By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Shavuos is called Z’man Matan Toraseinu. Originally, this event occurred in the Hebrew year 2448 (3,325 years ago). Rav Dessler in his Michtav M’Eliyahu explains that time does not flow as a straight line, but rather as a circle. The day of Shavuos, which is the 6th of Sivan every year, is, therefore, the very day that we receive the Torah.
Similarly, the Nesivos Shalom explains that just as the Torah is eternal, so too is Kabbalas HaTorah eternal. Each and every year there is a new Kabbalas HaTorah. In other words, Shavuos is not just a commemoration of our receiving the Torah; we are receiving it once again.
Receiving the Torah is monumental. The entire essence of the nation of Israel is only for Torah (Sefer HaChinuch 273). The entire universe, heavens and earth, were only created for the sake of the Torah (ibid). Receiving the Torah, therefore, requires much preparation. Indeed, the Torah tells us in Parashas Yisro that we needed to prepare for three days: “Heyu nechonim l’shloshes yamim (Shmos 19:15).”
One of the preparations that we make for receiving the Torah is that we learn Pirkei Avos on every Shabbos between Pesach and Shavuos. The Midrash Shmuel explains, “One who will be learning Torah must first know its method of study and how to treat Torah. Therefore, so that the heart of each member of K’lal Yisrael will be ready to accept Torah with a complete heart and to properly observe it, they enacted the learning of Pirkei Avos.”
Let us also recall that Shavuos represents the zenith of our spiritual growth. When we left Mitzrayim we were on the lowest level of tumah, impurity. In a matter of 49 days we experienced record spiritual growth to the point where the nation of Israel was the greatest generation that ever lived.
We should also be aware that there is no limit to the heights and growth we can accomplish in our ruchniyus, indeed in any mitzvah. This can be seen from a passage of the Targum Yonasan on Sefer Rus. Boaz tells Rus that he is aware of both how she came and joined the nation of Israel and also of all the chessed that she had performed with her mother-in-law. The Targum Yonasan explains that because these two things were said in the same breath, the two mitzvos were equal to each other.
This is somewhat mind-boggling. Rus was a princess of Moav, a very powerful nation. It is remarkable that one of the top women in society would give it all up to become a lowly member of the Jewish nation who had to take tzedakah. Is this lofty mitzvah equal to the mere chessed that she does for her mother-in-law?
The answer, according to Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l, is that there is no spiritual limit to any mitzvah that we perform. If we do a chessed, any chessed, with the right intentions, it can be equal to the greatest of mitzvos.
Preparing For Shavuos
The Shla HaKadosh explains that Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan is a special time of preparation in terms of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. This may be based upon the Rashi in Parashas Yisro (19:1–2) that the nation of Israel did teshuvah on this day when they traveled from Refidim.
The pesukim in the Torah give us the pre-history of Matan Torah:
• On Rosh Chodesh Sivan itself K’lal Yisrael entered Midbar Sinai, a place wherein Har Sinai is located.
• On the second of Sivan Moshe was told and gave over to K’lal Yisrael the two parashios of “Atem Ra’isem” and “You shall be for Me a nation of priests and a holy nation.” This was when they answered, “Everything that Hashem spoke, we shall do.”
• On the third of Sivan Moshe related to Hashem the words of the nation. Moshe was then told the mitzvah of separating.
• On the fourth of Sivan Moshe was told to go to the nation and sanctify them. He then told them to prepare themselves for three days.
The Mechilta (Parashas Yisro) explains that part of the preparations involved the utter unity of the nation: “Vayichan sham Yisrael”—“b’lev echad k’ish echad” with one heart, like one man. It is clear from this Mechilta that there are levels of d’veikus and holiness that cannot be achieved alone but only through a joint and communal effort. We achieved this level at that time. It was through this unique achdus that we merited to say “Naaseh v’nishma—we will do and then we will listen.”
Ultimately Hashem placed the very mountain above them like a barrel. The verse tells us that they stood under the mountain: “Vayisyatzvu betachtis hahar” (Shmos 19:17). Rashi explains, “Kafah aleihem har k’gigis.”
The Three Days
“The essence of these days,” according to the Shaar HaMelech, “is to separate ourselves from all the vanities of this world to be prepared to greet Hashem. In each and every year we should look at ourselves as if we are preparing ourselves for Kabalas HaTorah on the mountain of Sinai.”
