Shavuos: Sssssh-vuos, the Undated Anniversary


by Joe Bobker

Shavuos is a late-Spring, early-Summer yomtov, and our only festival with no well-defined date, despite its association with a singularly imposing theophany, Sinai; a time when "no bird put forth their song, no bird took wing, no ox gave bawl, no angel moved a feather…the sea did not roar…no creature said a word."[i]

In Torah vocabulary God is only "heard"[ii] via an echo, known as a bat kol, literally "the daughter of a voice;"[iii] and only "appears" via indirect anthropomorphic images such as a dream or vision.

The terminology tension is obvious: V’chol ha’am ro’im et hakolot, “ and all the people saw the thunder that announced the Revelation” – but isn’t thunder seen, not heard? Yes, ro’im means to “see,” but this vision must coexist on two levels; by sight and by perception (as in, "I see your point"), in order to truly see the overwhelming importance of the occasion.

In fact, our entire Judaic belief system is that Judaism lacks an intermediary; that God spoke directly to an entire people, not through a "son" (Christianity) or a "prophet" (Islam), and that through the Jews He revealed universal laws for all mankind, known as sheva mitzvot Bnei Noach, “the seven Noahide laws.”[iv]

Sinai was the day Jews made the transition from being “a people to God"[v] (in theory) to accepting Torah min hashamayim (by way of a "Cosmic Contract, with no escape clause.")[vi] Technically, this phrase means "Torah from Heaven" but in reality it describes a lifestyle that gave Jews heaven from Torah.

Known as the Pentateuch, a Greek term derived from a Hebrew root (yrh) which means "to teach [in five parts]," most Jews misinterpret Torah as "law." They are misguided. The verbs "teaching," or "instruction," are closer to its true meaning. How then did "legalism" become synonymous with Torah? Because Nomos, the first Greek translation of the word ‘Torah’ was shortened to Lex, and then, when translated into English, mistakenly became "law."

Most Jews think that there was one Revelation, one Torah, ten Commandments. They are wrong: Jews received three Revelations,[vii] two Torahs, thirteen Commandments.

The first Revelation?

Moses’ encounter with a burning Bush, at a makom hefker (a "place with no owner"), in order to symbolize that God is universal. This was followed by Mt.Sinai’s covenant with the Jewish people, and Elijah’s encounter with God at Mt.Carmel whilst on the run from King Ahab in the wake of his dramatic defeat of Baal.[viii]

The "twin" [Torah] fonts of revelation" are known as she-bi-khetav ("written") and she-be-al peh ("oral"), both being ellu ve-ellu divrei Elohim hayyim, "the words of the Living God.”

How do we arrive at thirteen Commandments? Immediately after issuing the first Ten, God adds three more that exclusively concern themselves with civil and criminal law (beginning with the laws of an eved ivri, a Jewish "bondsman" owned by another Jew).[ix]

God also surfaces not once but twice at Sinai, sending Jewish mystics into a search for the episode’s hidden shtei bechinot, "two aspects."[x]

When the Divine Presence (Shekhina) first descends on "the whole mountain in the sight of all the people," the Torah text bursts with descriptive adjectives: "trembling, fear, thunder, lightning, dense clouds, loud blasts of a horn," stapled to a vivid use of words ("stoned, smitten") within emphatic expressions of awe, fear, death.

The second appearance, to only the "top of the mountain," is more subdued; all the fire ‘n brimstone rhetoric conspicuous only by its absence.

The first dramatic emergence was for the entire nation of Israel, united as a people of prophets; the next was reserved for the nation’s elite; individual Jews (such as Moses and Aaron), who aspire to climb the spiritual peaks of Judaism and who are not in need of the fiery rhetoric.

Commenting on the opening word of the Ten Commandments, "I" (anochi, normally ani),[xi] Rabbi Nehemiah, in a midrashic homily, ties anochi to the ancient Egyptian anok, which also means "I," in order to better communicate with those who had just spent brutal centuries of slavery in Egypt.

The moral is clear: patience and communication is everything, and in this case enabled the Jews to collectively respond to God’s "I" with their own hineni, "Here am I."

Torah linguists point to the words used by the Jews, na’aseh ve-nishmah, which means "we will do and obey," as being in the wrong order. Usually, the "doing" comes after the "obeying;" however, it is more correct to translate nishma as "understanding," since religious acceptance follows actions.

But there is a vagueness: when God "spoke all of these words,"[xii] the Torah doesn’t tell us to whom.

Ibn Ezra argues that the entire nation heard all ten commands; Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam)[xiii] claims, based on his theory of prophecy,[xiv] that only Moses understood the contents (the Jewish people hearing, but not comprehending). Rashi argues that the Jews only heard the first two ("I am the Lord," and "You shall have no other gods"), and the remaining eight from Moses[xv] (based on the Torah’s switch from first person singular to third person); the Ramban[xvi] suggests a compromise – all ten were given by God, however only the first two were understood by the children of an Egyptian polytheistic culture, the other eight required further explanation by Moses.

Why Mt.Horeb (Sinai)? Was it the most impressive, stirring, majestic, inspiring and imposing of all mountains? No. On the contrary, God chose it because it was the smallest.

The Torah thus has its foundations poured into the unobtrusive slabs of modesty and humility, a mount whose location still remains unknown, for the same reason the Torah is mute as to the whereabouts of the burial place of Moses, despite being the greatest Jewish leader ever.[xvii]

In general, our Sages always chose events and contents over location; remember, there is not a single Talmudic suggestion that Jews need ever return to Mt.Sinai, or build a sanctuary there, or make pilgrimages to Moses’ grave.

Our Jewish mystics, in surely one of the most startling summations connected to any Jewish festival, trace the history of anti-Semitism[xviii] directly to the similarity between Sinai and sinah, the Hebrew expression for hate, as it appears in mishama yarda sinah la’olam, "from there originated the world’s hatred [sinah] of the Jew."[xix]

This connection is a bizarre paradox: the Torah is riddled with anti-hate laws, ranging from Lo tisna et achicha Bilvavecha, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart;" to Ve-ahavta lre-echa kamocha, "Love your fellow man as yourself;" to Betzedek tishpot amitecha, "You shall judge your fellow man in a just manner."

The fuel that has driven this gentile engine of hatred can be traced to a verse in Exodus, “Now, if you will truly keep My covenant, then you shall be unto Me a choice from all the nations.”[xx]

When the philo-semite William Norman Ewer[xxi] wrote his sly little jingle

"How odd
of God
to choose
the Jews"[xxii]

his malice summarized the handbook of every paranoid and irrational[xxiii] Jew-baiter ever since Balaam first called the yiddishe folk, "a people that shall dwell alone."[xxiv]

The response to Ewer?

"But not so odd
as those who choose
the Jewish God
but spurn the Jews"[xxv]


"Not odd
of God;
the goyim
annoy ‘im!"

This is the "difference" factor; the common thread of all anti-Semitic reasoning, that Jews eat differently, dress differently, behave differently – accusations that Jews, in sharp contrast, consider obligations.

The majority of Catholic theologians found it theologically scandalous that God would bestow His special favor only on the Jews, especially after He Himself had richly documented their imperfections ("a stiff-necked people," "You are the least of the nations,"[xxvi] etc.)

This Chosen People theme (am segullah), that God’s Jews are the "jewel from among the nations" (asher bochar banu mikol ho’amim), ripples throughout the Torah and all rabbinic writings.[xxvii]

Segullah is derived from the Latin seligere whose root meaning is "choice;" in Aramaic it means, "that which is preferred." Rashi links it to royalty, as in segulat melachim, "Treasures of Kings;"[xxviii] whilst Abraham Ibn Ezra, a Jew who exerted great influence on both the Rambam and Ramban, interprets segullah as a "desired and honored" a priori object that can never be duplicated (the King James Bible’s Jacobean translation translates it as the "peculiar people," but in those days "peculiar" stemmed from the Latin peculiaris, which means "special.")

