1) ON WHAT DAY DO WE CELEBRATE SHAVUOS
QUESTION: The TUR and SHULCHAN ARUCH (OC 494:1) write that Shavuos is celebrated on the sixth of Sivan, fifty days after the day of on which the Omer offering was brought (the second day of Pesach). This implies that the month of Iyar in the year that the Torah was given was not a full (Malei) month, but was 29 days long. If Iyar of that year had been 30 days long, then Matan Torah would have been on the fifty-first day after the day of the Omer offering, and not on the fiftieth.
The Gemara seems to conclude that according to the Rabanan, who maintain that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan, there indeed were 51 days between Pesach and Shavuos (since the Gemara (87b) resolves the Beraisa which conflicts with the opinion of the Rabanan by saying that Iyar of that year had thirty days). How, then, can it be that Shavuos is on the sixth of Sivan and yet it is only fifty days after the day of the Omer offering?
Moreover, it seems that according to both Rebbi Yosi and the Rabanan, the Torah was given on the fifty-first day after Pesach. According to the Rabanan, Iyar was thirty days long, as we explained above, and according to Rebbi Yosi, Iyar was 29 days long, but the Torah was given on the seventh of Sivan, 51 days after the day of the Omer offering.
(a) The MACHTZIS HA'SHEKEL explains that this question applies only if the Jewish people left Egypt on a Thursday. If they left on a Thursday, then there indeed were 51 days between the second day of Pesach (Friday) and the day they received the Torah (Shabbos). The Seder Olam, however, says that they left Egypt on a Friday, and thus the Torah, which was given on a Shabbos, was given fifty days later. (The Seder Olam also states that the Man started to fall on a Monday. Even though the Gemara derives from verses that the Man started to fall on a Sunday, this inference is not explicit in the verses, and the simple understanding of the verses does not imply that the Man started to fall on a Sunday). We rule like the Seder Olam, and not like the Gemara.
It should be noted that according to the Seder Olam, the tenth of Nisan (the day on which animals were designated for the Korban Pesach) was not Shabbos but Sunday, contrary to what the TUR (OC 430) quotes in the name of the Seder Olam (since the Jews left Egypt on a Friday, five days before that day was Sunday, as the PERISHAH points out).
(b) The SEFAS EMES explains that according to the TUR, the Jewish people left Egypt on a Thursday (as he says in OC 430), and that the Torah was given on a Friday and not on Shabbos, as the Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer (ch. 46) maintains.
The Sefas Emes points out, however, that the Tur himself (OC 292) states that the Torah was given on Shabbos.
(c) The RIVASH (#96) writes that the festival of Shavuos has nothing to do with the day on which the Torah was given. Shavuos comes fifty days after the day of the Omer offering, whether or not it falls on the day that the Torah was given. The reason why we call Shavuos, "Zeman Matan Toraseinu," is because according to our calendar system (in which Iyar has 29 days), the festival occurs on the sixth of Sivan, which is the day of the month on which the Torah was given (according to the Rabanan, whose opinion we follow). Unlike the actual day on which the Torah was given , our sixth of Sivan occurs fifty days after the Omer offering, while the original day of Matan Torah was 51 days after the Omer offering (because they left Egypt on a Thursday and received the Torah on Shabbos, as the Gemara here states).
(d) The MAGEN AVRAHAM (OC 494) says in the name of SEFER ASARAH MA'AMAROS that by adding a day on his own, Moshe Rabeinu alluded to the second day of Yom Tov which is observed outside of Eretz Yisrael. Thus, the Torah was actually supposed to have been given on the fiftieth day after the Omer of that first year, which is why our holiday begins on the fiftieth day after the Omer. The Torah was actually given on the fifty-first day to symbolize that the fifty-first day after the Omer would also be observed as Yom Tov (when the Jews would go into exile). Just as Moshe Rabeinu made that day into the day of Kabalas ha'Torah, the Rabanan would later make that day into Yom Tov.
The BEIS HA'LEVI (Parshas Yisro) expands on this idea. He explains that even though the Jewish people received the Torah on the fifty-first day, the Torah was given on the fiftieth day. The explanation for this is as follows.
