, I expressed a wish that I believe underscores the enduring importance of this festival in our lives today—a festival with an exceptionally significant message that is much too ignored. Shavuot stands apart from our other two pilgrimage festivals. While Passover commemorates the exodus and Sukkot recalls our ancestors’ subsequent 40-year trek through the wilderness, Shavuot is unique because it encapsulates the essence of Judaism itself. It defines who and what we are as the People Israel, the Jewish people. During Shavuot, we all stood at Sinai, united as one community. We all heard God’s word, a testament to our shared heritage and identity. The Torah is clear on this: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb [Sinai]. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.” (See Deuteronomy 5:2-3.) Moses spoke those words to people, most of whom were never at Sinai. His point was simple: When God spoke at Sinai, God’s words were meant to be “heard” (studied and then acted upon) by all the generations of Israel from then on. The Torah's words—its laws—were never intended to be beyond our abilities to comprehend or observe. The Torah, Moses said, “is not in the heavens [or across the seas], that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens [or across the seas] and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’” Instead, the law “is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (See Deuteronomy 30:12-13.) This accessibility empowers us to understand the law and to apply it in our lives. The Torah also insisted that its laws be kept simple so that they would always be accessible to us. Thus, said Moses, “Do not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it....” (See Deuteronomy 4:1-2.) Does this imply that the law is immutable? It was given during a simpler era in human history to specific people with a rudimentary, even pagan, understanding of God. Should the law be confined to that era and that understanding? The Torah assures us otherwise. The Torah is not stagnant, Moses said. By faithfully observing its laws and rules, “that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’” (See Deuteronomy 4:6.) Moses appears to be saying that by merely observing God’s laws precisely as they were given to us, we demonstrate “our wisdom and discernment.” Not so. Moses was addressing how we approach the law. He understood that for the Torah to remain fresh and vibrant at every time and place, it requires being ever-changing, ever-evolving, and ever-relevant. God’s words remain constant and unchanging. How we interpret those words to fit our lives and world is how we demonstrate our wisdom and understanding. Moses warned against adding to or subtracting from the intent of Torah law. We do need to interpret its laws from generation to generation, but we must only do so in ways consistent with the Torah’s original intent. Do not interpret “do not steal,” for example, to mean “do not steal unless you can get away with it.” There is a Midrash that makes this point. For at least the last two millennia and almost certainly beginning at Sinai, there have always been those whose sacred task is to study the Torah and interpret its laws for their time and place. These people are the teachers of the Oral Law, the law that stands beside the Written one and, in almost every way, is superior to it in authority—as controversial a statement as that may seem. After all, the Judaism we follow is Rabbinic, not biblical. The teachers of the Oral Law, our Sages of Blessed Memory, made no effort to conceal this superiority, as we see in the just- mentioned Midrash. In this Midrash, Moses ascends to heaven, where he observes God adding adornments to some of the Torah’s letters. Moses asks God why such adornments were needed. God answers, “Many generations from now there will arise a man—Akiva ben Yosef by name—who will heap mountains of laws upon each [of these adornments].” Moses insisted on seeing this Rabbi Akiva for himself and so was taken to the famed sage’s study hall. Sitting in the eighth row, he listened to Akiva’s lecture, “but he did not understand” any of it, which greatly disturbed him. He had brought the Torah to Israel, yet he could not understand a discussion that grew out of that Torah. At one point, though, one of Rabbi Akiva’s students asked, “My teacher, where are you getting this from?” Said Rabbi Akiva, “It is a law that Moses handed to us from Sinai.” When Moses heard this, his mind was eased. He understood that the Torah he taught would evolve as the world evolved, but as long as the Torah’s evolution remained true to its original intent, it would still be “The Torah of Moses.” (See Babylonian Talmud tractate M’nachot 29b.) According to this Midrash, the “interpreters of the law,” our true lawgivers, were the Sages and those who would follow them. The Sages in their day did not always agree with one another, as is witnessed by the disputes between two of our earliest (and arguably greatest) Sages, Hillel and Shammai. They and the schools that emerged from them almost never agreed on legal matters. If one would say black, the other would say white. The matter, says a Midrash, was resolved when heaven itself declared: "The words of this one and this one are both the words of the living God.” (See BT Eruvin 13b.) We all stood at Sinai. We all heard God’s words—but we did not all hear those words the same way. A case in point is the date on which we are to celebrate Shavuot. The Torah merely tells us that we do so 50 days after we begin counting the Omer. As to when that is, Leviticus 23:15-16 only tells us that that count begins “on the day after the sabbath.” The word “sabbath,” however, is open to interpretation. Because the Torah itself refers to the festivals as sabbaths (see Leviticus 23:24-39), our Sages ruled that we begin counting from the day after the first day of Passover. That is why Shavuot this year arrives on the evening of June 11th. The Sadducees, a group allied with the Temple priesthood, insisted that “sabbath” meant the Sabbath, Shabbat, so they would begin counting from the Sunday after the start of Passover. By that reckoning, Shavuot this year would fall on June 16th. For its part, Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community interpreted “sabbath” to mean all of Pesach, so it began to count on the day after the festival ended. For the Beta Israel, Shavuot started each year on the 12th of Sivan (June 18th this year). Finally, because the Qumran community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls used a fixed solar calendar, it began counting the day after the first Shabbat after Pesach, so Shavuot was always celebrated on the 15th day of Sivan (June 21 this year). We all stood at Sinai. We all heard God’s words—but we did not all hear those words the same way. In the talmudic and early post-talmudic age, as long as each interpretation was consistent with “the words of the living God,” that is all that mattered if for no other reason Jewish unity depended on it. Jewish unity still depends on it, but accepting contrary views made “in the name of heaven” ceased to be the case in the Jewish world many centuries ago. How else can we explain that there is little interaction between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism? How can we explain the contempt with which many of us—non-Orthodox and modern Orthodox—demonstrate toward charedi customs and dress, which they base on their understanding of Leviticus 18:3 and 20:23, which forbid imitating non-Jewish ways, including “in our clothing and other matters,” according to an anonymously written 13th Century halachic work, the Sefer HaChinukh (see there at 262:1-4). Maimonides, the Rambam, backs into this when he grants Jews who hold important positions in a non-Jewish land permission to “wear clothes that resemble theirs.” (See his Mishneh Torah, Foreign Worship and Customs of the Nations 11:3.) When the heavenly voice proclaimed that both the Hillel and Shammai schools spoke the word of God, it added that we follow the Hillel school because “they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the School of Shammai before theirs….” That was then, and this is now, and our unity as a people is at risk because of it. We all stood before Sinai. It is long overdue for us to act like it.