Shavuos has a strange and unique feature. Despite its powerful link to Matan Torah, the Torah seems to ignore this aspect of Shavuos altogether and provides totally different reasons for its observance, such as relating it to the harvest (Chag Hakatzir – Shemos 23:16), the weeks of the Sefirah (Chag HaShavuos – Shemos 34:22), or the first fruits (Yom Habikurim – Devorim 16:9), but never to Matan Torah itself. Indeed, the Torah never even gives a very precise record of when Matan Torah took place, leaving it to the Amoraim (Shabbos 86b) to dispute whether it took place on the sixth or seventh of Sivan. Why does the Torah bury the evidence?
One explanation for the Torah’s veiling of the date of Matan Torah is that this comes to emphasize that we should never pin down the Torah to any one day of the year. Every day is a day of Matan Torah as the Medrash comments on the verse, “On this day (bayom hazeh) they came to the desert of Sinai” (Shemos 19:1) – “It should have written on that day; why does it write ‘on this day?’ To teach that you should love the words of Torah as if they were given today!” Integral as Matan Torah may be to Shavuos, it is no less important the whole year round. This is why the Torah hides its presence.
Six centuries ago, the Rivash (Rav Yitzchok ben Sheishes, a talmid of the Ran who was nifter in 5168/1408) offered a far extremer answer to our question of why the Torah never clearly connects Shavuos with Matan Torah.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 6a) points out that in old times when the calendar was not fixed, Shavuos could fall on any of three dates: “Shavuos sometimes falls on the fifth [of Sivan], sometimes on the sixth, and sometimes on the seventh.” This depended on the length of Nissan and Iyar. If both months were 30 days long, Shavuos would be on the fifth, if both were 29 days long, Shavuos fell on the seventh, while if one month was 29 days long and the other 30, Shavuos fell on the sixth of Sivan.
This is problematic, since although the Amoraim (Shabbos 86b) disagree whether Matan Torah was on the sixth or the seventh of Sivan, absolutely no one holds that it was on the fifth of Sivan. How could Shavuos, the day of Matan Torah, sometimes fall on the fifth?
The Rivash then goes a step further. He points out that Shavuos not only sometimes falls on the “wrong” day of the month, but also falls on the wrong day of the Omer, since, according to the Gemara (Shabbos 87b) Hashem gave us the Torah not on the fiftieth day of the Omer, but on the fifty-first day of the Omer – the day after Shavuos! If so, why is Shavuos called z’man matan Toraseinu at all?
To this, the Rivash gives an astounding answer, which hinges on the fact that there are two kinds of calendars.
Ever since Matan Torah, Jews determined new months by visual sightings of the new moon. Until witnesses to the new moon arrived, no one knew whether the current month would be 29 or 30 days long. This system became shaky after the destruction of Beitar in 3893/133 and the increase of Roman persecution in Eretz Yisroel when the Sanhedrin continued to move from place to place and increasing numbers of Jews fled to Bavel. In 4119/359, when Hillel II, a thirteenth generation descendant of Hillel the Elder, became the Nasi of the Sanhedrin, he decided that it was too risky to continue with the old calendar system and proceeded to establish our fixed calendar that no longer utilizes live witnesses. Instead, every Rosh Chodesh is fixed in advance through a system of permanent rules.
There is a major difference between the old and new systems. Unlike the old system where almost any month could be either 29 or 3 U days long, under the new system every month (except Cheshvan and Kislev) remains the same length every year. This works as follows: Nissan is 30 days, Iyar 29, Sivan 30, Tammuz 29, Av 30, Elul 29, Tishrei 30, Cheshvan 29 or 30 days, Kislev 29 or 30 days, Teves 29, Shevat 30, and Adar 29. Because of this, Shavuos nowadays always falls on the sixth of Sivan – the precise date of Matan Torah according to the majority opinion of Rabanan.
Due to this, the Rivash suggests that even though Shavuos was not on the day of Matan Torah in earlier times, today, thanks to our fixed calendar, Shavuos has a direct link to Matan Torah. As he puts it: “Nowadays, because we know how the months are fixed and that Nissan is always full and Iyar lacking, the fiftieth day of the Omer always falls on the sixth of Sivan when the Torah was given, according to the opinion of the Rabanan as we see in Masseches Shabbos (87b). This is why we say zeman matan Toraseinu in our prayers.”