And yet the Rambam, who authored the magnum opus Mishneh Torah, a concise compendium of Jewish law, and the philosophical work, Moreh Nevuchim, "Guide for the Perplexed," instinctively didn’t like the term Chosen People. The 12th century Sage from Spain thought "chosen" smacked too much of a religious chauvinism that hinted at inherited biological differences between Jews and gentiles (goyim);[xxix] divisions which didn’t exist.

For 4,000 years, Jews have upheld this belief: that they are God’s elect, the "apple of His eye," a claim that H. G. Wells calls “a hindrance to world unity." The incongruity is obvious: on the one hand, God wanted to secure the Jewish people’s unique chosenness, whilst simultaneously upholding the equality and dignity of all human beings, “created in the image of God.”[xxx]

This has not worked.

The most brutal members of the anti-Semitic Hall of Fame have hurled their weapons of hatred not just against the Jew but against what he stood for: Sinai, God, Torah.

Adolf Hitler’s initial fury and frenzy was directed not at the inhabitants of the House of Jacob but also at the House itself; his Kristallnacht[xxxi] destroying more synagogues and Torah scrolls than Jews. The Germans singled out Torah teachers for extreme brutality, sought out mikvehs in which to drown Jewish wives and daughters, hung ritual slaughterers by their own kosher meat hooks, and specifically targeted Jewish "Festivals of Joys" with aktions un seleckions to transform them into "Festivities of Cruelty."

"The oppressors demanded sacrifices from us for every holiday," reveals a concentration death camp diary in Plaszow, penned on the first night of Succas, "On Rosh Hashanah 200 Jews were slaughtered, on Yom Kippur, 90, Erev Succot, 150 such sacrifices…"

The victims themselves realized that their symbols and customs were targets and reflected their pain accordingly; a yiddish ditty describing Jews as being…

"stabbed and punched with holes like matza,
beaten like Hoshanahs,
rattled like Haman,
and burned as though it was Chanukah…."

Perhaps this is why the Jews at Sinai hesitated at first to take upon themselves a "Torah" that came with such potentially devastating results?

Several midrashim elaborate that Israel only accepted the "yoke of Torah" (ol malchus Shamayim) under duress and coercion. Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa describes the encounter: “God held the mountain over their heads like a bucket (kafa aleihem et ha-har ke-gigit) and said: ‘If you accept the Torah, good. And if not, your burial place will be here.’"

What if Israel had simply said, "Thanks, but no thanks, we don’t want it!"

This rejection, posits another Midrash, would have caused the world to revert back to the void (tohu va’vahu) that existed before Creation.[xxxii]

An obvious question: how could they not accept Torah, having just witnessed a series of dramatic and climactic incidents at Sinai?

Rabbi M. Kamenetzky compares this “forced acceptance” to a 19th century incident in British history: “When Queen Victoria was about to marry Prince Albert, she wanted to have him bestowed with the title King Consort through an act of the British Parliament. The Prime Minister strongly advised against it, on the basis that, "if the English people get into the habit of making Kings, they will get into the habit of unmaking them as well!"

Shavuos is synonymous with Revelation, an einmalig tzayt, "once only, forever," when the Heavens attempted for the third time (after the Flood and Abraham) to fulfill the journey which began at Creation. The Children of Israel participate "like one man, with one heart"[xxxiii] in the grand premiere of their own arrival on the stage of history; and yet the exact calendar rendezvous, the “marriage”[xxxiv] of Jews to Torah and the giving of the most compelling ketubah (Torah) of all time, is Judaism’s best kept covert secret; a day shrouded in clandestine theology, hidden from centuries of great scholars and deep thinkers.

This calendar uncertainty is extraordinarily unusual in a religion that "worships" dates and times: for example – the very first commandment the Jews receive as a people is time-orientated (Rosh Chodesh),[xxxv] as is the very first Mishna (a discussion on the “right time” to say the Sh’ma).

Perhaps the reason lies in its own structure; ein mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah, the view that the Torah "unfolds" in no particular chronological order.

Rashi, the "prince" of Torah commentators, is of the opinion that the mitzvot in the Torah are organized thematically, by topic, without regard to the actual chronological order in which God gave them to Moses (eg: the mitzva to build the Tabernacle[xxxvi] was given after the Golden Calf sin[xxxvii] because of the thematic similarities to that event).

But the Ramban, a leading Torah scholar of the Middle Ages, disagrees, claiming yaish mukdam u’m’uchar, the Torah is in chronological order.

What do we know?

Only the year (2488), and the day of the week (Shabbas) when the Jews reach Sinai, described in a single teasing reference: either in the "third month" of Sivan, or "on the third new Moon," after leaving Egypt.

Thus, depending on which formula one chooses, the encounter could have occurred on the 6th, 12th, or 15th of Sivan.

What is the universally accepted date? The 6th and 7th of Sivan, making Shavuos the only festival that fluctuates year-by-year in a state of calendar non-conformity; caused by being halachikally anchored not to itself but to the climax of a mandated seven-week math formula (s’firat ha’omer) that began in Pesach.[xxxviii]

Shavuos is thus in an awkward position: not only is it held spiritual hostage to a previous yomtov but even as late as the final days of the Talmud it still lacked its own identity, being viewed simply as a "closure" (atzeret), as in atzeres shel Pesach, "the end of Pesach,” in much the same manner that Shemini Atzeret "closes" the festival of Succas.[xxxix]   

This helps explain why Shavuos is the most ignored (or unknown) festival of them all; even in its heyday it was seen as nothing more than the finale of Pesach, the most minor of the three pilgrimage festivals (aliyah le-regel).

I remember in college how even Jewish professors didn’t believe me when I said I couldn’t attend a class because of “Shavuos;” and how the official Department of Education calendar listed all the Jewish holidays as days which "teachers of the Jewish faith" were entitled to take a day off without any pay penalty – but left this one out (in malice? no, in ignorance!)

This adjunct minor role for Shavuos is highly unfair: for if Pesach gave us freedom, Shavuos gave a free people a law that infused liberty with a challenging and exhilarating purpose.

Our Sages tell us that even a sefer Torah needs mazel to be chosen from among the others in the ark; and it seems that even Jewish festivals need mazel to be "chosen and used." Perhaps it should be renamed Sssssh-vuos, or the Cinderella Festival, disappearing at midnight?

Surprisingly, even having yizkor on Shavuos (let alone cheese blintzes) didn’t bring the masses. Nor did the fact that on Shavuos we can eat what, when, and where we want, in contrast to Pesach when we can’t eat what we want, Succas when we can’t eat where we want, Rosh Hashanna when we can’t eat when we want, and Yom Kippur when we can’t eat at all!

In addition to its mysterious birth date, there are several other Shavuos peculiarities.

Unlike every other festival, this yomtov’s title is unrelated to its historic self.

Whereas Pesach, Chanukka and Succas are all intrinsically linked and underpinned by their respective past events, the three designated titles of Shavuos are not: Hag Shavuot ("The Festival of Weeks"), Hag ha-Kazir ("The Harvest Festival"),[xl] and Yom Ha-Bikkurim (“First Fruits”) are all totally foreign to what Jews today associate the day with: Torah and Sinai (the Ta’amei Haminhagim notes that the term “Shavuos” means oaths, in that on this day both parties exchanged certain vows: God "promises" to stick with the Jews as His chosen nation, and, in return, the Jews promise to stick with God).

