A ‘Week’ Name: Shavuot as a Paradigm for Matan Torah

By Rafi Kleiman, Tribe Projects Executive

The festival name ‘Shavuot’ is ostensibly underwhelming.

Translated simply as ‘Weeks’, classical approaches to understanding the purpose of the festival’s name point towards the culmination of the Omer, the 49-day counting period between Pesach and Shavuot. With this, we understand Shavuot as the conclusion of seven full weeks of Omer counting and thus the festival gets its name.

Yet the name Shavuot seemingly fails to address the focal point of the festival’s celebration – Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Surely a pinnacle event within Jewish history deserves being addressed within its commemorative festival name?

Pesach means ‘passing over’, in reference to God’s passing over the Israelite homes amid the killing of the Egyptian firstborns.

Purim, translated as ‘lots’, alludes to the method by which the evil Haman sought to determine the date of his ill-fated attempt to destroy the Jewish people.

Pivotal events give rise to pivotal festival names. Should not Shavuot, the festival of Matan Torah, follow the same course?

In his Haggadah, Rabbi Lord Sacks z’l offers a beautiful insight on Judaism’s understanding of freedom. Jewish literature presents us with two different terms for freedom: chofesh and cheirut.

Featuring famously in Israel’s national anthem, the former term denotes a specific type of freedom: one which focuses on an escape from previous confines and celebrating that subsequent newly-found independence. That is chofesh or, in Rabbi Sacks’ words, “freedom-from”.

The latter term sheds light on what to do next. Is liberation truly accomplished when one flees enslavement? Judaism guides us with the use of cheirut as a separate term: one depicting a freedom achieved when one utilizes the time, capabilities and resources previously restricted from them, for a self-desired purpose. This is what Rabbi Sacks calls “freedom-to”.

Using these two terms as a framework of freedom, we are able to plug them into the timeline of the Omer.

Day 1 of the Omer is Pesach – second night Seder. On that night, we experience our ‘freedom-from’. Our escape from Egypt and the leaving behind of our sorrows of slavery.

Day 49 of the Omer is Erev Shavuot. On the following night, we spotlight our ‘freedom-to’, learning late night Torah at Tikkun Leil Shavuot before arising in shul for the Aseret Hadibrot, The Ten Commandments.

The Omer is indeed a paradigm for freedom, one that begins with our ‘freedom-from’ and culminates in our ‘freedom-to’. It is one that starts with our shared collective experience of slavery to liberation and ends with a raison d’etre: to be custodians of the Torah. We acquire it through quoting, learning and, crucially, celebrating it.

Yet, to get from A to B, from Exodus to Matan Torah, we require time and a process. To exit the slave mentality and become a ‘kingdom of priests’ does not happen overnight. Through the Omer, the 49-day counting journey, we get both the time and the process.

And that is what Shavuot, the festival of ‘Weeks’, is all about.

Skip to content