By Yochanan Gordon
Shavuos, which is just a week or so out, marks the date we received the Torah at Har Sinai. Chazal state: “Kol mah she’talmid vasik asid l’chadesh nitein l’Moshe b’Sinai.” This means that not only was the entirety of Torah given to us at Har Sinai, but every idea that a prodigious student would generate throughout Jewish history was also given to Moshe at Har Sinai.
This led me to thinking about the various traditions regarding Shavuos night; what follows are my thoughts on the matter, which are subject to debate but food for thought nonetheless.
As someone who follows the Chassidic rite, specifically that of Chabad, my tradition on Shavuos night is the recitation of Tikkun Leil Shavuos—a digest of sorts of the entirety of Torah running through Torah, Nevi’im, Kesuvim, Mishnah, Gemara, Zohar, Sefer Yetzirah, and the 613 mitzvos. The rationale in reciting the Tikkun, as it is referred to, is that it consists of the beginning and conclusion of each parashah and masechta in Shas and parts of sifrei Torah and all of the mitzvos, and represents our acceptance of the entirety of Torah, which, as we said above, was given to Klal Yisrael at Har Sinai.
Having been educated in the Litvish yeshiva system, for many years, prior to learning the significance of Tikkun Leil Shavuos and the rationale behind it, I followed the seder ha’yeshiva and either spent the night learning with a chavrusa or joined one of the many shiurim that were given throughout the night. Until now, my analyses of these two systems is that Shavuos, being the yom tov in which we received the entirety of the Torah, should be observed by methodically making our way through it all, in a manner that can be done during one night. Sitting and poring over an isolated sugyah in Shas, regardless of how in-depth the sugya is studied, will not cover all areas of Torah, as does the Tikkun.
I remember the counterargument to the Tikkun, which was based on an encounter that the Gra from Vilna had with the Dubno Maggid. The Vilna Gaon reportedly recited the Tikkun for much of his life until one Shavuos that he spent in the company of the Dubno Maggid. Seeing that the Maggid cracked open a solitary volume of Gemara, which he pored over during that night while the Gra said the Tikkun compelled the Gra to ask the Maggid why he diverted from the prevailing tradition.
In his inimitable style, the Maggid responded with a parable: An old Yid who was in dire need of a livelihood entered the market and saw how interested buyers had clamored around the cubicle of a carpet salesman, glossing through swatches of different carpets that he had in stock. He thought to himself: “If only I can get my hands on one of those swatches, I would be in business.” He asked the salesman for an extra swatch booklet, which he gladly gave him, and he went out the next day to find buyers. People came over to his booth and when they gave him money to buy the carpet he began ripping the swatch out of the booklet. The prospective buyer looked on, in amazement, as if this were some sort of joke. He said: “The other vendors have warehouses full of carpets represented by these sample swatches. You can’t possibly sell swatches without having carpet to fill the order!”
The Maggid went on: “For the Gaon, who has warehouses filled with Torah, saying Tikkun leil Shavuos certainly carries great significance. But for someone like me,” said the Dubno Maggid, “the Tikkun would just be symbolic of samples without the inventory to back it up, so I need to stick with the inventory that I have, and that is the Torah that I studied throughout the evening.”
The Torah clearly delineates that all Jews throughout history, even those yet to be born, were present at the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. Certainly then, the Torah that we were given at Har Sinai and the obligation to safeguard it for all generations was clearly a supra-conscious experience. Furthermore, the Torah explicitly states that Hashem said the first two dibros, which caused those physically present to expire, requiring they be resurrected. This, too, would indicate that the covenant that we entered into at Har Sinai was not limited to the capacity of our understanding.
So, although we are mandated by the Torah to engage in its study daily—some of which requires understanding and other parts which we fulfill regardless of comprehension—our study of the Torah on Shavuos night is not merely a fulfillment of the Biblical mandate to study; it is our national acceptance of the Torah. Therefore, it would not be enough to study an isolated sugya in Shas, and although our regular study of Torah She’ba’al Peh would require our comprehension of the subject matter, when it comes to Shavuos, which was largely a supra-conscious experience, it is more important to be exposed to the entirety of Torah rather than understand an isolated piece of Torah.
The notion of writing Torah She’ba’al Peh, the Oral Torah, was problematic until Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi defied the prohibition of authorship in order to ensure that Torah never be forgotten from the Jewish People. However, even after it was written, and its words and subject matter can be studied in its original form, the level of comprehension varies from one person to the other. As such, it would seem extremely problematic to accept the Torah all the while learning a wrong pshat in a sugya or any area of Torah for that matter; this would further support the premise of reading the words of Torah as a way of receiving it anew without attempting an understanding of what it is the text is teaching us.
I remember hearing a shiur that discusses the parameters of written Torah versus oral Torah. The maggid shiur, whose name escapes me, made this point: that the moment you translate a verse in the Torah, translation of the words themselves are no longer considered written Torah, but oral Torah. Similarly, he said, once we offer a reading into a piece of Mishnayos or Gemara it is one step removed from Oral Torah since it isn’t any longer true to the text but reflective of our understanding of the text.
It is for this very reason that the Gemara relates that the entire world shook when Onkelos authored his translation of the Torah into Aramaic. It is similarly this reason that the world was plunged into mourning when King Ptolemy ordered the 72 elders to translate the Torah into Greek. On top of the fact that he had sinister intentions, there is a certain vulnerability to the text once it is translated, regardless of the intentions of the translator.
We take for granted that nearly every area of Torah has been translated into multiple languages to aid in its study. I clearly remember the great opposition that ArtScroll met when their first translations of the Gemara were released. It was a while before it achieved universal acceptance, and for many years afterward it was discouraged in yeshiva due to the fact that it cut out much of the toil and effort that is very much a part of Torah study, which is largely beyond the scope of this piece.
This point is further highlighted in the realm of Chassidus when Mashiach told the Ba’al Shem Tov that he would arrive once his wellsprings were spread outward. In the ensuing years, until our modern times, the deepest concepts of Chassidic thought are taught the world over in multiple languages, for men, women, and children of all backgrounds and levels of comprehension. However, I once heard an interpretation by Rabbi Manis Friedman that merely giving a shiur in Tanya, which is very much limited to the scope of understanding of the one giving the shiur, doesn’t constitute the wellsprings of the Ba’al Shem Tov. In his words, the wellsprings of the Ba’al Shem Tov are the words which the rebbeim used in conveying his teachings.
As I have done in previous years, my plan is to read the Tikkun and receive the Torah anew in its entirety. I realize that regardless of what I say, people will do what they have been accustomed to doing. At the very least, however, these thoughts should inspire a discussion and healthy debate on this matter of great import.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.