The separation means to focus on things spiritual and avoid an emphasis on aspects of the physical world that take us away from concentrating on Hashem and upon our relationship with Him. Our berachos should therefore be recited with more intensity and concentration, we should avoid unnecessary window shopping and looking at catalogues. Rather, our focus should be on three more important things: 1. Improving our davening 2. Focusing more on the life lessons inherent in our Torah studies, and 3. Chessed. Each of these three brings us ever closer to Hashem.
Other Names Of Shavuos
Another name for the yom tov of Shavuos is Atzeres. There are actually two yomim tovim with this name. Both of them have a special quality to them that no other yom tov has. Shavuos is achieving a state of being alone with Hashem. The Beis Avraham explains in terms of the d’veikus that can be achieved through the yomim tovim that Pesach is considered like the period of engagement and Shavuos is like the wedding itself. When the mountain was placed upon the nation of Israel like a barrel, it was like a chuppah.
The closeness to Hashem that we achieved at Matan Torah makes Shavuos the ideal time to celebrate the first fruits of the seven species with which Eretz Yisrael is blessed. During this time, the first fruits were harvested and brought in decorated baskets to the Beis HaMikdash. Thus, another name for Shavuos is Chag HaBikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits.
Shavuos is also the time when we celebrate the abundant wheat harvest that Hashem has given us. This is why it is called Chag HaKatzir, the Feast of Harvest. It is because Shavuos is also the beginning of the wheat harvest that we bring the Shtei HaLechem (two loaves) as a meal-offering in the Beis HaMikdash.
Bloodletting: The Talmud (Shabbos 129b) tells us that a celestial damager was sent out against the nation of Israel on the day before Shavuos. Its name was T’voach. By virtue of K’lal Yisrael having accepted the Torah, they saved themselves from the destructive fate of T’voach. On the eve of Shavuos we do not engage in any form of bloodletting because of the dangers involved. Indeed, the sages forbade doing so on every erev yom tov on account of Shavuos. The minhag is cited by the commentators (Darchei Moshe CM 468:3) and the custom in K’lal Yisrael is to avoid blood testing unless there is medical need.
Sleeping On Erev Shavuos: Some people have the custom to sleep on erev Shavuos in order to be able to stay up the entire night on Shavuos. The Magen Avraham (OC 290) quotes the Sefer Chassidim that when erev Shavuos falls on Shabbos, it is forbidden to say that one is resting so that he or she can be awake for the night of Shavuos.
Grass and Trees in Shul: There is a minhag mentioned by the Ramah in Shulchan Aruch (OC 494) to place grass, flowers, and trees in shul on Shavuos. One explanation for this is found in the words of the Levush (Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe): It commemorates the grass that surrounded Har Sinai at the time of Matan Torah. As the verse states, “The sheep and flocks may not graze.” The indication is that grass grew there. It is a worthwhile minhag to continue because it helps us relive the experience at Har Sinai, an experience that we actually go through once again.
Another explanation is that it commemorates the bringing of the Bikkurim, the first fruits, which were made from baskets woven from and decorated with grasses and flowers (Ziv HaMinhagim).
Another explanation is that Moshe Rabbeinu was saved on the banks of the river which had grassy knolls (Chiddushei HaRim).
The Brisker Rav explained that the decorations are minimal and show us that the only means by which one can acquire Torah is if we are satisfied with the minimum and do not pursue luxuries and other forms of consumption. Grasses are mentioned in this vein in the Gemara Eiruvin 22a by Rabbi Adda bar Ahava (Moadim L’Simcha p. 402).
Dairy: The Ramah mentions that it is the custom to split the meal on Shavuos, where the first half of the meal is comprised of dairy foods and the second half is comprised of meat foods. Although it is no longer the custom to split the meal, we do have the custom to eat dairy foods on Shavuos. The reason for this custom is to remind us that when we received the Torah we were taught the laws of preparing meat in the proper, kosher manner. Since we were unable to do this immediately, we consumed only dairy foods at the time.
Waiting for Nightfall: Although generally we are permitted to begin Shabbos or yom tov slightly earlier than is required, in regard to Shavuos the custom is to wait for nightfall. The reason is that we want to count the Omer completely and perfectly. Doing so would entail making sure that the last day is complete.
Staying Up All Night: Although the custom is not mentioned in the Talmud or in the Shulchan Aruch, the custom has developed in K’lal Yisrael to remain awake the entire night of Shavuos and to study Torah. The sefarim hakedoshim explain that one who stays up all night studying Torah merits gilui Shechina, revelation of Hashem’s Divine Presence on that night.
