“Every day they [the mitzvot of the Torah] should be like new”. With the exception of Coca-Cola, we like that which is new. We tend to associate new with exciting and old with boring. "Same old, same old" just can’t compete with the latest toy. This sameness is amongst the reason so many find davening so boring and uninspiring[1]. Our Sages well understood this problem and were keenly aware that a community so dedicated to following the traditions of yesteryear are susceptible to finding Torah outdated and irrelevant. I imagine Rav Kook had this in mind when he said “the old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified"[2].

The Torah is a living document, dynamic, responsive and demanding chiddush, newness. At least that is how it is meant to be. It is for this reason that the Oral Torah is so much more important than the Written Torah itself. “Rabbi Yocḥanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, made a covenant with the Jewish people only for the sake of the matters that were transmitted orally” (Gittin 60b) [3]. An Oral tradition allows for innovation and flexibility, it is dynamic and responsive.

Tragically, with the destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people, we had no choice but to commit the Oral Torah to writing, robbing it of much of its vitality. Precedent now became a dominant determinant in Torah decisions.

Yiftach bdoro k’Shmuel bdoro (Rosh Hashanah 25b). Our Sages teach that Yiftach in his generation is as authoritative as Shmuel in his, even as Shmuel was a much greater scholar. Because each generation is as authoritative as any other precedent was basically to be ignored allowing and demanding the Sages of each generation to examine each subject anew and rule according to what they understood to be the law.

We will have to await a re-constituted Sanhedrin for Torah to return to its full glory. In the interim it is with great urgency that we must make the “Written Torah” relevant, dynamic, exciting and meaningful. It is a task that can be done but requires hard work. While we revere our traditions, saying we do something because our grandparents did so is a recipe for disaster - so many were turned off of Judaism because of this approach[4]. We must make the “old” new and exciting invigorating our beautiful way of life with meaning and relevance.

There is no better example of the above than the holiday of Shavuot. It is a holiday more than any other that celebrates the Oral Law. "And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the Shabbat from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete weeks" (Vayikra 23:16). On the day after shabbat we are to begin the count of the omer and after seven complete weeks, sheva shabbatot teminot, we are to celebrate Shavuot.

The Torah is quite clear that the count of the omer is to begin on a Sunday or more precisely, Saturday night. Had the Torah wanted to start the omer on the day after Pesach it could easily have said we are to count memcharat chag hamzot. But the Torah wrote memcharat hashabbat – the day after shabbat i.e. Sunday. Furthermore, Shavuot is seven complete weeks later. It seems quite reasonable that a complete week means from  shabbat to shabbat meaning we count seven complete weeks – not six complete weeks and two half weeks – and celebrate Shavuot on a Sunday. Yet in a powerful demonstration of the supremacy of the Oral Law our Sages have interpreted “Shabbat” to mean “Pesach” and hence Shavuot is rarely on Sunday[5],[6].

One can search the Torah high and low and yet will be unable to find an actual date the Torah was given. While the Torah describes the giving of the Torah in great detail the date it was given is conspicuously absent. Had the Torah wanted us to celebrate the date of the giving of the Torah it could easily have done so. It did not.

Rather, Shavuot is the holiday on which we thank G-d for our agricultural blessing, Shavuot being chag hakatzir, the holiday of the harvest. Unlike matza, sukkah, or shofar or fasting, which is something we focus on once a year, Torah itself is to be celebrated and observed each and every day “Today the Lord your God has commanded you to obey all these decrees and regulations” (Devarim 26:26). Receiving the Torah is not something we can celebrate on a given day. Yet that is exactly what we do today. With exile from the Land, celebrating the beginning of the harvest season in Israel made little sense. Hence our Sages brilliantly “rebranded” Shavuot into the holiday of receiving the Torah. While the Torah does not specify a date it is clear the Torah was given around this time.

Whether the Torah was actually given on the sixth of Sivan is a matter of Talmudic debate (Shabbat 86b). But it matters little. It is more important to celebrate the receiving of the Torah on the day we did not receive it. We must celebrate it each and every day with the same excitement as if we are receiving it for the first time. Perhaps earlier generations did not need to set aside a special day to celebrate the Torah. Our Sages understood that we do. May Shavuot inspire us the dedicate ourselves to Torah 365 days a year.


[1] In an interview with my students at TanenbaumCHAT one of the heads  of the rabbinic program at RIETS, when asked what is the most important aspect of training rabbis, responded rather strikingly that "a rabbi should not be boring. If a rabbi is boring people will think Torah is boring”!

[2] It sounds much better in Hebrew; “hayashan yidchadesh v’hachadash yitkadesh”

[3]  This idea is beautifully developed by The Dor Revi’i, Rav Moshe Shmuel Glassner the eldest great-grandson of the Chatam Sofer – hence the name Dor Revi’i, the fourth generation – in his introduction to the Dor Revi’i which is a commentary on masechet Chulin. You can read an excerpt here. He made aliyah from Hungary in 1921, and saw the return of the Jewish people to Israel as an opportunity to return Torah to the Oral system it was meant to be.

[4] Moreover, such an approach is often mistaken. As Rav Hershel Schachter noted, Yitzchak Avinu more than any other was aware of the importance of the following the traditions of one’s parents – had he not done so Judaism would have been stillborn. In time of famine he, like his father before him, travelled to Egypt. G-d however had to stop him – he unlike his father was not to leave the Land of Israel - as sometimes following the ways of one’s parents is going against what our tradition wants. Sometimes one must do the opposite of what was done previously.

[5] It was the controversy over this interpretation that led to the entire institution of the second day of yom tov in the Diaspora. Those groups which rejected the rabbinic interpretation lit false fires – fires begin the way news of the sanctification of the new moon was broadcast – so that Shavuot was to be celebrated on a Sunday, forcing the Sages to send messengers instead. As it often took weeks for the messengers to arrive leading to uncertainty if the month prior had 29 or 30 days a second day of Yom Tov was established.

[6]The important question of why the Sages insisted that Pesach is also to be considered Shabbat is beyond the scope of this devar Torah