The question is obvious: why then does the Torah not explicitly and openly link the holiday of Shavuos with the giving of the Law (matan Torah)? And doesn’t the Torah repeatedly enjoin us to remember the experience of the Sinai revelation?[xli]

To Rabbi Yehuda Liwa ben Betzalel of Prague (Maharal),[xlii] the seminal thinker of the 16th century, the answer lies in the fact that although Jews are automatically obligated to embrace all Jewish festivals with simcha, joy, happiness; such emotions cannot be legislated nor coerced – but must originate from within.

Therefore it was left up to the Jew, individually and communally, to "find" their own way to Shavuos, and to conclude through the experience of time that the gift of Torah was worth rejoicing over. Even the self-hating Jew Heinrich Heine (who had himself baptized into Christianity), called the Torah, "the very fatherland, treasure, governor, bliss and bane" of the Jewish people, "proof" that one can take the Jew out of Judaism but not Judaism out of the Jew.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein links this to the embarrassment of the Golden Calf episode, similar to our Sages using a scandalous parable to help explain why: "This is comparable to a bride who commits adultery under the chuppa (wedding canopy)." One Midrash[xliii] even highlights the idea that in the wake of the Golden Calf, it was as though matan Torah had not even taken place.

"Clearly," concludes Rav Lichtenstein, "in the case of a bride who conducts herself thus under the chuppa, we would prefer to forget not only her specific action but the entire chuppa as well."

The Beis HaLevi compared Moses to a sheliach holakha (an agent to deliver) and a sheliach kabbala (an agent to receive), whereas in the role of the former (holding the first tablets), Moses was like a messenger whose message has no effect until delivery, which was prevented by the sin of the calf. In the case of the second tablets, however, Moses was no longer a "messenger boy" but a legal representative charged with receiving the document on behalf of the Jewish people, binding the nation immediately.

This link between Sinai and Time is found in the way the Torah spells Shavuos:[xliv] with a shin, beis, ayin, vav, sof,  rearranged by our kabbalists as Shebo eis, “in it [Shavuos] is the meaning of Time.”

When Reb Meir Alter was asked why Shavuos is referred to as z’man mattan Torataynu, "the time of the giving of the Torah" and not "the time of receiving," the Gerer Rebbe replied that with each giving comes a bit of receiving, and that "the giving of the Torah happened at one specified time, but the receiving of it happens at every time and in every generation."

To Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) the Shavuos prospectus was a beginning, not an ending; a gate through which the rabbis of each generation were to preserve an unfolding, yet timeless, "season of Torah knowledge."[xlv]

Since this was a continuum gift semper et ubique, designed to link generations, it required no fixed time, no fixed laws, and no dated "receipt."

In fact, Rav Moshe Feinstein, America’s premiere 20th century halachist, would refrain from calling Shavuos a “Torah Day.” Why? For fear of giving the impression that Torah was special only on this day. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch went one step further: he saw an actual danger in creating a specific holiday for the Sinai-Torah axis, concerned that this would somehow "box-in" God’s Words in contradiction to the Torah’s own wish that it be with Jews at all times.

Judaism is thus a religion of constant rebirth, evidenced each year by Shavuos itself, a festival that not only joyfully receives the Torah anew but sternly imposes an annual reminder: that there is a responsibility (first) on the fathers and (then) on the teachers of Torah to replicate Sinai dor to dor (generation-to-generation) "in the same manner that it was first given.”

This concept is derived from the expression Torah lo b’shamayim hi, that the Torah is not in Heaven nor was it "given to the angels," a directive that first came into play with the death of Moses whose mantle of Torah was passed down to the "Elders" via Joshua; a Divine courier service whose “drivers” throughout Jewish history have had such humble titles as rabbi, rebbe, rav, hacham, baba – sharing credit with any “student-parent-teacher” who exchange a few words of Torah ("Ask thy father [first and then] thy elders.)"[xlvi] 

Remember: The “men” of the Great Synagogue were not rabbis as we understand the term to mean today: in fact the word “rabbi” appears nowhere in the Old Testament.

In the days of the Talmud, rabbis never relied on their scholarship as the source of their livelihood ("As I have taught you statutes and ordinances without charge, so should you teach others without charge.")[xlvii]

This changed in the Middle Ages when the Jews were dispersed throughout Europe and North Africa and scattered as far away as the Orient. Out of necessity the rabbinate became stipendiary spiritual leaders. When the ethicists of Pirkei Avot warned, "Do not make the Torah a spade to dig with,"[xlviii] they meant, "Do not make the Torah a crown to aggrandize yourself" (ie: don’t study Torah for the purpose of money, status, office or advantage, but for the sake of God); which is the basis of Torah scholars trying to earn a livelihood not from teaching Torah but from other sources. [xlix]

A quick study of Talmud finds the Sages working as wood choppers, water-carriers, cobblers, even gladiators. However, if a rabbi who has to make a living from some other occupation would thereby neglect the study of Torah, so that Torah would eventually be forgotten, the community is obligated to support him to free him for study.

Two famous Talmudic tales neatly highlight the power vested in the accepted rav of each generation.

An aggada describes how Moses, interpreter of the original Torah, sits puzzled and confused in a class of Rabbi Akiva until Akiva closes with, "This is the law from Moses on Sinai." Then there is Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus vigorously giving an opinion that is unacceptable to his peers. To get their attention he calls upon Heaven’s support and they comply with a rebuke to the others, "Who are you to differ with Rabbi Eliezer, for the law is according to his view on every question."

One would think that this Word from God would put a quick end to the debate. But instead, incredibly, Rabbi Joshuas and Jeremiah defiantly respond, "The Torah is not in heaven!"[l]

All these conduits of Sinai were given remarkable powers: et la’asot l’adonai heferu toratekha, the "right of Sages to amend or abrogate Jewish law."

But who are the "Sages?” Originally this was a self-description that the Pharisaic scholars gave themselves, however, by both Torah law ‘n lore, no “Sage” has ever been appointed or voted in, his authority coming from a Godly directive, "Select for yourselves men who are wise, understanding, and known to you."

The key word here is "known to you," which places the onus on the community-at-large to self-select one who has “earned” the title to join such leaders of every generation as Ezra, Hillel or Rav Hiyya and sons, who the Torah credits with rivaling Moses himself.[li] 

When asked under whose authority he had become the leading halachik decisor of his time, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein simply replied, “People asked for my opinion, and I guess they must have had confidence in the answers, because more and more asked.” In London, the Chief Rabbi was once asked, “If they [Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles] decided to remarry and couldn’t find an Anglican Church to marry them, could they go to a synagogue?” to which Jonathan Sacks replied, “I didn’t become Chief Rabbi without knowing how to avoid answering questions like that.”

Rabbi Isaac Meyer of Ger, the Gerer Rebbe, once asked a young boy, "Have you learned any Torah?"

"Just a little," he replies, to which the Rebbe nods, "That is all any of us have ever learned."

Even the great Rambam admits, "I have learned a great deal from my teachers, more from other teachers, but most of all from my students" (in traditional French and German Jewish communities, Shavuos was considered the most appropriate day to initiate young children into the study of Torah).

A favorite phrase of the Kotsker Rebbe was chanoch lenaar – inculcate a Jewish child with a never-ending desire to learn so that even in old age he will crave for more knowledge.

At his baby son’s bris a father once asked the formidable Brisker Rav for some guidance on how to bring up his boy to be a learned, God-fearing Jew: "It is almost too late now to be asking that question," the Brisker replied, "these are matters that should be at the forefront of one’s mind even before one gets married." Another parent once came to the Steipler Rav and asked for a blessing that he be successful in raising his children in the "path" (derech) of Torah. The Steipler responded, "It is crucial that you yourself pray! Do you think that a simple blessing will suffice? I myself still pray for my son every day!" (this incident occurred when Horav Chaim Kanievsky, the Steipler’s son, was fifty-two years old and was reknowned as a Torah scholar whose encyclopedic knowledge was without peer and whose yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, was a standard for others to emulate).

