Shavuot: Holiday Or Oath?
The two famous rabbis, Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg and Reb Pinchas of Frankfurt were brothers, the sons of the Rabbi of Tchortkov,
Reb Tzvi Hirsh Halevi Horowitz. Even as small children they were known as prodigies.
When they were quite young their father took over the duty of teaching them Torah.
It was a challenging job and he taught them as quickly and as much as their brilliant minds could absorb. When they were both well below
ten years of age, they were already learning the
Talmud with several commentaries.
As part of their schedule, they would learn the laws which
pertained to the next approaching holiday. And so, when the
holiday of Chanukah ended, their father began the study of the tractate Megilla. Having completed it by Purim, they began
learning the tractate dealing with the laws of Passover, which they finished right on target; the day before Pesach.
Shmelke, the elder of the two boys then said to his father,
"Now we have to begin learning the tractate Shevuot if we want to finish it by the time Shavuot comes along."
"Do you think that Shevuot deals with the laws of the holiday?" asked their father smiling, for that was not the case.
"No," replied the boy. "I know it deals with the laws of oaths, but I have a reason why we should study it now. On that first Shavuot, all the
Jews took an oath at Mount Sinai to keep the commandments of the Torah, and that promise has been binding ever since. I want to learn
the laws of oaths so I can understand how important it is to keep a promise and how serious it is to break one. I figured out that there are
forty-nine double pages of this tractate and forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuot, and if we learn a double-page every day, we will
finish in time for
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh was pleased by his son's erudite reasoning and he happily agreed to learn according to his suggestion.
By the time Lag B'Omer had arrived (the thirty-third day of the Omer), they had reached a section in the tractate which mentioned a law in
the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Little Shmelke jumped up from the table excitedly: "Father,
Father, you see how wonderful! This is the day of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's yahrzeit, the thirty-third day of the Omer, and here his name
is mentioned. Not only that, but it says '...and they laughed in the land of Israel,' and everyone knows that it's a custom to make a big
celebration in Israel on this day!" The
father and sons finished exactly as they had calculated, although they had to study a double-page every day.
The following year when Pesach had passed, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh again asked his sons what they wished to learn in preparation for the
holiday of Shavuot. This time the younger child, Pinchas,
answered: "I think we should begin the tractates of Ketubot
(marriage contracts) and Kiddushin (the laws of marriages)."
Questioned his father, "What do they have to do with Shavuot?"
"That's easy. On Shavuot, G-d took the Jewish people to be His -- it was like a wedding -- and said the words, `And I have
betrothed you to Me forever.'
You taught us that He held Mount Sinai over our heads like a
marriage canopy. The holy words of the Torah were like our
marriage contract, and He gave us a gift as well -- the Oral
Torah. That is why I think we should learn the laws of marriage contracts and betrothals -- so we will know that the `wedding' of Israel
and G-d was a valid one and that both G-d and the Jews are obligated to fulfill all the points of the contract."
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh couldn't help beaming with pride from his son's well-reasoned words.
The three scholars learned the two tractates in record speed, finishing two double pages a day until, forty-nine days later, they celebrated
both the holiday of Shavuot and the successful completion of their studies.