The Gemara (88b) says that the Mal'achim did not want the Torah to be given to Moshe Rabeinu. What was their argument? What did they intend to do with the Torah themselves? As Moshe Rabeinu argued, none of the Mitzvos of the Torah are relevant to heavenly entities; they are relevant only for humans!
The Gemara in Bava Metzia (61a) states that the verse, "Lo ba'Shamayim Hi" -- "the Torah is not in the heavens" (Devarim 30:12), means that the authority to expound and elucidate the Torah is not in the heavens, but was given to the Sages. The Mal'achim argued that this authority should not be given to man, because they did not think that it was appropriate for man to have the power to legislate in Torah matters.
Moshe Rabeinu's decision to delay the giving of the Torah by one day was based on a Hekesh, as the Gemara explains ("just as the second day of Perishah was a day that follows a night, so, too, the first day must be a day that follows a night"). By his application of a Hekesh to derive a Torah law (i.e., the day on which the Torah should be given), Moshe Rabeinu asserted that the Torah was given to man to expound. The Gemara adds that indeed, Hash-m agreed to Moshe's action.
Therefore, even if the Halachah follows the view of Rebbi Yosi who says that we received the Torah on the seventh day of Sivan, that day was the day of Kabalas ha'Torah, when the Jews received the Torah. The day before, though, was the day of Matan Torah, when Hash-m gave man the ability to make decisions that affect Torah law. (The CHASAM SOFER in Toras Moshe (Shavuos) offers a similar explanation.)
2) FORCED TO ACCEPT THE TORAH
QUESTION: The Gemara relates that at Har Sinai, Hash-m held the mountain above the heads of the Jewish people, and the people accepted the Torah under duress. The Gemara explains that because of this involuntary acceptance of the Torah, the Jewish people had a "Moda'a Rabah l'Oraisa" -- a claim of immunity for any transgressions that they might commit. This "Moda'ah Rabah" lasted until the Jewish people willingly accepted the Torah during the time of Purim, nearly a thousand years later.
If the Jewish people had this claim of immunity due to their forced acceptance of the Torah, why were they punished during the interim years for their sins, before they accepted the Torah willingly?
In addition, what does the Gemara mean when it says that they were forced to accept the Torah? The Torah itself relates that the Jewish people exclaimed, "Na'aseh v'Nishma," which implies that they willingly accepted the Torah!
(a) TOSFOS (DH Moda'a) answers that although the "Moda'ah Rabah" vindicated them from punishments for most sins, they were punished for the sin of Avodah Zarah. This because the Jewish people did accept upon themselves, willingly, the prohibition against idolatry.
Why, though, does the Gemara say that their acceptance of the Torah was involuntary when the Torah teaches that they said, "Na'aseh v'Nishma"? Tosfos explains that initially, before they stood at Har Sinai, they said "Na'aseh v'Nishma" and expressed their intention to accept the Torah willingly. However, when they stood at Har Sinai, Hash-m had to hold the mountain over their heads lest they change their minds out of fright when they saw the mountain afire and the full awe of the Divine presence (which caused their souls to leave their bodies).
(b) The MIDRASH TANCHUMA (Parshas Noach) explains that they willingly accepted Torah she'Bichtav, the Written Torah. The punishments that they received until the time of Purim were given for laws of Torah she'Bichtav that they transgressed. The "Moda'a" was for Torah she'Ba'al Peh, the Oral Torah, which they were forced to accept. They did not accept it willingly due to the considerable difficulty involved in fulfilling all of its laws.
(c) The RAMBAN and RASHBA explain that when they accepted the Torah, they accepted to observe the Mitzvos only in Eretz Yisrael. Eretz Yisrael was given to them only on the condition that they fulfill the Mitzvos (see Tehilim 105:24). The "Moda'a" went into effect only after they were exiled from the land (see Sanhedrin 105a), as they did not willingly accept to keep the Torah outside of Eretz Yisrael.
On Purim, they accepted the Torah out of love even in Galus. They wanted to express their desire to never again be distanced from Hash-m, and thus they accepted the Torah in such a way that even if they must go into exile again, they will still remain loyal to the Torah. Thus, the "Moda'a" was no longer in force.