"Constant study is not study all day, but each day," advises the master of mussar, Israel Salanter Lipkin, who preached consistency over constancy.

The concept of children learning and studying is Numero Uno, priority number one in the Laws of Moses, elevated to be as important as prayer. "A child in the house fills all its corners," goes a famous yiddish proverb, that combined it with the Psalmists, “With all your getting, get understanding!”[lii]

And so they did, under the strict Torah tutelage that “you who have studied in your youth, study in your maturity.”[liii] According to the Sh’ma, teaching a child is a parental duty: "You shall teach them (the words of Torah) thoroughly to your children."

In Biblical times schools did exist, but not for the masses.

The introduction of formal elementary schools was almost fortuitous, to cater for children who had no parents or whose parents were unable to teach them. By the early 1st century BCE, schooling had become so established that Shimon ben Shetach ruled that all children should go to school, "for otherwise the Torah would be forgotten."

So important was Jewish schooling for a pax deorum harmonious relationship between the Jew and God, that Rabbi Hamnuna declared that Jerusalem itself had been destroyed because the community neglected its school system. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai even ordered that certain towns in Israel be abandoned because they didn’t maintain salaried teachers.[liv]

Eliezer Ebner credits the Judaic educational boon to the example of Greek and Roman schools; the growing complexity of Jewish knowledge; and the reorganization of Jewish life under the Pharisees;[lv] whilst H.G. Wells’ defined Judaism as "a literature ­sustained religion." Why? Because it "led to the first efforts to provide elemen­tary education for all the children in the community."[lvi]

Only amongst Jews in the Torah world can someone answer the question, “What are you doing?” with ikh lern, “I’m learning” – an incomplete answer but complete enough not to have to ask what they’re studying. [lvii]

The answer is obvious: Torah, a term derived from the root yud raish hiu, which means “to teach” or “to direct,” thus making it, in Rabbi Berel Wein’s words, the Manufacturer’s Instruction Manual of Life."

One great rabbi was once asked, "What should the course of study be for a person who only has a half hour a day to learn?  Should he learn Bible, Talmud, or halacha?"

"Let him learn a half hour a day of mussar (manners, how-to-behave, etc)," the rabbi replies, "for then he will change his value system – and realize that he has more than a half hour a day to learn Torah!"

Judaism is singularly obsessed in making intellectual and mental demands, which is why Hai Gaon taught that owning a book, any book, was as important as buying a burial plot; and why our rabbis claimed that the Jew who studies a particular portion of Torah 100 times does not know it as well as one who studies it 101 times.

The author Hugo recounts how, in the 15th century, the King of France viewed the first printing press (courtesy of Johann Gutenberg) and described the first best-selling book ever printed (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) as the work of the Devil; in sharp contrast to how that great Talmudist Samuel de Medina reacted at the sight of the first dated Hebrew book ever printed (Italy, 1475) with the joyful declaration that “from now on, our teachers are none other than our books!”

Judaic respect for the printed word is evident in Walter Benjamin’s memoirs:[lviii] "when a valued, cultured and elegant friend sent me his new book and I was about to open it, I caught myself in the act of straightening my tie."

In his will, the 12th century Judah Ibn Tibbon, whose friends called him The Father of Translators, instructed his son Samuel (who went on to translate the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed), “Make your books your companions; let your bookcases and shelves be your gardens and pleasure grounds” (this father-son missive explains why the frenzied rejoicing at Simchas Torah is not just a celebration of Torah, but a celebration of knowledge and education – and of the power of books).

              The Greek adored the philosopher, the Jew the hacham, “wise man, Sage,” despite the absorbing fact that the word “school” is never mentioned once in the Bible.

              It comes from a key Greek word skhole, or schola, which, interestingly, does not mean “education” but  “leisure.” Why? Because only the non-working class were educated. They had time to study. The ordinary guy-in-the-street was too busy earning a living to indulge in the luxurious leisure of learning. They saw work as a necessary evil.

              Not so with the Jews.

           Judah ha-Levi said it well: the Greeks produced flowers, but no fruit. Their accomplishments were intellectual, not moral. Meanwhile, High Priest Joshua ben Gamala and Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah, the heads of the Sanhedrin, were becoming pioneers in Jewish education, being the first to institute a compulsory public education system, dictating that every Jewish community, regardless of size or wealth, had to have a school.[lix]

               Consider the contrast: Whereas the typical carefree Greek and Roman man-in-the-ancient-street spent his leisure hours at the arena, the Jew was found at his academy of learning. So ingrained was this education-fixation, that Jews were appalled by illiteracy and alarmed by ignorant people.

               Quid Athenis cum Hierosolymis, said the early Christian Tertullian, “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In regard to the value of education, obviously not much.

                Another sharp contrast is the death scene of Socrates, as recorded by Plato in Phaedo. The great philosopher gathers all his friends and students around him in order that they may engage in one last “deep” discussion before he dies. Socrates then notices a “little boy” (his own, in fact) in the room and asks that he be removed saying that children cannot compare with the ideas of man – a foreign and repulsive idea for our Sages. This, despite the fact that Socrates was a “family man.”

Shavuos is also unique because it is the only Jewish festival with no specific Torah-derived halachik rituals. The day might have nothing on a halachik par with, say, an esrog, matza, or shofar, and yet it’s whole is far greater than its parts. Why? Because Shavuos does not celebrate a part of Judaism, but Judaism as a whole. It is thus unconcerned with any one particular mitzva, whilst being synonymous with the entire body of Jewish ideas, the Torah as a whole.

This festival may lack Biblical laws but there is no shortage of customs.[lx]

This is the day when Jews listen to the unique melody of the Torah’s "user-guide," the Aseret Haddibrot, the "Ten Commandments" (or Haddevarim, the "Ten Utterances," known in Greek as the Decalogue); read Ezekiel’s prophetic passages (even though the prophet makes no mention of this festival);[lxi] are riveted by the compelling and idyllic Akdomus ("Before I Speak"), an exquisitely beautiful poem and "celebration of Torah" penned in Aramaic by 11th century German Rabbi Meir ben Isaac Nehorai, a chazan[lxii] and teacher of Rashi, whose son was killed by Crusaders and who himself died soon after a "forced debate" with the local Christian clergy.

This piyut of Akdamus "debates" the truths of Judaism to a hostile audience, which is why it is written in Aramaic, a disguise for posterity because the Christian world and its censors were unfamiliar with this language. It praises God who gave Israel the Torah, describes how the nations try to entice the Jews away, and ends with a lyrical account of the messianic era with the banquet of the leviathan.

It begins…
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
Were every blade of grass a quill,
Were the world of parchment made,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love
Of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor would the scroll
Contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.

The reference to all the seas being ink and all the reeds pens is derived from a Midrash to Shir Hashirim, "Song of Songs;" an imagery that was "borrowed" by both the Koran[lxiii] and medieval Christian sermons; and even inspired this light-hearted 17th century English nursery rhyme…

If all the world were paper,
And all the Sea were ink,
And all the trees were bread and cheese,
How should we do for drink?

And more: we are drawn like a magnet to the public reading of Megillas Ruth, "The Scroll of Ruth" (which, incidentally, contains a Purim-style absence of any involvement of God: whatever references exist are portrayed as va-yiker mikreha, natural, non-miraculous chance events.)[lxiv]

This is the oldest of the five megillas that are read on separate Jewish festivals: the others being Pesach’s Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs); Sukkat’s Koheles (Ecclesiastes); Purim’s Megillas Esther (The Scroll of Esther) and Tisha b’Av’s Eichah (Lamentations). Interestingly, with the exception of Koheles, all are dedicated, allegorically, to women.[lxv]

The Story of Ruth is the ultimate "daughter-mother-in-law" tale: it takes place during the leadership period of the Judges, who preceded the Kings, and begins with the affluent Elimelech, his wife Naomi, which means "pleasantness," and their two sons, Machlon and Kilyon (it is highly unlikely that these were the real names, because they mean "destruction" and it is doubtful that any parents would give their children such names) fleeing from a famine in the holy land to the foreign "fields of Moav" where the boys marry into the royal family.