The Kaf HaChaim (OC 494) writes that women who have the custom of counting the Omer can indeed partake in perfecting the tikkunim involved in the mitzvah of sefiras haOmer by learning at night as well. Other poskim explain that there was no minhag for the women to stay up.
Shavuos Davening: The Shacharis and full Hallel of yom tov are recited. The reading of the Aseres HaDibros takes place on the first day of Shavuos. On the first day, after the kohen is called for his aliyah to the Torah but before he makes the berachah, we recite the piyut (supplication poem) of Akdamus. On the second day, Megillas Rus is read before the reading of the Torah. During the kohen’s aliyah on the second day, many recite “Yetziv Pisgam.”
The reading of the Torah is followed by Mussaf and the birkas kohanim.
The piyut of Akdamus. The piyut was written by Rav Meir ben Yitzchok Shliachtzibbur, a Rishon that is often quoted by Rashi and Tosefos (see, for example, Rashi on Tehillim 73:12 and Tosefos R.H. 11a). It is a double-aleph-beis poem that describes the greatness of the Creator of the world, the nature of malachim, and the loftier stature that the nation of Israel has above the angels themselves. One section of it describes how, kavyachol, Hashem is longingly desirous of K’lal Yisrael learning Torah and desires their prayers. It ends with the statement that those who hear (and absorb the depth and meaning of the piyut) will merit to be among that group that will see fantastic miracles on the great day.
The piyut is recited in Aramaic so that the malachim will not understand it and take it for their own use. It should remain special for the Jewish people alone. It is recited while the sefer Torah itself is lying on the bima. This demonstrates how very special it is.
Why we read Megillas Rus. There is a debate among the poskim as to whether our custom to read the Megillah of Rus on Shavuos is a full-fledged obligation or rather a minhag. The reason we read the Book of Rus is to teach us that Torah is only given through hardship and poverty (Yalkut Shimoni 596). Another reason is that the entire episode took place during the z’man ha’katzir, and Shavuos is known as Chag HaKatzir too. A third reason is so that we will have read from all three parts of the TaNaCh on the day of Matan Torah (Otzer HaMinhagim).
Yizkor: On the second day of yom tov, after the Torah is read, a special prayer of Yizkor is recited. We daven for and pledge tzedakah in the merit of those in our family who have passed on. It is the custom in K’lal Yisrael for everyone who still has both parents to leave the shul during the recitation of Yizkor.
Yom Tov Halachos
As on Shabbos, there exists a prohibition of performing melacha on yom tov. The admonition against certain melachos should be used as a means of coming closer to Hashem as well. What is melacha exactly, and how can it be used as a tool for greater closeness to G-d?
Melacha is not defined as work, necessarily. Melacha is defined as a specific type of creative act. More precisely, melacha is defined as the specific creative acts that were necessary to create the Mishkan, the resting place for Hashem’s concentration of the Shechina Presence here on earth.
Our refraining from such creative acts on Shabbos and yom tov is the collective flag of the Jewish people. Just as any nation is proud and salutes its national flag, so too is the observance of Shabbos and the holidays the flag of the Jewish people. It symbolizes and embodies our belief that the world was created for a purpose by a kind and benevolent Being who rewards good and punishes evil. A focus on this idea will cause us to become ever closer to Him. Mere contemplation of it when we refrain from melacha achieves this end.
While the definition of melacha is the same for both Shabbos and yom tov, the Torah made some exceptions for yom tov. The Torah states that actions that are necessary for people to eat are permitted on yom tov. This is called “ochel nefesh.” Not all actions, however, are permitted for ochel nefesh purposes. If the food preparation could have been done with equal freshness and results before yom tov, and one had the time and opportunity to do it then, then it may only be done with a shinui (variation) on yom tov itself. There are some melachos on yom tov that are forbidden, or permissible only in a specific manner, even when it comes to food preparation.
It is also important to know that one may never do melacha on yom tov during bein hash’mashos, twilight, that immediately follows a yom tov. Why is this so? Because we do not know exactly when the day changes from one to the other. It is forbidden to do melacha on yom tov for another day. Thus we might be doing melacha on yom tov for another day which is forbidden.
One is also not permitted to perform any tasks on the first day of yom tov for the second day of yom tov, even if the preparations involve no melacha. This is called “hachana” and is something about which we must be very careful.
May it be Hashem’s will that we merit a complete and full Kabbalas HaTorah this year! v
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