As we do each and every year, tonight, the sixth day of Sivan, 50 days since we began to count the omer, we will b’ezras Hashem celebrate the joyous and uplifting Yom Tov of Shavuos, marking our receiving the Torah on Har Sinai.
The choice of this day seems at first glance to be perplexing. We rule according the view of Rabi Yosi, who says (Shabbos 86b) that the Torah was actually given on the seventh of Sivan. In addition, all agree that the Torah was given on the 51st day and not the 50th day of Sefirah.
So why do we say on the sixth of Sivan “Zman Mattan Toraseinu”? Why isn’t Shavuos celebrated a day later?
The Maharsha (Avodah Zarah 3a) explains that after leaving Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisrael experienced a period of spiritual cleansing to rid themselves of all the impurities and negative influences of Mitzrayim and to sanctify themselves to be able to receive the Torah. This process took seven times seven days, akin to the seven cycles of Shemittah that lead up to a Yovel. On the 50th day, Bnei Yisrael had reached the climax and concluded this process of purification, making it possible for them to receive the Torah the next day, on the 51st.
Chazal (Avos 3:11) teach us that only in he whose fear of sin takes priority over his wisdom, will his wisdom endure. On the 50th day Bnei Yisrael reached the lofty level of fearing sin; on the following day they received the eternal wisdom of the Torah. Since the level of fearing sin takes priority to wisdom both in time and in maalah (chashivus), it is on the 50th day — the day that made it possible for us to receive the Torah — that we celebrate Zman Mattan Toraseinu.
The Kedushas Levi gives another explanation: According to Rabi Yosi, Hakadosh Baruch Hu had initially stated that Mattan Torah would be on the sixth of Sivan; it was Moshe Rabbeinu who desired to add an additional day of preparation, and Hashem agreed with that request. The Torah was actually given on the seventh of Sivan, but the eternal words of Hashem about giving it on the sixth ensured that each year ever since it is on the sixth of Sivan that Bnei Yisrael merit the lofty levels of holiness associated with Kabbalas HaTorah.
The seventh of Sivan, which marks the actual day we received the Torah, is an additional day of great light and holiness.
The Magen Avraham on Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 494:1) poses this question, and states that the fact that we celebrate Shavuos on the 50th day of Sefirah, even though the Torah was given on the 51st, alludes to the two days of Yom Tov that are observed by the Jews of the Diaspora.
The concept of a Yom Tov Sheini shel Galuyos originated at a time when Rosh Chodesh was sanctified by beis din, and there wasn’t enough time until Yom Tov to notify the Jews in the Diaspora on which day Rosh Chodesh — and therefore Yom Tov — was. After we no longer merited that the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh be performed and a permanent calendar was created, the second day of Yom Tov remained a minhag avoseinu b’yadeinu, a hallowed custom that has the status of a mitzvah d’Rabbanan.
It is noteworthy that unlike Pesach, when we have the mitzvah of eating matzah, and Sukkos, when we have the mitzvah of sukkah and arbaah minim, nowadays, when we don’t have the merit to bring the special korban of shtei halechem in the Beis Hamikdash, there is no mitzvah associated with Shavuos that is unique to this Yom Tov.
What is unique are the minhagim.
For many, when they think of Shavuos, the thought of staying up all night to recite the Tikkun or learn Torah is the first thing that comes to mind. This sacred custom is based on a Zohar, but it isn’t mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch. The widespread practice of eating dairy is also an ancient minhag, one mentioned by the Rema. Placing plants or trees in shuls is also a minhag.
The Yom Tov on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah is marked by performing minhagim, thus underscoring the vital and primary importance that minhagim play in avodas Hashem.
The Torah (Bereishis 26:19) tells us that Yitzchak Avinu dug up the wells that Avraham Avinu had originally excavated, and which had been filled by the Plishtim after his petirah. “He called them by the same names that his father had called them,” the Torah informs us.
Rabbeinu Bachya teaches that from this we learn a powerful lesson about the importance of mesorah. For if Yitzchak Avinu was makpid to keep the names of the wells, how much more does one have to make certain not to deviate from the minhagim of one’s ancestors.
May we all merit to have an uplifting Yom Tov and be able to draw inspiration for a renewed commitment to all aspects of Torah, including a genuine appreciation of the pivotal role of minhagei Yisrael.