After the famine ends, a poverty-stricken Naomi returns to her home in Beit Lechem with two daughters-in-law (Orpah and Ruth) who want to convert to Judaism. Naomi discourages them, and succeeds with Orpah who returns to Moav, but not with Ruth.

By sheer determination and persistence, a tenacious Ruth becomes the earliest record of a sincere conversion in Jewish history; and is rewarded with impeccable lineage. She gives birth to a son (Oved, which means "one who worships") who fathers Yishai who in turn becomes the father of King David, from whose descendants ultimately will emerge the Redeemer of Israel, "Melech HaMashiach."

Ruth enters the pages of Judaism as the young beautiful widow of Mahlon who sacrifices her home, family, religion, and burial among her own people to “walk in the ways" (vehalachta bidrachav)[lxvi] of the God of the Jews. As a result of her commitment, she is transformed from a simple sequestered woman supporting an aging destitute mother-in-law (Naomi) to become the wife of Boaz, a prominent judge.

Our Sages describe her lure not in terms of "beauty," but in her exemplar qualities of courage and determination, loyalty and faithfulness. It is Ruth who pens the famous declaration that has now resonated, reverberated and ricocheted off the walls of Jewish history…

"Your people shall be my people, your God my God, where you will go I will go, where you will be buried I will be buried."[lxvii]

The Hebrew word for a male convert is ger, a female being a gerah (or giyoret), derived from gur, a verb which means "to reside," or "to dwell."[lxviii]

In the Biblical sense the ger was simply the "resident stranger," and applied to those (even Jews) who were living amongst "others" (eg: the children of Israel were considered gerim "in the land of Egypt.")

The expression was so generic at first that the rabbis created different categories: there was the ger tsedek, the "righteous ger" (a sincere convert who chooses to join the people of Israel; Isaiah describes such a person as "one who joins himself to God;"[lxix] the Midrash is full of praise, calling the proselyte [in Latin proselytus, in Greek proselutos], "Dearer to God than all the Israelites who stood before Sinai");[lxx] the ger toshav, the "resident ger" (who "partially" converts, living amongst Jews and following certain practices such as Pesach, Yom Kippur, and ritual purity);[lxxi] the yerei-elohim, "God-fearing ger" (those who identified with the Jewish God of monotheism but were lax with observing mitzvas; in Latin they were called metuens, in Greek phoboumenos); and the ger sheker, the "mendacious ger" (who converts for ulterior motives, such as materialistic reasons, or, as the ger arayot (the "lions’ ger") who, according to the Book of Kings, converts in the hope that their newly-found status would protect them against the lions roaming the hills of Samaria).[lxxii]

Judaism has always accepted sincere converts; Abraham and Sarah were "making souls" in Haran (Abraham converting the men, Sarah the women);[lxxiii] the sailors were awestruck at the power of the God of Jonah;[lxxiv] and when Haman was defeated "many of the people of the land became Jewish."[lxxv]

In fact, there are so many halachas as to how to accept and treat them that an entire Talmud tractate[lxxvi] reads like a Guidebook-For-Potential-Proselytes.[lxxvii]

What motivates one to become a Jew, especially when, from the outside, it certainly seems like a difficult faith to embrace?

Since "jewishness" was not an easy way of life, there is a halachic obligation on the rabbi to point out all the drawbacks[lxxviii] (are the Trinitarian ideas of Christianity idolatrous? yes, says the Rambam; no, says Rabbenu Jacob Tam.)[lxxix]

There is a rabbinic view that the souls of sincere converts were already disposed towards Judaism from time immemorial; when the nations were offered the Torah and rejected it, there must have been some amongst them who disagreed and would have preferred to accept the Torah, and it is the descendants of those dissentients who one day find their way back to the principles their ancestors always wanted.

What’s the link between Ruth, a pagan Maobite, and Shavuos?

Ruth’s acceptance of the God of Israel, told against a background of the barley harvest, parallels the festival’s theme of the Jewish people’s acceptance of Torah at Sinai. And more: many of our ancestors converted at that time;[lxxx] King David, a descendant of Ruth, was born and died on Shavuos;[lxxxi] the potent personality traits (gitter midos) of Ruth and Naomi are matched to the chesed in the Torah – and then there is the numeric, mystic link: the gematria of Ruth is 606, plus the seven Noachide laws she was obligated to keep (before her conversion) totals 613, which equals the number of mitzvas given at Sinai on Shavuos.

The question is obvious: in the context of Jewish history, Ruth is just one of many proselytes, so why is she selected for such calendar prominence?

A list of other contestants is impressive: it would include Yisro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law priest, Joseph’s wife Asenath (daughter of the Egyptian priest of On), David and Judah’s wives (Philistine and Caananite); Rahab (one of the world’s four outstanding beauties, along with Sarah, Avigail, Esther) who not only married Joshua, but became ancestor to no less than eight priests and nine Prophets (including Jeremiah and Hulda); Onkelos the Ger was a Jew-by-Choice and such distinguished talmudists as Rabbis Akiba, Shmaiah and Avtalyon were all proselyte descendants.[lxxxii]

"Why Ruth? Rabbi Ze’ira posits, "In order to teach the great reward of those who perform acts of loving kindness."

Ruth is often compared to Rivka, the Torah’s prototype of kindness compassion, benevolence.[lxxxiii] And more: as the great bubba (grandmother) of David, “the Sweet Singer of Israel" and author of the indispensable Book of Psalms (Tehillim),[lxxxiv] her role in Jewish history is decisive (this is why David, aware of the public unease of his “non-kosher” genealogy, reminds his nation in his farewell speech, that all are "strangers" in front of God.")[lxxxv]

Remember: Ruth, as a member of Moab, had come from one of the nations that the Torah explicitly excludes from converting to Judaism (lo yavo Amoni u’Moavi b’kahal Hashem, "an Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of God"), which is why the prophet Shmuel, author of Megillas Ruth (and the one who had anointed David as King in the first place), felt obligated to set the record straight; by ordering that the story of Ruth be publicly read on Shavuos, the prophet cleared any doubts as to the lineage of David.

Other Shavuos customs include eating dairy (milchig) foods, (cheese cake, blintzes, yogurt with honey, lasagna, and kreplach – any custom that leads to kreplach is OK with me because kreplach was my favorite yomtov food!)

Jewish mystics associate the custom of eating kreplach (three-cornered cakes) to the number "3" – a nation of three (Kohanim, Levites, Israelites) were the descendants of 3 ancestors; at Sinai they prepared for 3 days before receiving a Torah which consists of 3 parts (Tanach: Pentateuch, Prophets, Holy Writings) via Moses, a third-born child (after Aaron and Miriam), in Sivan, the third month of the year (if one starts counting from Nisan).

But why dairy?

The reasons abound – and give food-for-thought: some trace it to the lyrics in The Song of Songs, "milk and honey shall be under your tongue;" others to the fact that since the Torah "begins and ends with an act of chesed," milchig is thus a reminder of the "milk of human kindness."

Our kabbalists took the initials from Mincha chadasha l’Shem b’Shavuoteichem (the Torah verse of bringing offerings to the Temple) and arrived at m-I-c-h-a-l-a-v, which means "from milk," and then buttressed their claim by equating the gematria (40) of chalav (milchig) to the number of days and nights that Moses spent on the Mount.

