Opinion: If Passover is the question, Shavuot is the answer
Unlike other Jewish holidays, the Torah does not specify a date for Shavuot; it is celebrated on the 50th day (seven weeks) after Passover. We moderns celebrate Shavuot on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan; in ancient times, when the first day of every month was declared only when the new moon was first seen, the holiday could have been celebrated on the fifth, sixth or seventh day of Sivan.
Equally strange, the actual date on which the Torah was given is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible! We know more or less when it was, but no exact date is given. This is true even though the dates of many other events, all surely of far lesser importance, are written explicitly in the Torah.
And while we consider the focus of Shavuot to be the giving of the Torah, it is never referred to as such in the Bible. The holiday has a few names, but none connected to its most important theme.
We don’t even know the exact place where God gave the Torah. At least for the past two millennia, it has been completely unknown and none of the three contenders we have for Mount Sinai is the right place. According to Jewish tradition, Mount Sinai was not a high mountain. Those who believe that it was one of the highest spots in the Sinai Peninsula, thinking that a tall mountain is closer to God, seem to have slightly pagan ideas.
So there are three mysteries: Why doesn’t Shavuot have a date of its own? Why is it not explicitly connected to the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Law? And why don’t we even know where the Torah was given? Commemorated by a holiday seemingly disconnected from the event, the Israelites received this most sacred text on a date and on a site that are only vaguely known to us.
One way to understand this phenomenon is to consider the idea that the giving of the Torah is not a moment that belongs to the world in its natural run. It is, instead, a transcendental event and cannot be put within the boundaries, lists and timetables of everyday life.
Possible analogies are the mathematical concepts of irrational and transcendental numbers. Even though one can give an approximate measure of such numbers, they cannot be defined as part of the world of ordinary numbers. In a way, irrational and transcendental numbers pass through the field of ordinary numbers—without ever touching them. Similarly, one may say that the giving of the Torah is not a part of the normal existence of this world; it cannot be treated with the same terms and measurements, and one can assume with certainty that no traces of this earthshaking event will be found in the rocks of Sinai or anywhere else.
Thus, because the giving of the Torah is an act that does not belong to this world, it does not have a precise time or place. That is why the Torah was given in a desert, in what can be called “no man’s land”: The moment does not belong to the political realm and is not a part of any historical construct. That moment at Sinai is an event completely outside time and space, and from a different dimension altogether.
The counting of 50 days between Passover and Shavuot points to their internal connection. Shavuot can be defined as the conclusion of the holiday of Passover, which is indeed what it is. Passover is the redemption from slavery and the beginning of our formation into a new, national entity. But the identity of the new nation that was formed as it left Egypt was still in question. The Israelites, just like many contemporary Jews, had a fuzzy notion that they were somehow connected with each other, but they had no idea what that connection meant.
The relationship of Passover and Shavuot, then, is like the relationship between a question and an answer. Passover is the question, as reflected in the most famous question asked on the seder night: Now that we have our freedom, what do we do with it? And the holiday of Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, is the answer. Indeed, it is more than an answer: It is also the creation of a nation that becomes the vehicle for holding, safeguarding and transmitting the Torah. Thus these two holidays, which are joined together by the counting of those 50 days, form a full metaphysical sentence that is made up of a question and an answer.
(Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has written more than 60 books. His English edition of the Koren Talmud Bavli will be released on May 22.)