To sum up, the Rivash has the astounding opinion that although there was once a time when Shavuos did not mark the day of Matan Torah, nowadays it does, thanks to the innovation of a fixed calendar. Of course, this is an earthshaking chiddush, since many sources indicate that Matan Torah has always been an integral part of Shavuos.
For example, the Gemara (Pesachim 68b) writes, “Everyone agrees that on Shavuos one requires lachem [to eat as well as to pray] because this is the day the Torah was given.” Later too, the Gemara states that Mar the son of Ravina used to fast on every day except Shavuos, since this was the day the Torah was given, and that Rav Yosef would prepare a special fat calf in honor of Shavuos since this was the day the Torah was given. In addition, the Gemara (Megilla 31a) writes that we read the Ten Commandments on Shavuos because the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan. Furthermore, the Zohar describes how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his disciples used to study Torah the whole 01 Shavuos night m preparation for Kabbolas HaTorah the next morning.
Although the Rivash could explain that some of these statements were made after the calendar became permanent and Shavuos correlated with Matan Torah, this does not apply to them all. First, the text of z’manMatan Toraseinu was probably established by the Anshei K’nesses Hagedolah long before Hillel II established the permanent calendar. Also, although Mar the son of Ravina who never fasted on Shavuos lived after the time of Hillel II, Rav Yosef who ate a fatted cow in honor of Shavuos was nifter long before Hillel II in the year 4083/323.
Even more astounding is that despite these problems with the Rivash S approach, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (494:3) adopts it in its entirety, writing as follows:
“The fiftieth day of Sefiras Ha’Omer is the festival of Shavuos… According to the calculation of established months that we have received, that fixes the month of Nissan as always full and the month of Iyar as always lacking, this festival is always on the sixth of Sivan… Therefore, we say Z’man Matan Toraseinu on Shavuos, because the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan.
“However, when months were sanctified through visual sightings. Shavuos could be on the seventh of Sivan… or the fifth of Sivan. Even though this was not on the day of Matan Torah, this did not matter at all, because the Torah does not link this festival with the day of Matan Torah or its day in the month but only that it is the fiftieth day of the Omer… And even though our sixth of Sivan is the fifty-first day since the fifteenth of Nissan when Yisroel went out of Egypt. even so, we say Z’man Matan Toraseinu on the fiftieth of the Omer, since for us it is the sixth of Sivan, and the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan.”
The Rivash and the Shulchan Aruch HaRav leave us with many unanswered questions. Why did Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his talmidim study Torah every Shavuos night, why was the nusach of z’man matan Toraseinu imbedded into our tefillos, and why do we find early Amoraim celebrating Shavuos as a time of Matan Torah?
A number of commentators suggest that even though Matan Torah occurred on the fifty-first day of the Omer, the day after Shavuos, nonetheless, we call Shavuos z’man matan Toraseinu for a number of reasons.
The Magen Avrohom explains that the fifty-first day of the Omer coincides with the second day of Shavuos observed in the Diaspora. Rav Hirsch explains that Shavuos is deliberately a day early in order to emphasize the importance of preparing for this great day, and other commentators explain that Shavuos was supposed to be on the fiftieth except that Moshe Rabeinu added an extra day and pushed it to the fifty-first.
According to another approach, the entire problem raised by the Rivash never existed.
The Rivash was not the first person to notice that Shavuos did not always coincide with the exact date of matan Torah. Many years before, Rav Yehoshua ibn Shu’ib (a talmid of the Rashba) explained that Chazal were well aware, of course, that Shavuos does not always fall on the exact date of Matan Torah and because of this, they never instructed us to say yom Matan Toraseinu (the day the Torah was given) in our prayers, but rather z’man matan Toraseinu (the time the Torah was given), since Shavuos is not always the actual day the Torah was given, but only marks its approximate time.
This too may be due to the concept mentioned at the beginning of the article – integral as Matan Torah may be to Shavuos, it is no less important the whole year round.