This is why the Midrash refers to Mt. Sinai in such "milchig" terms as Har Gavnunim, in that the mountain was as white and smooth as cheese (gevina).

Some Jews have milchigs at night and fleischigs by day; on the logic that nighttime is "more" Shavuosy and the day "more" generically yomtovish. Others do the reverse; whilst some families I know will make kiddush, wash, eat dairy dishes, bensch – then wait a while, change the table coverings, wash, and start all over again, but this time for a meat meal.

Shavuos is a great time of the year for nurseries because it is a custom to decorate the synagogue with greenery.

Why greenery? Again, the reasons are plenty: Jewish mystics embrace the custom as a reminder that the House of Israel is like the Song of Songs’s "lily among the thorns;" others link it to the idea that Shavuos (atzeret) is the Judgment day for trees, and a day when Jews pray to God for a bumper year of fruit;[lxxxvi] some see it as commemorative of a mount that was uncharacteristically rich in greenery during the giving of the Torah.

This custom is very old: even Haman complains that Jews spread grass on the synagogue floors on Shavuos as a reminder to worship the laws of a grassy Sinai[lxxxvii] instead of the laws of King Ahasuerus.

In order to give the synagogue an air of Mount Sinai floribundus, some communities even carpeted their shul floors with freshly mown grass, others said a bracha over the aroma during services; in Mainz the shul’s shammas would attach a rose to the lecterns of the talmidei chachamim; in Pressburg, Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (Chatam Sofer)[lxxxviii] would settle himself in a bower of flowers; in Alsace and Lorraine the French Jews crowned their Sifrei Torah with diadems of flowers; and the presence of beautiful floral arrangements inspired Rabbi Herzfeld to call Shavuos the "Holiday With Flower Power."

Did all rabbis embrace this Sinai custom? No.

Elijah ben Solomon, the formidable gaon of Vilna,[lxxxix] forbade his shul to become a flower display of sheafs, verdant branches and bouquets. Why? Because of its potential derivative of idolatry, since it resembled the Christian Pentecostal Harvest Festival and thus violated the serious sin of bechukoteyhem lo telechu, "their customs thou shalt not follow."

Incredibly, most Jews simply ignored the Vilna Rav’s concern, or compromised by using only flowers or grass from Jewish gardens.

The Vilna Gaon however was right: a search through the Torah and Talmud shows that flowers were never referred to within liturgical settings (which the Garden of Eden was not) but for their aesthetic, aromatic and medicinal qualities; and so the Rambam expressly forbids, as a mimicry of idolatry, the placing of a tree near an altar as a spiritual supplement in order to beautify it, based on ancient references wherein flowers were used in pagan worship.[xc]

Yet none of these Shavuos customs and conventions are halachikally decreed. Why? Because Shavuos can only be understood juxtaposed with the brutal intrusion of history.

When the Second Temple fell, its victims included all the Torah’s agricultural underpinnings, joyful harvest pageants, and mandated laws of fruits and offerings.

With Jews no longer active tillers of the Palestine soil, our Sages moved quickly to protect tradition, maintain custom, strengthen belief. How? By upgrading the spiritual aspect of the 49-day proximity between Pesach and Shavuos; nothing less than blanketing the Shavuos of Agriculture with a Shavuos of Torah, a dazzling act that combined Torah and land, Sinai and harvest, God and nature.

But all was not well: there was still something lacking in Shavuos, something missing; epes felt, as my mother would say, in yiddish of course.

It was not until the 16th century that this spiritual void was brilliantly filled.

The kabbalists of Safed cleverly weaved together no less than four mystical tenets to create one new custom; a tikkun layl Shavuos, which literally means "The Repair of the Night of Shavuot."

What were the four? That Jews of all time were present at Sinai; that the Torah was given at daybreak while Jews slept, making it necessary for God Himself to awaken them; that the Heavens open at midnight, thus allowing prayers to go directly to God; and that, since Israel is compared to a groom and Torah to a bride, one must prepare the bride with sweet words in anticipation of the wedding day.[xci]

How simple! Ask not what God can do for you but… 

The solution? An all-night stand of Torah study,[xcii] another "seder" in affect, a pragmatic activity that worked fabulously to help Jews re-experience the Revelation on an annual and recurring basis.

It was a perfect match, a shidduch – made in Heaven, so to speak. Why? Because an uninterrupted twelve-hour Torah learning session infused Shavuos with a personality and a disposition towards the historic giving of the Torah, described by Rabbi Berel Wein as “part of the Jewish DNA.

Though it may be a recessive gene in some Jews, it is never entirely absent, merely dormant.” And more: this minhag had several positive side effects.

The all-night chanting of Psalms became a memorial anniversary to David’s death; it also reintroduced into Judaism an obscure reference found in the Book of Jubilees, written during the Second Temple and consisting of midrashim on Genesis (unfortunately the original Hebrew edition has been lost. The only references we have today are to an Ethiopian version, which itself was translated from the Greek, that was discovered in Abyssinia in the mid-19th century; in other words, we have no way of knowing if its contents are “jewishly” accurate).

The manuscript recalls how the Jews of the Second Temple kept Shavuos as an annual renewal of God’s pact to mankind via Noah; and, by placing the nightly Torah marathons in local synagogues it acted as a reminder of the importance that the early synagogue played in its role of maintaining yiddishkeit.

After the Second Temple it was the synagogue that fulfilled a triple purpose; as a House of Study, a House of Prayer and a House of Community Assemblies. This core premise is still with us today, having outlived everything from Roman rule to Jewish rebellions.

Yet, despite its prominence in Jewish survival, there is no exact information regarding the origins of the synagogue – only guesswork places it at the time of the Temple, because all sacrifices were accompanied by prayer, therefore a place of prayer probably existed.

But wait!

Why should learning Torah be unique for this holiday; especially since v’higisa bo yomam v’layla, the order to “study it day and night,” already applies?!

In fact, the Shulchan Aruch does not refer to Tikkun Leil Shavuot, though its author, Rabbi Joseph Karo, who was both a lawyer and mystic, is said to have observed the custom; as did the Ba’er Hetev,  one of the commentators to the Shulchan Aruch (who was convinced that whoever spends the night of Shavuos in study will complete the year in good health).

The Taamei Minhagim points out that this particular all-night-Torah-learning is different because it contemplates the all-year-round Torah study. This is why tikkun layl Shavuos has a particular order to its study, a compilation organized centuries ago, wherein each section in the Tanach, as well as each of the six books of the Mishna, is begun and concluded.

The source of this chronology of study, according to an insightful Sefer Minhagei Yisroel Torah, is an incident in Persia, when the King ruled it forbidden for Jews to say the Sh’ma, so in order to circumvent this terrible order, the rabbis turned to the kedusha of Shabbas mussaf and covertly inserted the Sh’ma’s first and last verses.

They then decreed that saying this particular kedusha was equivalent as having said the entire Sh’ma.

A similar rationale was applied to the Shavuos Torah study: by learning the beginning and end of each part of the Torah, it was as if one had learned the Torah in its entirety.

In a similar reference to the endlessness of Torah, every line in the Akdamus poem, read on the morning of Shavuos before the k’riat haTorah reading, ends with the syllable ta, which consists respectively of the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

As soon as the final letter (tav) is reached, Jews immediately return to dwell on the Torah’s infinite depth by going back to aleph, the first letter.

"It is not sufficient for a Jew to discover joy in the Torah," notes Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "but the Torah should also discover joy in the Jew."

