Shiyur – Tikkun Leil Shavuot 2021: Shavuot and What It Means to Be Truly Human

By Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein

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SHAVUOT: Without Shavuot and its historical significance, Pesach and its experience seven weeks beforehand would be meaningless.  For what good is Zeman Cheruteinu, the Time of our Freedom without achieving the goal of that freedom, namely observing and rejoicing in Zeman Matan Torateinu, the time of the receiving of our Torah?  We are reminded that all of us experienced going out from Egypt, after which we were present at the receiving of our Torah, which we mark today.  It is this Torah that instructs us how to act and live.  It is this Torah that exhibits the very essence of our humanity – with our capacity for greatness as well as the reality of our tendency towards shortcomingsWithin this frame we will look at the shortcomings of our lives as we consider the powerful gift of Torah and through it, G-d’s acceptance and embracing of the frailty as well as strength of what it means to be truly human.

You are standing here today, all of you… the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, every individual, your babies, your women, your “ger,” that is in your midst from your woodcutter to your water carrier … for you to pass into the covenant of Hashem, your G-d, and into His imprecation… in order to establish you as a people to Him. (Devarim 29:9,11,12)

Question to Consider:  Note who is included in “all of you.”  Note the categories.  There are other categories not indicated here, such as the servants, visually impaired, the hearing impaired, the mentally limited or impaired, the physically differenced, the androgynous, the hermaphrodite, and others … These categories ARE listed and included elsewhere in so many texts and discussions regarding inclusion, exclusion, accommodations, and so forth.  These categories appear in the Torah,  Talmud and elsewhere, but are NOT added to the discussion of this text.

  • Why is this second grouping of categories of people not included here?
  • What do we learn here about who is included in our communities?


TEXT #1:  Several months ago, I completed my learning cycle of the entire Gemara.  I am now learning Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and am in the midst of Hilchot Shabbat /The Laws of Shabbat, which   is about the many MITZVOT including permitted and forbidden actions, associated with the observance of Shabbat and the special nature of this part of our weekly cycle of living just as Pesach and Shavuot are singular in their significance in  the rhythm of our annual calendar.  We learn that within the reality of observation of Shabbat we are to balance the many special conditions and elements of this day with the reality of our needs as human beings.   In this Shiyur, we will use the texts of Masechet Shabbat, among others,  to look at the intersection of the ideal represented by Shabbat and the reality of our lives as we observe it within our human limitations.

Appropriately, but perhaps a bit confusing,  as  Mas. Shabbat comes to an end, we read as follows:

Ulla happened [to come] to the house of the Exilarch. He saw Rabba bar Rav Huna sitting in a tub of water and measuring it. [Ulla] said to [Rabba bar Rav Huna:] Did the Rabbis not say [that it is permitted to measure on Shabbat only] when measurement is for a Mitzvah?  Rabba bar Rav Huna] said to him: I am merely doing this without specific purpose [and am not at all interested in the measurements. Therefore, it is not prohibited].

I find it interesting that often significant units of text will end with a piece that many find difficult to connect to the larger ideas of the text, appearing to be almost anti-climactic and seemingly without resolution or even discussion.  In this instance, we see the juxtaposition of Shabbat and its special space and requirements, an action that could be forbidden based on purpose and intent, and a simple statement of an individual just doing something for no particular reason.  Into what category does this fall?  This question and its lack of definitive answer speaks to the sometimes unclear nature of so many of the restrictions of Shabbat around issues like Mukzteh (what should not be touched on Shabbat), which are dependent on such factors as use of the object, need of the place in which the object is found, intended use, how it is used and the purpose stated by the user, as well as the carefully scripted interfacing of these many factors.   While this is characteristic of so much of Jewish law, it is particularly present in our discussions about Shabbat, given its singularly special nature and importance.

Question to Consider: How do you understand this interaction between the many restrictions of Shabbat according to Jewish Law and Rabba bar Rav Huna’s sitting in the bath?

  • Who is being “stricter” in their understanding of the law?
  • Is this degree of strict adherence to laws stated always objective or… are there circumstantial differences that require us to apply the laws differently?
  • Can you think of examples in your own life where this would be operative?

