Parshas Shavuos (5775)
What They Never Taught us in Hebrew School
I recently heard a great question regarding the Revelation at Mount Sinai, an event that Jewish people all around the world will be celebrating on the upcoming holiday of Shavuos, the Festival of Weeks. [This year Shavuos begins on Saturday evening May 23rd.]
We know that the Torah commands us to remember certain seminal events in our history which form the very basis and foundation of our religion.
So, for example, we are commanded to remember our miraculous exodus from Egypt all the days of our lives (see Deuteronomy 16:3), as the many supernatural wonders that we witnessed at that time conclusively prove the basic tenets of our faith - that the world has a G-d Who created it, knows all, oversees all and is all powerful.
Similarly, the Torah obligates us never to forget the Revelation that we witnessed at Mount Sinai when G-d descended upon the mountain and gave us His Torah. As it says: “Only beware and guard yourself carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen and lest they stray from your heart all the days of your life. And you are to make them known to your children and to your children’s children – the day you stood before the L-ord, your G-d, at Sinai” (Deuteronomy 4:9-10).
It is interesting to note, however, that while the Torah commands us to verbally recall the Exodus from Egypt twice a day [a mitzvah that we fulfill morning and evening by inserting a verse about the Exodus into the third paragraph of the Shema], thus ensuring that we never forget this important historical event and its attendant lessons, no such obligation exists (according to most Halachic authorities, with the possible exception of Nachmanides in Sefer Hamitzvos L’HaRamba”m) when it comes to the mitzvah of remembering the Revelation at Sinai.
One would think that with such an important foundational event in our history, the Torah would have required us to at least mention the Sinai Experience at some point during the prayer service so as to make sure that we don’t forget it. Yet we seemingly find no such reminder … or do we?
The truth is that the Rabbis did set in place a ritual in the synagogue which serves to remind us of the Revelation at Sinai in a very stark way. You may not have learned this in Hebrew school, but Kerias HaTorah, the Reading of the Torah on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbos mornings and afternoons, is actually supposed to call to mind the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai!
The Sefer HaZohar in Parshas Vayakhel writes that when the Torah is placed on the bimah (podium) and the Reading of the Torah is about to begin, all present should be filled with awe and trepidation, as they should feel as if they are standing at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah, and they should carefully listen to every word, and they have no permission to open their mouths to talk as the Torah is being read.
This is actually the source for the custom that many have to stand up during the entire Reading of the Torah, just as the Jewish people stood up as they received the Torah at Sinai (see Rem”a in Shulchan Aruch O.C.164:4 in the name of Mahara”m of Rothenberg).
The Yaave”tz writes that the bimah upon which the Torah is read is reminiscent of the mountain upon which the Torah was given. Some explain this to be the source for the time-honored tradition to position the bimah in the center of the synagogue surrounded by the people, just as Mount Sinai was surrounded by the Jewish people when they received the Torah.
It goes even further. The Levush writes that every synagogue is required to have (at least) three men standing at the bimah during the Reading of the Torah – the S’gan (or Gabbai), the Baal Korei, and the one called up to the Torah – thus recalling the Revelation at Sinai. The S’gan, who is in charge of calling up whoever he wants, is in place of G-d, Who called the shots at Mount Sinai. The Baal Korei, who actually reads the Torah aloud, is in place of Moses who brought the Torah down to the people. And the one who gets called up to the Torah represents the Jewish people who received the Torah from G-d and Moses.
So that even though we have no obligation to verbally remember the Sinai Experience, we are reminded of this major event in our history every time the Torah is read publicly in the synagogue.
As we are about to begin the holiday of Shavuos, when we celebrate the Revelation at Sinai and the Receiving of the Torah, let us remember that we actually have the opportunity to remember this seminal moment in history hundreds of times throughout the year.