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Q&A: Understanding the Dates of the Holidays and Their Connection to the Exodus

May 3, 2015

Question: Does it bother you that we do not really know which day the Torah was given, yet we still celebrate Shavuot on the sixth of Sivan as though we are certain that that is the day it happened?

Answer: Not in the least. You are referring to the dispute in the Gemara as to what day of Siwan the revelation at Sinai took place, but it is important to remember that according to the strict halacha, the day of Shavu’oth is actually set as the 50th day from Passover, which, if we were establishing the beginning of each month based on sighting and not on a predetermined calendar, would actually be anytime from the 5th to the 7th of Siwan. That is, the Torah itself did not care to make sure that this holiday would always fall out on the anniversary of the Revelation because it was not classically about the Revelation. As we see in this week’s parasha (Emor), Pentecost was mostly about the bikkurim, first fruits, both public and private. Pentecost, like Passover and Tabernacles, was mainly an agricultural celebration. The greatest rejoicing on Tabernacles centered around the drawing of the water for the libations on Hol Hamo’ed, and the centerpiece of the Festival of Matzoth was the reaping of the new omer grain. In the olden days, these two rituals were emphasized because the sectarians tried to minimize their importance: They claimed that the omer offering was to start on the first Sunday after Passover began, and this was eventually inherited by the church as the day to celebrate Easter, and they denied the oral tradition that God required an offering of water on Tabernacles. Consider well that one could make a strong argument for Passover to start on the 14th of Nisan, but the Torah had to pick a day to celebrate all the events surrounding the Exodus, and settled on the 15th, and it is also not clear what the 15th of Tishrei is the anniversary of. The Vilna Gaon was one of the first to suggest that it is the anniversary of the return of  the clouds of glory, but that is far from certain. Why? because these three holidays are meant to fall out around the time of the year as some historical event, be it the Exodus or the Revelation, but they do not have to be on the exact anniversary. This is why in the liturgy we describe the three pilgrimages as “This day of the (name) festival, the season of our rejoicing/freedom/giving of our Torah.” That is, this day of the festival falls out around the time of year that the historical event happened. On the other hand, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are one-day-of-the-year, non-agricultural holidays that do not necessarily commemorate events of national historical importance, and therefore are only referred to in the liturgy as “this Day of Memorial/Atonement, etc.,” without mentioning the z’man, the season. Also note that later, the sages would use this model when establishing the holiday of Purim. The halacha allows for the reading of the m’gilla to commence some days before actual Purim, and even though the miraculous events described in Esther took place over a three-day period, from 13 to 15 Adar, and even today, you can celebrate Purim on either the 14th or 15th, just as long as you choose one of them. Our contemporaneous Rabbis have followed a similar model. Yes, the 5th of Iyar is a special, holy day, but there is nothing wrong with our celebrating it on the 3rd, 4th or even the 6th, as long as it is around that time of year. We also do not mind moving our fast days around. In light of all this, it should not bother you, either.

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From → halacha

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