Etiquette and Ethics

This year, the first day of Shavuos fell on a Sunday. Were there any Tzadukim and Baitusim still around today, they would have been happy. Because those rejecters of the mesorah contended that Shavuos should always be on a Sunday.

That is because those groups, who together comprised one of the two major factions of Jews during the time of the Bayis Sheni, asserted that it would be nice to have two consecutive days of rest and feasting: Shabbos and then the single day of Shavuos observed in Eretz Yisroel.

Not that they didn’t claim a textual “basis” for their innovation. The Torah, they pointed out, counts the seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuos from “the day following ‘the Shabbos’”—which, at least on its face, seems to imply that the count begins on a Sunday, rendering Shavuos, invariably, on a Sunday too.

Despite the Tzadukim’s scriptural ammunition, though, the Gemara (Menachos 65b) explains that their motivation was their sense of propriety—it just seemed… proper that Jews be able to enjoy two days in a row of rest.

But Torah is more than the Written Law. Indispensable is the Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Law, to which the Perushim, the other Jewish denomination of the time, remained faithful. “An eye for an eye,” according to the Torah Shebe’al Peh, is not intended literally (but refers, rather, to monetary compensation); just as the very meanings of “totafos” and “zivu’ach” (what we call tefillin and shechita, respectively) are unknown without the Oral Law. Likewise, the the word “Shabbos” in the phrase “the day following the Shabbos,” does not mean what its simple reading might seem to say, according to the Torah Shebe’al Peh.

“Shabbos,” in that phrase, our mesorah teaches us, refers to the first day of Pesach is, so that the counting commences on the following day, whatever day of the week it might happen to be. Thus, Shavuos can theoretically fall on any day. (Our fixed calendar limits the days on which it can fall, but that’s another story; and why the first day of Pesach is called “Shabbos,” another one still.)

The Perushim stood strong in defending the Torah Shebe’al Peh, and persevered. And so today we celebrate Shavuos on the fiftieth day counting from the second day of Pesach, whatever day of the week it may be. This year, it just happens to be Sunday.

There’s a pattern to the Tzaduki approach to Torah. The group also advocated an “appropriateness” change in the Beis Hamikdosh service at the crescendo of the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. The Torah Shebe’al Peh prescribes that when the Cohein Gadol enters the holiest place on earth, the Kodesh Hakodoshim on that day, the incense brought there be set alight after the Cohein enters the room. The Tzadukim said that that didn’t seem right, and contended that it be lit beforehand.

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? One, rather, brings it in already hot and steaming!” Although here, too, they mustered scriptural “support,” the Tzadukim’s true motivation, the Gemara explains, was what they considered to be proper.

Placing “propriety,” or mortal etiquette, above the received truths of the mesorah stands, as it happens, in stark opposition to the stance our forebears declared at Har Sinai: “Na’aseh v’nishma”—“We will do and we will hear.” That stance defines our very peoplehood—and is the central message of Shavuos: that we accept Hashem’s will even amid a lack of “hearing,” or understanding, even if it is not our own will, even if we feel we have a better idea.

The contemporary world has high priests of its own, among them “ethicists” who lay claim to being the best arbiters of what is proper and good. Such hubris is ancient and inevitable. It can even affect some of us observant Jews, leading us to think we know better than the true links to the mesorah, the Gedolim in our midst. But it is, in the end, the polar opposite of what Shavuos stands for, of the foundational principle of Jewish belief.


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