TEXT #2:  Here is a model of bringing the ideal of G-d through Shabbat and the limitations of our human reality together as we consider the meaning of Shavuot and our partnership:

Says Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: After the work of creation was completed, the Seventh Day pleaded: Master of the universe, all that Thou hast created is in couples; to every day of the week Thou hast given a mate; only I was left alone. And God answered: The Community of Israel will be your mate.

That promise was not forgotten, “When the people of Israel stood before the mountain of Sinai, the Lord said to them: “Remember that I said to the Sabbath: The Community of Israel is your mate.’ Hence: Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” (Exodus 20:8). The Hebrew Le’Kadesh, to sanctify, means, in the language of the Talmud, to consecrate a woman, to betroth. Thus the meaning of the word on Sinai was to impress upon Israel the fact that their destiny is to be the groom of the sacred day, the commandment to espouse the seventh day. (Genesis Rabba 11,8.)

With all its grandeur, the Sabbath is not sufficient unto itself. Its spiritual reality calls for companionship of man. There is a great longing in the world. The six days stand in need of space: the seventh day stands in need of man. It is not good that the spirit should be alone, so Israel was destined to be a helpmeet for the Sabbath.

  1. Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that without man, Shabbat is nothing. Therefore we can now see that a subjective approach, a personal approach to the practice of the Sabbath is key to achieving the deep spirituality of the day!


Question to Consider: Intentionality is so central to our discussion about how we relate to Shabbat, to Shavuot and to all aspects of Jewish participation in our lives. This is what we call Kavanah/כוונה.

  • How do we each (how do you) create and achieve companionship with Shabbat and with Shavuot?
  • How does community help us to do this?
  • What responsibility does this imply for us regarding our community?
  • What responsibility does this imply for our community regarding us?
  • In YOUR community, are all people included (from both the first and second categories above, and others by association, e.g. those who are divorced, LGBTQ+ individuals and families, those who do not have partners and families in their lives, etc.)?
  • What can/are you and others in your community doing to insure such inclusion?


TEXT #3:   There is so much to consider in observance of Shabbat, Shavuot and so much else in our lives.  In this journey, upon what do we focus – what we do right and with the best of intentions or on those missteps that are bound to happen in our lives as human beings.  To be sure, both are intrinsically connected to who we are as B’nai Adam as well as B’nai Yisrael.  How we approach our missteps is up to us…  Let us look at this notion of the missteps of our lives from Masechet Shabbat.  Within a larger discussion about the disease of slander and its horrific effects on the body, we read:

  1. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Shimon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, ‘How fine are the works of this [Roman] people!  They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.’ R. Jose was silent. R. Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, ‘All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.’ Now, Judah the son of proselytes went and related their talk,  which reached  the government. They decreed: Judah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted, Jose, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris; Shimon, who censured, let him be executed.

[Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai] and his son went and hid themselves in the Beth Hamidrash, [and] his wife brought him bread and a mug of water and they dined.  [But] when the decree became more severe he said to his son, Women are of unstable temperament: she  may be put to the torture and expose us.’  So they went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob-tree and water well were created for them. They would strip their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they robed, covered themselves, prayed, and then put off their garments again, so that they should not wear out. They dwelt twelve years in the cave.  Then Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed, “Who will inform the son of Yohai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?”  So they emerged. Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, ‘They forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!’ Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up. Thereupon a Heavenly Echo came forth and cried out, ‘Have you emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!’  So, they returned and dwelt there twelve more months… [Mas. Shabbat 33b]

Question to Consider: How often do people look at others and judge what they are doing incorrectly, thinking they are committing a misdeed when in fact something else may be going on?

  • What potential for misdeed evolved from R. Simeon b. Yochai’s seclusion?
  • What kind of “paralysis” did he suffer as a result of his “perfect” insulated existence for so long?
  • What do we learn here about where and how real life is lived?
  • What is lacking in his actions regarding his wife and the man he observed, in spite of any good intentions?
  • What does this teach about NOT knowing the entire story of the person before us?


