Shavuot: Core Concepts


With Hashem’s revelation on Har Sinai, we only committed to 10 Commandments… how did our obligations mushroom into 613?… All of the mitzvot are included in those original ten… 


[However] we actually only heard the first two commandments directly from Hashem:

Their revelation was so intense, [that] our souls flew from our bodies at each word. Hashem revived us with His resurrecting dew… We “died” over sixty times in those first two commandments. It was just too much, and finally we begged Moshe to be our intermediary and relay the message to us. 


Even so… these first two Commandments, themselves, are comprehensive. 

The First Commandment which declares the fact of God’s existence is the root of all the 248 positive directives.


The Second Commandment is the root of all 365 negative commandments. And really, says the midrash, both the positive and the negative are contained within the first one.


If we really understood what it means that God is one, as expressed through the First Commandment, our instinctive and reflexive response to the world would always accord with [the Torah].


And so, the entire Torah is contained within the first commandment… Every Jewish soul heard these words straight from their Creator… 


The goal of our lives individually and collectively is to achieve an ever-deepening integration of what it means that G-d is one. And towards this end, says the midrash, Hashem restates this fundamental truth over and over and over again. Each day Hashem rebroadcasts the First Commandment out into the world. 


Why don’t we hear it? What keeps us from taking it in? 


If Hashem bothers to reiterate the First Commandment each day then we need to make the silent space to hear His message.


[However, making silent space can only come about through quiet, honest reflection on events without outside distractions. It is only through such a medium that we can consider the meaning of both individual and collective events that we have experienced and focus on the message. Such an experience, when done properly, can allow us to see that nothing happens by coincidence, and every step is part of Hashem’s plan.]


[Once we achieve this awareness we are are ready to achieve a state of bittul (self-nullification). The name Atzeres may have the meaning of negation.] 


On Shavuos, the Jewish people negated itself to Hashem, as shown by the fact that the Sages, representing the people, called the day Atzeres. On Shemini Atzeres, a reverse form of negation occurs. Hashem tells Israel, it shall be an Atzeres for you, only Israel matters to Me; the rest of the world is peripheral to Israel.


This phrase can be understood to refer not only to the historical event that occurred at Mount Sinai, but also to the re-giving of the Torah we still experience every year. 


[One of the ways we can render ourselves into vessels worthy of receiving the Torah anew is to engage in Torah study on Shavuot night, which forges a spiritual union between the Jewish people and Hashem. Studying the texts of the Torah directly while reading the letters (as opposed to listening to others in a lecture) infuses a person with a unique supernatural power, which can penetrate the deepest levels of our soul.  


Some commentaries emphasize that the Torah study performed on Shavuot can serve as the gateway to, and precedent for, all of one’s achivements in Torah study over the entire year. Shavuot is therefore an auspicious time for engaging in Torah study on whatever level one is capable. 


Shavuot is also a worthy time for chidushim – suggesting novel interpretations of Torah passages or teaching. Every person has the ability to offer their own angle or interpretation of Torah texts using their unique talents and perspectives (within certain limits), and one is encouraged to do so during the Torah study on Shavuot.] 


When a person sees 600,000 (or more) Jews gathered in a single place s/he recites the following blessing: Blessed are You, G-d, Sovereign of the Universe, Knower of Secrets. It is no coincidence that 600,000 is the approximate number of Israelite families who experienced the revelation at Sinai… 


This blessing seems to suggest that whenever 600,000 Jews are convened in a single place, it resonates with our Sinaic experience, and a certain aspect of Hashem becomes revealed through the vessel created by the fusion of this critical concentration of Jewish souls…


The idea, says R. Tsadok HaKohen, is that just as there are 600,000 root souls in the spiritual community of Israel, so are there 600,000 letters in the Torah. Each individual that comes into the world embodies some unique piece of one of these sixty myriad letters… we each experienced the Torah’s revelation from a particular distance and angle that was absolutely unique… Consequently, we each know something about G-d and truth and Torah that no else grasps… But when 600,000 landsmen gather… their souls fuse into a gigantic vessel that draws down the higher (collective) levels of soul… 


Finally we appreciate the profusion of secrets Hashem had hidden in plain sight – in every single letter of his precious scroll of scrolls.


Shavuos could be called the time of our freedom, a name usually associated with Pesach. Nevertheless, Shavuos can also be thought of as a time of liberation; whereas the Jews obtained physical freedom on Pesach, they did not achieve true spiritual freedom until Sinai… 


As the Mishnah says, you can have no freer man than one who engages in the study of the Torah. Only by integrating the moral lessons of the Torah into one’s personality can he truly free himself from the constraints of the material world…


The soul implanted by God into the human body has an insatiable thirst for spirituality. The body, on the other hand, craves material belongings. It is only through Torah’s insights and its lifestyle that body and soul can coexist.   


This text includes excerpts from: 


Sarah Yehudit Schneider, “Shavuot 2011/5771” and “Shavuot 2010/5770,” A Still Small Voice,


Rabbi Yosef Stern, “The Three Festivals: Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes on Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos,” (New York: Artscroll Mesorah Publications 1993), pp.184-188, 204-206.


The following sections include excerpts from Sarah Yehudit Schneider’s Essays on Shavuot:  

The 613 Mitzvot Encompassed in the First Commandment, The First Commandment: Understanding that Everything Comes from God, The Time of the Giving of the Torah


The following sections include excerpts from “The Three Festivals”: 

Atzeret: The Name for Shavuot in Rabbinic Sources, The Time of the Giving of the Torah, The Time of our Freedom  


The content within the square brackets has been contributed by the Emor Project.


A book that provides insights on the High Holy Days by Rabbi Yosef Stern.

June 9, 2024

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