That is why tikkun layl Shavuos is so perfectly tailor-made: it acts in a similar vein to the Jew who relives Pesach (not as a mere reminiscence, or historical curiosity), but as a means for seriously complying with the rabbinical canon that, "in every single generation one must regard oneself as though one had personally left the land of Egypt.[xciii]

When asked what Shavuos meant to him, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Empire, replied from a personal perspective, as he echoed an ancient observation, that "the Priestly caste did not support the Ark; the Ark supported those who carried it."[xciv]

"My great-grandfather, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Frumkin, left Lithuania in 1871 to make his home in the Holy Land, where he became the historian of Jerusalem. He took one item with him – a Sefer Torah, which he held in his arms throughout the sea voyage, and while riding on a donkey from the coast to Jerusalem….
For me, the image of my great-grandfather cradling the Torah as he journeyed to Jerusalem became a metaphor of Jewish life through the ages.
We were the people who, wherever we traveled, carried the Torah with us.
And though we thought we were carrying, in truth it was carrying us.
More than the Jewish people gave life to the Torah, the Torah gave life to the Jewish people."

Footnotes: Shavuos

[i] Midrash Rabbah

[ii] Deut 5:21.

[iii] Why is it called "daughter of a voice?" Because it is not the voice itself that is heard, but an echo. "Every day," says Pirkei Avot, "a bat kol [literally, a Heavenly message], goes forth from Mount Horeb and says, ‘Woe to mankind for insulting the Torah’" (Avot 6:2). Slightly lower in status than the ru’ach hakodesh, "the Holy Spirit," the bat kol, from the time the prophetic spirit ceased in Israel, has been God’s means of communicating with mankind (Yoma 9a). It was a bat kol that announced Tamar’s innocence; that exonerated Samuel who was accused of deriving personal advantage from his office; who came down on the side of King Solomon’s decision between two mothers who each claimed a child (Makkot 23b); and that helped decide, after three years of conflict, halacha between Shammai and Hillel: "Both these and these (views) are the Words of the living God, but the halacha is according to Beit Hillel" (Eruvin 13b; Isaiah 30:21; Megillah 32a; Midrash Tanhuma) – however as a general principle Rabbi Yehoshua argues that "the Torah is not in heaven" (Deut 30:12).

[iv] The popular term Shechina only means "presence;" and God often resorts to such instrumentalities as angels (malach), which implies "a messenger or agent" (helping Hagar in the desert; stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son; accompanying Jacob on his wanderings, etc). Forces of nature (wind, fire, etc) are also considered God’s messengers (Psalm 104:4), and kohanim (the priesthood) act as intermediaries through which God blesses his flock (Numbers 6). Is it rude for Jews to turn their backs on the kohanim during the priestly blessing? No: to gaze directly borders on irreverence because of the belief that the Divine Presence streams through the open fingers of the priests (Megillah 4:8; Orach Chayyim 128:23; Hagigah 16a).

[v] Deut 27:9.

[vi] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Strife of the Spirit, Jason Aronson, NJ, 1988.

[vii]  This term describes any encounter between the Heavens and mankind.

[viii] The rabbis were ambiguous in their halachik attitude towards singling out the Ten Commandments as being central to Judaism. The Asseres haDibbros went from being recited daily in the Temple, together with the Sh’ma, to being abolished from the synagogue liturgy (Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 10; Kings 19).

[ix] Parsha Mishpatim

[x] The first account appears in Exodus 10-19; the second in 20-25.

[xi] This expression is only found in the Bible; it is not used in rabbinic texts.

[xii] Exodus 20:1

[xiii] Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides); 12th century Torah scholar from Spain whose family fled to Egypt from the Almohades, a fundamentalist Moslem sect who believed in spreading religion via the sword. In Egypt, whilst serving the Sultan as his personal physician, the Rambam produced his most important halachik works; Yad HaChazakah (the "Strong Hand," aka the Mishne Torah, "Review of the Torah"); Perush HaMishnayot ("Explanation of the Mishnah"); and the philosophical Moreh HaNevuchim ("Guide for the Perplexed"). Although he is universally accepted today it was not always so: many early Sages frowned upon his tinkering with Greek Philosophy, and strongly criticized him for not quoting the sources for his halachic decisions.  

[xiv] Guide, Chapters 32, 33

[xv] Rashi 19; Ibn Ezra, 20:1; Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 8:1; Moreh Nevukhim II:23; Makot 24a

[xvi] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides); 13th century Torah scholar who vigorously defended the Rambam from detractors who were burning his writings, and is credited with preventing a serious rift amongst the Torah scholars of his time.

[xvii] Deut 34:5-6.

[xviii] Robert S. Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred, NY: Pantheon Books, 1991; Hyam Maccoby, A Pariah People: The Anthropology of Anti-Semitism, London: Constable, 1996; Joel Carmichael, The Satanizing of the Jews: Origin and Development of Mystical Anti-Semitism, NY: Fromm, 1992.

[xix] English translators of Isaiah’s phrase eretz sinim (49:12) mistranslate it as "the land of Sinim," not realizing that the word refers to a people, not a place.

[xx] 19:5, 6

[xxi] 1885-1976

[xxii] Some trace this hateful ditty to Hilaire Belloc or G. K. Chesterton; commenting on Chesterton’s anti-Semitism, the poet Humbert Wolfe wrote,

"Here lies G. K. Chesterton

who to Heaven would have gone,

But didn’t when he heard the news

that the place was run by Jews."

[xxiii] A speaker was denouncing the Jews for causing the First World War, when a heckler interjected, "Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists." Thrown off course, the speaker asked, "Why the bicyclists?" The heckler replied, "Why the Jews?"

[xxiv] Numbers 22:9; Yaakov Herzog, A People That Dwells Alone, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

[xxv] Cecil Browne

[xxvi] Deut 7:7; 8-16-18

[xxvii] Deut 26:18; Exodus 19:5,6; Leviticus 20-26.

[xxviii] Kohelet 2:8.

[xxix] In classical Hebrew the term goyim originally meant "nation" or "people," and applied to Jews and gentiles. "The nations of the earth" were goyei ha’aretz (Genesis 18:18), Israel was called a goy echad ba’aretz, "a unique nation on the earth" (I Chronicles 17:1), and "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh (Exodus 19:6). Later, the term came to denote "them" (as in, not "us"), as per Hagoyim asher s’vivotechem, "the nations that surround you" (Leviticus 25:44), or Chukkot hagoy, "the (pagan) customs of the gentile" (Leviticus 20:23; II Kings 17:8).

[xxx] Genesis 1; Malachi 2:10

[xxxi] On November 9-10, 1938 more than 100 synagogues and scores of Jewish stores were destroyed littering the streets with broken glass, which is why the day became known as "Crystal Night" (in German, Krystallnacht.)

[xxxii] Exodus 19:17, 24:7; Shabbat 88a, Rashi 19:17.

[xxxiii] Rashi, Exodus 19:2.

[xxxiv] There is a beautiful Sephardic custom of actually writing a love-song ketubah in the form of a marriage contract between God and the Jewish people and reading it on Shavuos. The piyut was composed by Rabbi Yisrael Najara, a great Jewish grammarian and poet who modeled it after Shir HaShirim, a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel.

[xxxv] Genesis 1:1.

[xxxvi] Parshat Trumah 25:1

[xxxvii] Parshat Ki-tisa 32:1

[xxxviii] Exodus 3:1; 4;29; 19.

[xxxix] The Midrash finds another clue to support this: an extra nun is added in "ta’avdun" in the verse ta’avdun et HaElokim al ha-har hazeh, “you will serve God on this mountain" (Exodus 3:12). So? Nun is the Hebrew letter for 50, which equals the number of days from Pesach to Shavuos.

[xl] Deut 16:10.

[xli] Deut 4:19-20; Ramban Sefer Ha-mitzvot, mitzvot she-shakhach otan ha-rav, lo ta’aseh #2.

[xlii] 1520-1609

[xliii] Avot de-Rabbi Natan 2:3

[xliv] Parshas Devarim.