TEXT #4:  Consider this text as we address the question about our missteps – are they doomed endings or opportunities for growth and correction? Also, pay attention to the interesting dynamic between “dan lechaf zechut” [giving the benefit of the doubt] and not whitewashing what might have gone wrong?!?  Do we need our forefathers and foremothers to be free of missteps?  What do we learn from their human frailty while they engage with the world and its reality?   Now for this complicated text…

  1. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, Now the sons of Jacob were twelve,  teaching that they were all equal. Then how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine?  This teaches that he transposed his father’s couch,  and the text blames him as though he had lain with her. It was taught, R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand.  Is it possible that his seed was destined to stand on Mount Ebal and proclaim, Cursed be he that lies with his father’s wife, yet this sin should come to his hand? But how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine’? He resented his mother’s humiliation. Said he, “If my mother’s sister was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid of my mother’s sister be a rival to my mother as well?” Therefore, he arose and transposed her couch. …
  2. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintains that the sons of Eli sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, priests unto the Lord, were there.  Now he agrees with Rab, who said, Phinehas did not sin. [Hence] Hophni is likened to Phinehas: just as Phinehas did not sin, so did Hophni not sin. Then how do I interpret that they [sc. Eli’s sons] lay with the women?. …
  3. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintained that Samuel’s sons sinned is merely erring. For it is said, And it came to pass when Samuel was old… that his sons walked not in his ways; thus, they [merely] walked not in his ways, yet they did not sin either. Then how do I fulfil, ‘they turned aside for profit’?  That means that they did not act like their father. For Samuel the righteous used to travel to all the places of Israel and judge them in their towns, as it is said, And he went from year to year in circuit to Beth-el, and Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel. But they did not act thus, but sat in their own towns, in order to increase the fees …
  4. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever says that David sinned is merely erring, for it is said, And David behaved himself wisely in all his ways: and the Lord was with him. Is it possible that sin came to his hand, yet the Divine Presence was with him? Then how do I interpret, ‘Wherefore hast thou despised the word of the Lord, to do that which is evil in his sight?’  He wished to do [evil], but did not. Rab observed: Rabbi, who is descended from David, seeks to defend him, and expounds [the verse] in David’s favour. [Thus:] The ‘evil’ [mentioned] here is unlike every other ‘evil’ [mentioned] elsewhere in the Torah. For of every other evil [mentioned] in the Torah it is written, ‘and he did,’ whereas here it is written, ‘to do’: [this means] that he desired to do, but did not. Thou hast smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword:  thou should have had him tried by the Sanhedrin,  but didst not. And hast taken his wife to be thy wife: thou hast marriage rights in her.  For R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan’s name: Everyone who went out in the wars of the house of David wrote a bill of divorcement for his wife …
  5. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintains that Solomon sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father:  it was [merely] not as the heart of David his father, but neither did he sin. Then how do I interpret, For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart?  That is [to be explained] as R. Nathan. For R. Nathan opposed [two verses]: It is written, For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart,’ whereas it is [also] written, and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father, [implying that] it was [merely] not as the heart of David his father, but neither did he sin? This is its meaning: his wives turned away his heart to go after other gods, but he did not go.  But it is written, ‘Then would  Solomon build a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab?’  — That means, he desired to build, but did not… But it is written, And Solomon did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord?  — But because he should have restrained his wives, but did not, the Writ regards him as though he sinned. [Mas. Shabbat 55b – 56b]

Question to Consider: Here note the many “misdeeds.”

  • Which way is preferable in terms of G-d’s intentions for us (if we can dare to ask such a question) –that which is reflected in this text or the previous one?
  • What is going on here? Who and what is being justified and why?
  • Can’t we just accept that we are all subject to human frailties and limitations on so many levels and live with that?
  • Are some frailties or just human characteristics subject to more criticism or sanction than others? How is this determined?
  • What are the different lenses here that need to be applied when looking at these texts – cultural, historical, political, personal, etc.?

Think about G-d’s coming to terms with the reality of humankind after the Mabul/flood early in Bereshit [Chapter 6: 5 – 8]

5 And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it filled the LORD with regret that God had made man on the earth, and it grieved God’s heart. 7 And the LORD said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it disappoints Me profoundly that I have made them.’ 8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.

TEXT #5:  G-d has an important relationship with people as well as understanding of the complexity of their nature.  Heschel’s notion of G-d’s partnership with us is amplified here.