The explanation of the Ramban is consistent with his explanation (Vayikra 18:25, Bereishis 26:5) that the primary goals of the Mitzvos are fulfilled only in Eretz Yisrael. Although we must observe the Mitzvos outside of Israel as well, nevertheless the fulfillment of the Torah does not accomplish as much in the spiritual realms when done outside of Eretz Yisrael as it accomplishes when done in Eretz Yisrael.
3) AGADAH: A NATION THAT PUTS ITS MOUTH BEFORE ITS EARS
The Gemara relates that a Nochri said to Rava, "You are a hasty nation, who put its mouth before its ears [when you said 'Na'aseh v'Nishma' and accepted to do the Mitzvos even before you heard what those Mitzvos are]." The PIRCHEI NISAN (in Koheles Yitzchak, Parshas Yisro) uses this Gemara to explain a Gemara earlier.
In the Gemara earlier (77b), Rebbi Zeira asked Rav Yehudah why, when the flock walks along, the goats go before the sheep. The commentators explain that the Jewish people are compared to sheep, and the Nochrim are compared to goats (sheep are white, which represents purity and holiness, while goats are dark, which represents impurity and depravity). The Pirchei Nisan suggests another explanation for the metaphor.
The Gemara in Bechoros (35a) states that a person is permitted to make a blemish in a Bechor before its head emerges from the womb, so that when it is born it will not have the Kedushah of a Bechor (see Insights to Bechoros 3b). The Gemara describes how one makes such a blemish. For a goat, one should blemish its ear, because its ear is the first part of its body to emerge at the time of birth. For sheep, one should make the blemish on its lips, because the lips are the first part of the sheep to emerge.
The Jewish people are compared to sheep because they put their mouths first, before their ears, when they said "Na'aseh v'Nishma." The other nations, in contrast, put their ears first; they wanted to hear what was written in the Torah before they accepted it. Therefore, they are compared to a goat, whose ear emerges first at birth.
4) THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE LIKE AN APPLE
QUESTION: The Gemara cites the verse, "[He is] like an apple tree ("Tapu'ach") among the trees of the forest..." (Shir ha'Shirim 2:3). They Gemara asks, why are the Jews compared to an apple tree? The Gemara answers that just as an apple tree reverses the natural order and produces its fruit before its leaves, so, too, the Jews reversed the natural order at Har Sinai when they said "we will do" before "we will hear."
The implication of the Gemara is that the apple tree is different from all other trees. While other trees produce leaves before fruit, the apple tree produces apples before it sprouts its leaves. As TOSFOS (DH Piryo Kodem) points out, however, this claim seems to have no basis in reality. The apple tree produces its fruit no differently than any other tree!
RABEINU TAM therefore suggests that the word "Tapu'ach" here does not refer to an apple tree, but rather to an Esrog tree, as the word "Tapu'ach" indeed is sometimes used. Rabeinu Tam explains that the Gemara in Sukah (35a) teaches that the fruit of the Esrog remains on its tree from year to year. The Gemara here, then, means that last year's Tapu'ach (i.e. Esrog) precedes this year's leaves.
Why, though, is this considered a change in the order of nature? When last year's fruit first began to grow, it indeed followed last year's leaves, just like the fruit of all other trees! How can this be compared to the Jews' declaration of "we will do" before "we will hear"?
ANSWER: The Gemara in Bava Kama (35a) states that the Jewish people merited to receive the Torah because they had meticulously kept the seven Noahide Laws that preceded the Torah. Perhaps this is why they said the words "we will do" before "we will hear." How can one "do" a request that he has not yet heard? The Jewish people meant to say, "Hash-m, see that we continue to do what You have commanded us in the past. This demonstrates that we are prepared to hear more Mitzvos!"
According to this approach, we can understand why the Jews who reacted in such a manner are compared to the Esrog tree. The fruit of the Esrog tree from the previous year remains on the tree when it sprouts the following year's leaves. Similarly, at the time Hash-m asked them to fulfill more Mitzvos, the Jewish people still faithfully fulfilled the old Mitzvos that they had been given earlier. Just like the Esrog tree, they proudly showed their old "fruit" (actions) when new "leaves" (Mitzvos) were presented. This was what the Jews meant when they declared "we will do" the Mitzvos before they said "we will hear" the Mitzvos. (M. KORNFELD)