[xlv] Shabbat 33a.

[xlvi] Pe’ah 2:4; Deut 32:7

[xlvii] N’darim 37a; Deut 4:5

[xlviii] Pirkei Avot 4:7

[xlix] Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Understanding Judaism: The Basics of Deed and Creed, Jason Aronson NJ, 1991

[l] Baba Meztia 59b

[li] Deut 1:13; Sukkah 20a.

[lii] Psalms 4, 7

[liii] Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 3.

[liv] Schooling’s import is reflected in halachists making the following exception to their otherwise strict rules regarding free economic competition: if a Jew wants to open a pizza parlor next to another Jew, he can be stopped under the halacha of interference. But what if he wanted to open a school? Ah, that was different. Why? He was encouraged to do so, because “the jealousy of scholars increaseth wisdom.”

[lv] Shabbat 119b; Hagiga 1:7.

[lvi] H.G. Wells, Outline of History

[lvii] In recent times the rise of the married kollel student, those who spend time exclusively in the pursuit of Torah study, have raised questions over what takes priority: learning Torah or making a living? Rabbi Nehurai argues for the former, Ishmael ben Elisha the latter. The answer can be found where all answers are found: in the Talmud  which clearly states that fathers are "obligated" to teach sons a trade (Kiddushin 29a; Bava Metzia 30b, Nedarim 49b; Rashi, Makkos 8b), even on the Shabbas; and along comes Rashi, in an uncommoningly ominous warning to all parents: any son deprived of the means of livelihood will end up a common ganef (“thief.”) Note that the Talmud is dotted with scholar-tradesmen (shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, etc) who are held in great esteem for both qualities.

[lviii] Benjamin drowned in 1940 at Port-Bou in a tragic shipwreck of European Jews.

[lix] In the field of chinuch (“education”) the Talmud singles out for specific praise Rabbis Hiyya and Yehoshua ben Gamla, a high priest shortly before the Second Temple was destroyed (Bava Batra 21a; Bava Metzia 85b).

[lx] Abraham Chill, The Minhagim, Sepher-Hermon Press, 1979.

[lxi] Ezekiel 45:18-25

[lxii] The "chazan" in those days was not the equivalent of todays "cantor." It was a position of also great Talmudic scholarship.

[lxiii] Sura 18, 109; 31, 27

[lxiv] Ruth 1:6,4:13

[lxv] Maseches Sofrim 14:18.

[lxvi] Sotak 14b; Shabbat 133b Sifri; Rambam, Laws of Avelut, ch. 14.

[lxvii] Ruth 1:16-17.

[lxviii] If a gentile comes to convert, said the Sages in Vayikra Raba, Jews must extend their hands and bring him under Divinity’s wings. Along the centuries there were varying attitudes towards conversion in Judaism, ranging from downright antagonism all the way to forced circumcisions (by the Hasmoneans) of newly conquered populations in Transjordan. Sometimes, entire communities converted to Judaism (In his book "Israel and Humanity," Rabbi Eliya Benamozegh (Raba), rabbi of the Italian city of Livorno in the second half of the 19th century, argues that at its essence, Judaism in fact seeks to attract others. Over the centuries multitudes of Alexandrian Greeks and Roman heathens have converted, and no less than six entire kingdoms have taken Judaism upon themselves: the Khazars; Sheba (which adopted Judaism in the wake of the visit of their queen to King Solomon); Adiabene, today’s Kurdistan (whose kings converted shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple); Hamyar, in the southern Arabian Peninsula (which converted en masse sometime at the start of the first millennium); Kahena, which was ruled by a woman ("the Kohenet," or priestess), in the area of Libya, during the Arab conquest of North Africa; and the Bracha V’shalom ("blessing and peace") kingdom, formed in the mid-17th century in the jungles of South America by Jews who fled Inquisition-era Portugal. So successful were Jewish conversion efforts that historian Salo Baron calculates that their numbers soared from 150,000 during the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple to over 8,000,000  by the first century of the Common Era (reaching 10% of the Roman Empire’s population), leading Rabbi Elezar ben Pedat to assert that God exiled Jews from the holy land for one reason only – to convert! (Pesachim 87b). This aggressive stance stopped when Christianity overtook Rome and Judaism became an outlawed religion, a nefarium sectam. So successful were the Jews that the Gospel complained about Jews "who travel over sea and land to make a single proselyte." The conversion efforts of the early gentile Christian movement was simply a drive to get the b’nei Noach into a messianic "Judaism" without the need to actually convert to Judaism. Yet on the whole, Judaism’s approach to conversion was quite clear: to refrain from actively seeking new followers, and at the same time welcome those who embraced our faith of their own volition. This traditional approach has now become Israel’s Theater of the Absurd: whilst some orthodox rabbis crisscross the globe from the Peruvian Andes to the Burmese jungles in a quixotic effort to seek out "Jewish tribes" ripe for conversion, other Orthodox obscurantists hinder the conversion efforts of thousands of Soviet immigrants already living in the holy land.

[lxix] Isaiah 56:6

[lxx] Numbers Rabba 8:2; Tanchuma, Lech L’cha

[lxxi] Exodus 12:48: Leviticus 16:29: Numbers 19:10.

[lxxii] The majority of todays conversions are motivated by "romance" (ie: intermarriage), despite the fact that halacha disqualifies applicants if they have any ulterior motive (Yoreh De’ah 268:12).

[lxxiii] Genesis 12:5

[lxxiv] Jonah 1

[lxxv] Esther 8:17

[lxxvi] Yevamot 47

[lxxvii] Raymond Apple wonders why the whole world is not Jewish?…"I am part of a vibrant folk, heir to a rich heritage of culture, challenged by an ethical tradition; a faith that dares, a faith that cares; a philosophy that stretches the mind; a way of life that enriches the heart. I have poetry and prose, individuality and community, history and destiny. I sometimes wonder why the whole world is not Jewish?"

[lxxviii] Yevamos 47a

[lxxix] Mathew 23:15; Sanhedrin 56-60; Acts 15; 1 Corinthians 5-6; Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah, NY, Berman Books, 1981; Yoel Schwartz, A Light to the Nations, Jerusalem, Yeshivat D’var Yerushalayim, 1988

[lxxx] Keritot 9, Yevamot 47

[lxxxi] Tosefta 17, Shaarey Teshuva, Orach Chaim 494

[lxxxii] Berachot 2:8; I Samuel 25; Megilla 14b, 15a.

[lxxxiii] Ruth Rabbah 2; Yalkut Ruth 601

[lxxxiv] How do the Jews choose which daily tehillim to say? There is a custom to pick the chapter associated with the year or your age, plus one. My mother doesn’t have this problem: she says all of tehillim every morning, getting up before sunrise in order to finish together with the miracle of a morning light.

[lxxxv] Psalms 39:13.

[lxxxvi] Kol Bo; Sotah 14a; Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 494; Rosh Hashanah 16a

[lxxxvii] Mishnah Berura, 494.

[lxxxviii] 1762-1839

[lxxxix] 1720-1797

[xc] Avoda Zarah, 43d.

[xci] Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba, Likutei Tzvi, Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 494; Zohar, Emor

[xcii] So important is the study of Torah that techilas dino shel adam eino ela b’divray Torah, "Man’s final judgment will begin with a grilling about time spent on Torah study” (Orach Chaim 155:1; Shabbos 31a). But what if one only has a limited amount of time? The Mishna Berurah lists priorities: practical halacha first, in order to know how to apply Torah to one’s daily life, followed by a quick review of the weekly Torah portion, followed by some mussar (lessons in ethics).

[xciii] Midrash Pesachim 10:5.

[xciv] Benectiate ben Natronai tia-Nakdan