The Torah’s Mysterious Treatment of the Festival of Shavuot

And you should declare on that very day (that) a sacred occasion it should be for you. You should not perform any work of labor. (This is) an eternal law, in all of your places of settlement, for all of your generations. (Sefer VaYikra 23:21)

1. The Torah does not reveal the purpose of Shavuot
The above is one of the pesukim in the Torah that instruct us to observe the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot corresponds with the date upon which we received the Torah at Sinai and commemorates that event. However, the connection between Shavuot and the Sinai Revelation is never explicitly stated in the Torah. Whereas the Torah teaches us that we are to observe Pesach in commemoration of our redemption from Egypt and that we are to celebrate Succot in order to recall our sojourn in the wilderness, the purpose and objective of Shavuot are not stated in the Torah. Instead, Shavuot’s identity as a celebration of Revelation is only revealed in the Oral Law. Why is the Written Torah silent on the issue of Shavuot’s objective and purpose?

And you should count for yourself from the day following the Shabbat, from the day of your bringing of the Omer wave-offering, seven weeks. They shall be for you full weeks. (Sefer VaYikra 23:15)

2. The Torah’s strange treatment of Shavuot’s date
Another oddity in the Torah’s treatment of Shavuot is found in the above passage. The date of every other festival is identified by the Torah as a calendar date. Pesach’s date is the 15th of the first month of the year. Rosh HaShanah’s date is the first day of the seventh month of the year. Shavuot is the only exception to this pattern. It is not assigned a calendar date. Instead, we are instructed to count seven weeks or forty-nine days from the day after the first day of the festival of Pesach. On the fiftieth day Shavuot is to be observed.

The deviation from the typical dating standard – assigning each festival to a day of a month – can be explained. The apparent purpose of the Torah’s dating scheme for Shavuot is to stress the relationship between Pesach and Shavuot. Shavuot completes the objective of Pesach. The redemption from Egypt was not intended to merely free us from bondage. We were freed in order to receive the Torah at Sinai. At Sinai, the objective of the redemption was realized. We became the people of the Torah and the nation of Hashem. This relationship is preserved in the manner in which the date for Shavuot is presented in the Torah. We count from the day commemorating our redemption to the date of Revelation. The counting joins the two festivals together and emphasizes the unity of their objective – redemption from Egypt for the purpose of Revelation at Sinai.

However, another aspect of the manner in which the date of Shavuot is indentified is not as easily explained and has been a source of consternation for the Jewish people. Rather than stating the counting to Shavuot begins with the second day of Pesach, the passage actually states that we begin counting on the “day following the Shabbat”. The identification of the “Shabbat” in the passage as the first day of Pesach is provided by the Oral Law. As early as the Talmudic era, the Sadducees – who disputed the authenticity of the Oral Tradition – disputed the standard interpretation of the above passage. Therefore, they rejected the validity of the traditional date for celebrating Shavuot. Indeed, it is odd that the Torah describes the date for the initiating of the countdown to Shavuot as “the day following the Shabbat”! Why did the Torah not unequivocally identify the date as the day following the first day of Pesach? This would have avoided all of the subsequent debate and confusion generated by the ambiguity of the Torah’s wording.

And it is customary to recite Shir HaShirim on the intermediate Shabbat (of Pesach)… It is customary to recite Ruth on Shavuot … (Rav Moshe Isserles, Comments on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 490:9).

3. The custom of reading Megilat Ruth on Shavuot
The above source quotes the custom to read the Megilah of Ruth on Shavuot. There are various reasons suggested for this custom. Some identify only a very vague relationship between the contents of the Megilah and the celebration. However, perhaps some explanation can be found in the fundamental elements of the narrative of the Megilah.

The Megilah is an unusual work. The other works included in TaNaCh communicate a clear moral or theological message. In Megilat Ruth the message or messages are less clearly stated. The Megilah provides an account of the conversion of Ruth to Judaism. She travels to the Land of Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi. They live together in poverty, supporting themselves through collecting the annual agricultural charity-gifts provided at the time of harvest. Ruth impresses a wealthy and influential beneficiary Boaz. He is a relative of the family. Eventually, the relationship results in Boaz’s rescue of the family from poverty and his marriage to Ruth. There are many important lessons included in this narrative. Yet, these lessons are not stated explicitly.

