The Talmud (Pesahim 68b) records, in a baraita, a debate between two prominent Tannaim, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, about how a person should conduct him or herself on hag (festival): “Rabbi Eliezer said: ‘On a festival, a person has nothing to do but either to eat and drink or to sit and study.’ Rabbi Yehoshua said: ‘Divide it: half for eating and drinking and half for the beit hamidrash [to spend in study].'” Rabbi Yehoshua’s statement reflects his position that simhat hag is a mitsva which requires eating and drinking as well as the study of Torah.
Rabbi Yohanan, an Amora, based the debate between these two sages on their different interpretations of the same two verses from the Torah regarding the festivals. “One verse says: ‘A solemn assembly for the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 16:8); whereas the other says: ‘there shall be a solemn assembly for you‘ (Numbers 29:35). Rabbi Eliezer holds: [This means] that one [may choose to dedicate the day] either entirely “to God” (in study) or entirely “to you” (in eating and drinking). Rabbi Yehoshua holds: [One infers from these verses to] divide it [the festive day] – half to God and half for yourselves.'” In other words, while Rabbi Eliezer says that one may either study or eat and drink on hag, Rabbi Yehoshua requires both.
The Talmud adds another layer to this discussion, marking Shavuot as unique among the festivals: “[The Amora] Rabbi Elazar said: ‘All agree with regard to Atzeret [Hag HaShavuot] that [the element] of “for you” is required.’ The practical result of this is that even Rabbi Eliezer requires eating and drinking on Shavuot. What is the reason? It is the day that the Torah was given.”
While ultimately the halacha has been decided like Rabbi Yehoshua for all of the festivals, what is so special about Shavuot that justifies Rabbi Elazar’s opinion that even Rabbi Eliezer requires festive rejoicing? Rashi offers what seems a prosaic answer to this question: “We should rejoice on this day with food and drink to dramatize that this day on which God gave us the Torah is pleasant and acceptable to us.” For Rashi, the act of eating and drinking demonstrates that we consider the Torah a source of joy and not a burden.
Two rabbis who lived at the turn of the 20th century seek deeper meaning in the connection between eating and drinking ((??? and the giving of the Torah. Rabbi Meir Simha from Dvinsk, one of the great representatives of Lithuanian Torah study, in his Humash commentary, Meshekh Hokhmah (Ex. 20:18 Cooperman ed. p. 166), asserts that the act of rejoicing with food and drink on Shavuot symbolically teaches us that a life of Torah is a means to purify and sanctify the material world and elevate it spiritually.
Rabbi Arye Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe, in his drashot, Sfat Emet (Shavuot 5644 Or Etzion ed. p. 317), views the consensus between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua with regard to Shavuot something different. He claims that there was a mahloket (a dispute) among the angels on high over whether human beings have a role in the divine realm or not. But when the angels saw the universal acclaim the people gave Moses upon receiving the Torah at Har Sinai, all of them agreed to accept the human role in the divine realm. This is how the Sfat Emet reinterprets Rabbi Elazar’s words “All agree“.
We have seen here how Rabbinic interpretation has turned Hag Shavuot, which is not referred to as an Atseret in the Torah at all, into a Hag of special significance, and how two more recent interpretations portray it as a profound celebration of the human empowerment implied in the acceptance of Torah. For the rationalists amongst us, it provides an opportunity to rectify and reclaim for God the world we live in. And for those of us with a mystical passion, Shavuot enables us to reclaim and repair not only the material world but the spiritual world as well.