05 Jun Shavuot – The Holiday of Torah She’be’al Peh
It is customary on Shavuos to read Megilat Rut, which tells the story of a Moabite woman, Rut, who converted to Judaism and ultimately became the great-grandmother of David Hamelech. One famous explanation given for this custom is that, as tradition teaches, David died on Shavuos. It is therefore appropriate to read and study on this day the Megila which tells about his background and lineage.
There may, however, be a deeper reason for this custom, one which touches upon one of the essential themes and messages of this holiday.
We read in the Megila that Rut married a man named Boaz, who, as our Rabbis teach, was the leading Torah scholar of his time. Boaz’s marriage to Rut was fraught with controversy. The Torah (Debarim 23:4) explicitly writes that although people from the nation of Moab are allowed to convert to Judaism and are accepted as part of the Jewish people, they may not marry a Jew. Seemingly, then, Boaz was forbidden from marrying Rut, a convert from the nation of Moab. Boaz convened a group of Rabbis to discuss this question, and they concluded that Rut was in fact permissible for marriage. An oral tradition teaches that the prohibition against marrying Moabite converts applied only to male converts. A Moabite woman who converted to Judaism, however, was allowed to marry a Jewish man, and Boaz was therefore allowed to marry Rut.
The Sages further relate that this controversy arose again later, during David’s lifetime. His adversaries discredited his lineage, claiming that as a product of this questionable union between Boaz and Rut, David was unfit for marrying any girl from among Beneh Yisrael, let alone for assuming the Jewish throne. This controversy was brought to the Yeshiva for a halachic ruling, and the scholars of the time were poised to issue an official ruling disqualifying David from marrying. Just then, a scholar named Amasa Ben Yeter arose and declared that he received an oral tradition from the prophet Shemuel that a female Moabite convert is permissible for marriage. Shemuel, Amasa reported, had received this tradition from his predecessors, in an unbroken chain dating back to Moshe Rabenu.
The story of Rut thus conveys a vital lesson regarding Torah. If not for the Torah She’be’al Peh, our oral Rabbinic tradition, our nation’s eternal royal line is illegitimate. It is only the Oral Law that allows us to consider King David a legitimate member of our nation. Without it, the kingship of David and Shelomo was invalid, and even the Messianic King is unfit for rule. Megilat Rut demonstrates that without the oral Torah, we have no written Torah. The written Torah is meaningless without the interpretive tradition we received from the time of Moshe Rabenu.
This is a critical message for us to remember as we celebrate Shavuos. This holiday commemorates our receiving of two Torahs – the written and oral laws. It is not enough to study the Humash, or even to study the Prophets. We must commit ourselves to the study of the Oral Law, as well – Mishna, Gemara and Halacha. Without these texts, we cannot properly understand the written Torah. With the written Torah alone, we would disqualify David for the kingship. We need to know and understand our Halachic tradition in order to properly understand and apply the words of the Torah.
This might also be the reason why the Torah does not assign a calendar date to the observance of Shavuos. Instead of establishing the observance of this holiday on the sixth of Sivan, the Torah states that we must observe this occasion after seven weeks have passed “after the Shabbat” (Vayikra 23:15). The heretical Sadducee sect, who denied the Oral Law, understood this to mean that Shavuos must be observed seven weeks after the first Sunday after Pesah. Our oral tradition, however, teaches that “Shabbat” in this verse refers to the first day of Pesah, and we therefore celebrate Shavuos on the fiftieth day from Pesah.
It thus turns out that our very observance of Shavuos is dependent upon our oral tradition. This reinforces the notion that Shavuos celebrates our acceptance of both the written Torah and our halachic tradition.
Our community is blessed with many Torah classes and programs, Baruch Hashem. Still, it seems that we do not have enough people attending classes of Torah She’be’al Peh, classes in Mishna, Gemara and Halacha. The study of Humash and Musar is very valuable and certainly necessary for every Jew, but it is not enough. The essence of Judaism lies in the study of Gemara, the Halachic tradition which interprets and analyzes the written text, and shows us how to apply Jewish law. Shavuos is the time for all of us to recommit ourselves to the study of our oral tradition – a necessary prerequisite for the acceptance of Torah which we celebrate on this special holiday.