Perhaps, the lesson of Megilat Ruth is expressed in its final passages. In these passages, the Megilah traces King David back to the union between Boaz and Ruth. This ending suggests that the Megilah can be interpreted as an account of David’s lineage. Such a conclusion is supported by the Talmud’s position regarding the Megilah’s authorship. According to the Talmud, the Megilah was composed by the prophet Shmuel.[1] Shmuel appointed David as king in place of Shaul. Apparently, Shmuel felt that it was important to create a historical record of David’s ancestry. Why did he feel this was necessary?

And he took ten men from among the elders of the city and he said, “Sit here.” And they sat. (Megilat Ruth 4:2)

4. The controversy surrounding David’s appointment as king
A possible explanation for Shmuel’s concern with David’s lineage is provided by the Talmud. The Talmud explains that David’s eligibility to serve as king – indeed, his eligibility to be included within the community of the Jewish nation – was hotly debated. David descended from Ruth. Ruth was a convert from the nation of Moav. The Torah commands us to not accept into Bnai Yisrael converts from Moav.[2] Some authorities contemporary to David argued that this restriction disqualified him from membership within the community and certainly barred him from becoming king. Others argued that the restriction was limited to males from the nation of Moav and did not extend to women. These Sages contended that Ruth was a legitimate convert and David was fully qualified to be king. Eventually, this second group of Sages established their position as correct based upon the Oral Tradition.[3]

In composing the Megilah, Shmuel acknowledged David’s ancestry and endorsed the ruling of these Sages. The Talmud actually asserts that Boaz also confirmed this ruling in marrying Ruth. In the above passage, the Megilah explains that Boaz gathered together ten elders before whom he announced his intention to marry Ruth.[4] The Talmud explains that he gathered these scholars together to publicly declare that the Torah restriction regarding Moav relates to the males and not females.[5] Boaz was an esteemed scholar and Torah authority. He was a master of the Oral Law and his ruling was accepted.

In short, the message of the Megilah is that although the Written Law might be interpreted to exclude males and females of Moav from inclusion in Bnai Yisrael, the Oral Law teaches us that the restriction is limited to males. Females may convert and join Bnai Yisrael. Therefore, David – a descendent of Ruth – was fully qualified to assume the mantle of leadership. This message is uniquely relevant to Shavuot.

The eighth foundation is that the Torah is from heaven. It requires that we accept that this entire Torah that is in our possession today is the same Torah that was given to Moshe and that it is entirely from Hashem… Similarly, its traditional explanation is from Hashem. (Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishne, Tractate Sanhedrin 10:1)

5. The Written and Oral Law are derived from Sinai
One of the Torah’s fundamental principles is that it was communicated to Bnai Yisrael through Moshe at the Sinai Revelation. This import of this principle is so great the festival of Shavuot commemorates the event of Revelation. Maimonides explains that this principle does not apply only to the Written Torah. It also applies to the interpretation of the Written Torah. This interpretation is the Oral Law or Oral Tradition. In other words, the entire Written Torah and the basic components of the Oral Law were communicated at Sinai from Hashem.

Therefore, Shavuot commemorates not only our receipt of the Torah’s written element but also its Oral interpretation. There is no better way to communicate that Shavuot celebrates the Sinai pedigree of both the written and oral components of the Law, than the method employed by the Torah. The Torah’s written portion describes Shavuot in mysterious terms. It leaves its date vaguely and ambiguously stated. It provides no insight into the purpose and meaning of the festival’s observance. These omissions and obfuscations compel the reader to acknowledge that the Law-Giver must have provided more. He must have provided an explanation in addition to the written material. Thus, the very command to observe Shavuot reinforces its identity as the festival that recalls the Sinai Revelation and communication of the entire Torah – its written and oral components.

Now, the connection between Megilat Ruth and Shavuot is quite clear. The Megilah provides an account of King David’s origins and endorses his legitimacy. It accomplishes this by emphasizing the role of the Oral Tradition. David’s kingship was predicated upon the legitimacy of the Oral Law as the true interpretation of the Written Torah. In reading the Megilah on Shavuot, we confirm our acceptance of the Oral Law as a fundamental element of the Sinai legacy.[6]

1. Mesechet Baba Batra 12b.
2. Sefer Devarim 23:4.
3. Mesechet Yevamot 76b.
4. Megilat Ruth 4:2.
5. Mesechet Ketuvot 7b.
6. A similar presentation can be found in: Rav Yitzchak Mirsky, Higyonai Halacha (Jerusalem 1989), volume 1, pp. 134-140.