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Surfing through the jBlogosphere a while ago, I stumbled over a most intriguing comment:

The fact is that there is a dispute in the Talmud on what day the revelation at Sinai took place, the 6th or the 7th.
[…]
What is even more interesting is that the talmud goes on arguing about this for a while with each side bringing textual proofs. You would think that the most momentous event in Jewish History would have a clear date! But nobody knows for sure. We all know 9/11, but the date of the revelation at Sinai? Not sure! Nobody (here or elsewhere) ever says he has a Mesorah on it from his father? Why not? Isn’t that the biggest proof?
(Comment by A Jew with a Spiritual Crisis at 10:05 AM)

Everybody knows that Shavuot is not fixed to a specific date, but rather to the count of 50 days after Pesach. As we now have a fixed calendar where the months between Pesach and Shavuot have a fixed number of dates, nowadays Shavuot always falls on the sixth of Sivan. In times of the temple (and before) the start of a new month was determined by two independent witnesses to the new moon, so a month could have been a day longer or shorter. Not more, but one day is possible. So this is why there is even a question about the exact calendar date.

But still, one would have thought that we have a huge amount of specific details about the most important event in Jewish history. Including of course something rather important like the actual calendar date! But the Torah text is rather unclear on that point:

In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. And when they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mount.
(2. Mose 19:1-2)

Not much there. The Talmudic discussion is in Shabbat 86b (from the bottom of the page and continuing until folio 88a). It is quite extensive. Curiously, there is agreement about one detail that is not in the text of the Torah itself:

Again, all agree that the Torah was given to Israel on the Sabbath. [For] here it is written, Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy; whilst elsewhere it is written, And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day: just as there, [he spoke] on that very day, so here too it was on that very day.
(Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 86b, Soncino translation)

So Shavuot was a Shabbat. But the sages differ in whether the day the Jews left Egypt, Pessach, the 15th of Nissan, was a Friday or a Thursday (Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs: Shavuot History: Rabbinic Development). The omer count starts the day after Pessach, so if Pessach is on Friday, the count starts on a Saturday, day 49 is again a Friday and Shavuot, on the 50th day, falls on Shabbat. This works out! But what’s the deal with Thursday? Starting the count on Friday leads to the 50th day bing a Friday! So to get Shavuot fall on Shabbat, we’d need 51 days! Why would this even be considered by the sages? Because there is another fixpoint to match, the 10th of Nissan, the day the Israelites were commanded to take a lamb to be sacrificed later – which according to tradition was a Shabat, which in turn would make the 15th a Thursday (David Glasner: Was the Torah Really Given on Shavuot?). Curious indeed!

So, is the sixth of Sivan really the date the Torah was given? We don’t know. Does it matter? Probably not, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Chag sameach!

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