  1. Joshua b. Levi also said: When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Holy One, blessed be G-d, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman amongst us?’ ‘He has come to receive the Torah,’ answered G-d to them. Said they to G-d, ‘That secret treasure, which has been hidden by Thee for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created,  Thou desire to give to flesh and blood! What is man, that Thou art mindful of him, … whereupon R. Nahman  observed: This teaches that the Almighty [Shaddai] spread [Pirash] the luster [Ziw] of G-d’s Shechinah and cast it as a protection over him. [Mas. Shabbat 88b – 89a]

And there are so many wonderful mitzvoth we can do every day… Note the balance between the lofty and wonderful ideals and the myriad of details that accompany specific mitzvoth.  This text will be familiar to most, if not practically all of us, from our Tefilot:

  1. Judah b. Shila said in R. Assi’s name in R. Johanan’s name: There are six things, the fruit of which man eats in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come: Hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, meditation in prayer, early attendance at the Beth Hamidrash, rearing one’s sons to the study of the Torah, and judging one’s neighbour in the scale of merit.  But that is not so? For we learned: These are the things which man performs and enjoys their fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come, viz.: honouring one’s parents, the practice of loving deeds,  and making peace between man and his fellow, while the study of the Torah surpasses them all. [Mas. Shabbat 127a]

Question to Consider: Here we have expression both of the reality of the human being, a gift that has been given to help us be the best, and so many opportunities to do so:

  • What are the expectations of the angels and why?
  • What are the expectations of God; why?
  • Does God “change expectation levels?”
  • Which set of expectations work better and are more attainable for the human being?
  • What is the role of so many Mitzvot in this reality?


TEXT #6:  An ongoing theme reappears often in this as well as other Masechot, embedded within the context of various discussions.  Further, Rambam amplifies many of these points and their focus in his Mishneh Torah.  So often there are instances where strict dictates are given and then some formulation of the statement is made that Such and such is forbidden; if it is done, so it is but the person is exempt from any punishment. Further, there are many leniencies indicated that are for the benefit of the person, for we are taught we are to LIVE by the commandments   [חי בהם ], not die because of them.

A dead body was lying in Darukra,  which R. Nahman b. Isaac allowed to be carried out into a karmelith. Said R. Nahman the brother of Mar son of Rabbana to R. Nahman b. Isaac: On whose authority? R. Simeon’s! But Perhaps R. Simeon merely exempts [such] from liability to a sin-offering, yet there is a Rabbinical interdict. By God! said he to him, you yourself may bring it in. For [this is permitted] even according to R. Judah:5  did I then say [that it may be carried out] into the street? I [merely] said, into a karmelith: the dignity of human beings is such a great thing that it supersedes [even] a negative injunction of the Torah.  [Mas. Shabbat 94a]

These words are connected to the first text mentioned above, from the end of this text:

And G-d shall give  thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee, and multiply thee:  he Who is merciful to others, mercy is shown to him by Heaven, while he who is not merciful to others, mercy is not shown to him by Heaven. [Mas. Shabbat 151b]

Question to Consider: So how, do we combine this idea of mercy and compassion with observance of the details of the specific Mitzvoth that we are commanded to observe?

  • How/do these texts unite God and the human; the requirements of Mitzvot and the concern for the dignity of the person; and the foundational principles that bring all of us together to receive and accept Torah?
  • Shabbat is explained as a glimpse of the ideal, our peak into God’s reality. Note the many topics that are addressed within our consideration of all that Shabbat is.  How can we even consider a Shabbat for ourselves if we are excluding that from others?  How is this the case for all celebrations, including Chag Shavuot?
  • How would our careful and meticulous observance of Mitzvot look if we apply these foundational elements? Would it be different from what we see in our lives now? Perhaps that is a thought that evolves from the last words of Masechet Shabbat and its challenge to each one of us.

So, now the choice is yours.  Where do we want to focus in terms of being Shomrei Mitzvot? How do we accept the challenge of bringing together the myriad of details of TARYAG MITZVOT with the foundational elements that we note are integral to their observance?  If Raba bar Rav Huna was just enjoying the moment, do we look for something that is “wrong” or do we just accept that this category of action is what it is….   If this lesson appears so often in the Gemara, in our Torah and so many other texts, how do we insure its implementation in our lives as Shomrei Mitzvot and in how we accept and welcome ALL members of our community, acknowledging that humanity is one aspect we share with all?

Chag Shavuot Sameach To All!