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Shavuot: Renewed Commitment to Accepting the Torah

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat Naso




Shavuot: Renewed Commitment to Accepting the Torah


Summarized by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



We all know that Shavuot is defined in our prayers as "the season of the giving (matan) of our Torah," but I would like to focus today on the parallel aspect: kabbalat ha-Torah, receiving or accepting the Torah.  The word kabbala (in non-mystical literature) can be understood in two different ways, both of which find expression in kabbalat ha-Torah.


On the one hand, "receiving" is the result of a gift being given.  Indeed, the Torah is "more precious than pearls" (Mishlei 3:15), and one of the things we are required to do on Shavuot is to thank God for the gift that He bestowed upon us at Mount Sinai.


On the other hand, kabbala can be understood as the internalization of a value or idea, as in the expression kabbala le-atid, accepting [a resolution] upon oneself for the future, which we are wont to use to describe the final stage of repentance according to the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:2): resolving never to repeat one's sin.  According to this interpretation, we must explain what exactly it is that Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) accept upon themselves at Mount Sinai.  What is left to the nation as a legacy for the future, once the "great fire" (Devarim 5:21) has vanished?  Many generations have passed since God revealed Himself to the entire nation!  This question assumes special significance in light of the fact that the Ramban, in his Hassagot (Negative 2) on the Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot, counts the prohibition to forget the revelation at Sinai as one of the 613 commandments, based on the passage (Devarim 4:9-10):


Only guard yourself and guard your life very much, lest you forget what your eyes saw — lest they be removed from your heart — all the days of your life; rather, make them known to your children and your children's children: the day you stood before Lord your God at Chorev [= Mt. Sinai], when God said to me: "Gather the people and I will make them hear my words, so that they will learn to revere Me all the days they live on the earth, and they will teach their children."


According to this understanding, we must understand what it is that we are meant to remember, and which values we are meant to internalize, as part of our remembrance of kabbalat ha-Torah. 


We may list a number of points Am Yisrael commit to and accept upon themselves at Sinai. As we know, there are commandments that are not set down explicitly in the Torah; our Sages, throughout the generations, have interpreted the Torah and derived these laws.  Seemingly, one could claim that the system of Halakha as we know it is not what the nation committed itself to at Sinai.  True, Am Yisra'el accept a certain number of laws, but what about all the obligations imposed later by the Sages, such as, for example, the reading of the Megilla on Purim?  We never committed ourselves to those!  In order to understand this, we must realize that at Sinai the Jewish nation did not accept each individual commandment, but rather the entire body of commandments, embodying their subservience to God.  The very first commitment of Am Yisrael at Sinai is to the system of laws being given to them by God, and to the fulfillment of that general system, not each law individually.  This idea is proposed by the Beit Ha-levi.


The Gemara (Shabbat 88b), discussing the revelation at Sinai, tells us:


"They stood at the foot of the mountain" (Shemot 19:17) – Rav Avdimi bar Chamma said: "This teaches that God held the mountain over them like a barrel and said to them: 'If you accept the Torah, well and good; and if not, there you will be buried…'"

Rava said: "Nevertheless, they returned and accepted it in the days of Achashverosh, as it is written (Esther 9:27): 'The Jews fulfilled and accepted' – they fulfilled that which they had already accepted [at Sinai]."


The generally-accepted meaning of this gemara is that at the time of Mordekhai and Ester, the Jews took upon themselves willingly the Torah that they had accepted, through coercion, at the time of the revelation at Sinai.  However, we may perhaps propose another interpretation which, to my view, reflects the simple, literal meaning of the gemara.  At the time of Mordekhai and Esther, "the Jews fulfilled that which they had already accepted," because at that time they committed themselves to each and every individual commandment, whereas until that time they fulfilled the commandments by virtue of the all-encompassing general commitment that they had made at Sinai. 


Moreover, at Sinai, the nation accepts upon itself not only the laws, but also God as Creator and Master of the world.  The Kingship of God has ever since been the pillar of our belief system, which also includes other principles that are integral to Judaism.


The last element which we may list as a commitment by every Jew at Sinai is belonging to the nation of Israel.  At Sinai, the status of Am Yisrael is established as a special nation in which every individual is meant to feel a part of, and connected to, his fellow; thus, a collection of individuals is forged into a nation.  When we renew our commitment to the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, this entails a renewed commitment to membership in the Jewish people and acceptance of responsibility for all Jews.  "Make them known to your children and your children's children: the day you stood before Lord your God at Chorev."



(This sicha was delivered on Shavuot 5763 [2003].)