May 13 2015

If you were to write an introductory poem to the Ten Commandments, what would you say? Akdamut, a poem written by Meir ben Yitzchak Nehorai in the 11th century, has been incorporated into our liturgy as such an introduction. Akdamut can be divided into four sections: praise of G-d, a description of the angels’ praise of G-d, a description of the people of Israel’s praise of G-d (even in the midst of hatred from the nations), and a description of the end of days. Though praise of G-d is always appropriate and is certainly stressed on holidays, the content of Akdamut does not seem to be directly related to the Ten Commandments or Shavuot. It possible that there is a hint to Shavuot in the transition from the second section to the third, when the author contrasts the angelic praises of G-d with those of the Jews. 

After detailing the tributes of the angels described in our Kedusha service (referencing Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6, and Chullin 91), the author turns to the people of Israel. He notes that unlike the angels, some of whom only praise G-d once every seven years, the Jews make G-d their chativa, object of love, bikivata, at fixed times, and recite the Shema twice a day (referencing Chagiga 3a). The Jews also study the Torah constantly, and since by doing so they follow the Divine will, G-d accepts their prayer.

The contrast set up between the angels and the Jews is a theme found throughout Jewish literature. The Talmud in Chullin 91b, which the author of Akdamut references numerous times, states that the Jews are chaviv, dearer, to G-d than the angels because they praise G-d regularly, whereas the angels sing before G-d more rarely. Additionally, the angels only say G-d’s name after three words (“kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Hashem …”) whereas the Jews say it after only two (“Shema Yisrael Hashem …”). Lastly, the angels are only able to sing before G-d after the Jews have already done so. 

Shema is often used in Jewish texts to symbolize the Torah study and prayer of the Jewish people, and therefore is used elsewhere as a contrast to the praise of the angels.  During a period of persecution in which Shema could not be recited in its normal place in the prayer service, Shema was added to the Kedusha service, a natural place for it to be added given Kedusha’s description of the angelic chorus. Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin1 points out that this theme is likely also the reason the description of the Kedusha appears in the first of our two blessings before Shema during Shacharit.  

Why did Meir ben Yitzchak Nehorai choose to elaborate on this theme in his introduction to the Ten Commandments? Perhaps he mentions it as a way of alluding to a dichotomy present on Shavuot.

On Pesach, we celebrate how G-d miraculously and openly saved us from slavery. The people of Israel were swept off their feet and taken by G-d through an ocean to their freedom. The Jews themselves had little to do with their redemption; the events that took place were entirely orchestrated by G-d.  From Pesach we begin sefirat ha’omer, in which we count our way towards the receiving of the Torah. In this 49-day process, we are meant to prepare and perfect ourselves. As we build a relationship with G-d, it is now our turn to initiate holiness. On Shavuot itself we celebrate our reception and continued study of the Torah. Talmud Torah is a mitzvah that involves constant human effort: to learn, think, and understand as much and as often as we can. I have heard from my teachers that this is the reason the Torah does not mention that Shavuot commemorates matan Torah and only mentions its agricultural significance.  We are supposed to celebrate the fact that we were given the Torah every day, not just on the holiday.  This also may be the reason Shavuot is so short. Torah study should not be celebrated on one major holiday and then abandoned the rest of the year; it should be commemorated modestly in a one-day (or in the Diaspora, two-day) holiday and continuously celebrated year-round.

Yet when we get to Shavuot, we are met with a different set of messages. matan Torah itself was very much a Divinely-initiated experience. Revelation and its overwhelming spiritual nature become apparent as we read of the events that unfolded at Har Sinai. Chabbakuk’s description in the haftarah of the second day of Shavuot of the earth shaking and mountains exploding as G-d gave the Torah adds even more reverence to this sacred scene. The fact that revelation was spiritually overpowering is not a side note: on the first day we read of Ezekiel’s description of the angels’ Kedusha, further attesting to the importance of revelation on Shavuot. Perhaps Shavuot is only one day because the intensity of revelation that it commemorates is too sublime for an extended celebration. Though it at first seems that we are celebrating the reception of the Torah and its year-round, daily study, we seem to be in fact celebrating the giving of the Torah — a transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What, then, are we meant to celebrate? Is Shavuot about human-initiated Talmud Torah or about the centrality of revelation in the Israel-G-d relationship?

As a book of Divine law and ethics, the Torah had to be given in a context that would give appropriate grandeur to its lofty content, and given in a way that made it absolutely clear that the Torah was from G-d. The sacred task of being a “kingdom of priests” needed to be assigned in a way that conveyed its gravity and Divine nature. The glory of G-d revealed at Har Sinai did just that. We remind ourselves of the intensity of revelation by reading accounts of other revelations, such as that of Ezekiel’s.

Once this Divine essence of the Torah was made clear, however, and the Torah was given, subsequent generations have the duty to study and keep the Torah, while remembering the loftiness that it contains. Therefore, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, we remind ourselves of when it was first given and the revelation that awed our people, while simultaneously reminding ourselves of the daily task we have to cherish, study, and observe the Divine will. While writing an introduction to the scene of matan Torah, the author of Akdamut may have wanted to hint to us that what we are about to read contains both a powerful moment of revelation, like that of witnessing the Heavenly chorus of angels, and the giving of our daily-learned Torah. 

He reminds us as well that G-d favors the learning and prayer of the Jews more than the praise of the angels, and that instead of dreaming for a prophetic experience, we should use the tools we have been given to access G-d.  A Divine encounter initiated by G-d is not something we can choose to experience whenever we would like. But we can encounter G-d in our own way, by building ourselves toward Him through learning and observing the Torah. On Shavuot, therefore, we do not just celebrate both the intensity of revelation and the importance of daily learning and observing, but the intensity of an encounter with G-d that is achieved through daily learning and observing. On this Shavuot, let us recommit ourselves to toil in the Torah day and night, and in doing so build a life of closeness with G-d. 


1. Korobkin, N. Daniel. 2013. “Kedusha, Shema, and the Difference between Israel and Angels.” Hakira, the Flatbush Journal for Jewish Law and Thought. Vol. 16 (19-46).


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