Shavuot, Humility, and Rav Yosef, By Rabbi Mordechai Wecker 

Torah person

In the Gemara (Pesachim 68b) we are taught: Every year, on the day of Atzeres/ Shavuos, Rav Yosef would say to his servants: “Prepare for me (for my Yom Tov seudah) a third- born calf.

(Rashi: A calf that is the third issue of its mother’s womb, which is more tasty than those that preceded it because the mother is still developing during her first two births.

(Alternate explanation of Rashi: A calf that has lived a third of its years, having thus reached its full growth and tastiness.)

פסחים ס”ח ע”ב

רב יוסף ביומא דעצרתא אמר עבדי לי עגלא תלתא אמר אי לא האי יומא דקא גרים כמה יוסף איכא בשוקא.

רב יוסף ביומא דעצרתא אמר עבדי לי עגלא תלתא אמר אי לא האי יומא דקא גרים כמה יוסף איכא בשוקא.


He explained his reason for the lavish feast: If this day had not caused me to learn Torah and thereby become spiritually elevated, how many “Yosefs” are there in the market place and I would have been indistinguishable from them. (Rashi).

סוטה מ”ט ע”ב:

משמת רבי בטלה ענוה ויראת חטא אמר ליה רב יוסף לתנא לא תיתני ענוה דאיכא אנא.

Furthermore, it is stated (Sotah 49b): Once Rebbe died, humility ceased as well as dread of sin. Rav Yosef said to the Tanna:

(Leading Amoraim would retain a Tanna whose function it was to memorize Mishnayos and Baraisos and recite them for the assembled students as though reading from a scroll.)

“Do not recite that ‘humility’ ceased upon the death of Rebbe, for I am humble.”

(Meforshim note that Rav Yosef expressed himself in this manner in order to teach that the halachic/ hashkafic category of a humble person was still operative.  He was by no means lauding himself for his humility!)

באר היטב, סי’ תצ”ד, ס”ק א’:

ועוד אחרי שהיה רב יוסף עניו מכל אדם כדאמרינן  בסוף סוטה: משמת רבי בטלה ענוה, אמר ליה רב יוסף: לא תיתני ענוה דאיכא אנא ע”ש. וכאן התפאר דמחמת נתינת התורה הוא עדיף משאר אינשי ואין זה מגדר ענוה.

In light of Rav Yosef’s superlative humility, his rationale for a lavish Shavuos repast appears surprising. He appears to engage in self- praise, lauding himself as a talmid chacham of note. He did not appear to be conducting himself with due humility.

How, then, are we to understand his rationale for his Shavuos celebration?


Harav Betzalel Hachoen of Vilna zt”l offers the following explanation (see Sefer Kehillas Yitzchak).

שמות ל”ב, י”ט:

וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת וַיִּחַר אַף משֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָו אֶת הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר:

The Torah records that the first set of luchos that were presented by HaSh-m to Moshe on Shavuos were eventually broken in the aftermath of the chet haegel.

רש”י שמות ל”ד, כ”ט:

ויהי ברדת משה – כשהביא לוחות אחרונות ביום הכפורים.

The second enduring set of luchos was presented by HaSh-m to Moshe on Yom HaKippurim.

The question then arises: why do we celebrate Shavuos as zman matan Toraseinu and not Yom HaKippurim? The answer must be that the original, broken set of luchos were precious in their own right and symbolize of something vitally important.

נדרים מ”א ע”א:

רב יוסף חלש איעקר ליה למודיה אהדריה אביי קמיה היינו דבכל דוכתא אמרינן אמר רב יוסף לא שמיע לי הדא שמעתא אמר ליה אביי את אמריתה ניהלן ומהא מתניתא אמריתה ניהלן.

The Talmud (Nedarim 41a) relates the following biographical information about Rav Yosef. Rav Yosef took ill. As a result, his learning was purged from his memory

(Ran has a slightly different version: אייקר ליה, his learning became too heavy for him to bear and he forgot it. The basic meaning is the same.)

Abaye reviewed everything Rav Yosef had taught him in front of Rav Yosef and thus restored his learning to him. That is the explanation for every place in the Talmud where we say, “Rav Yosef said: ‘I have never heard this teaching,’ and then: Abaye said to him, ‘You said this teaching to us and it was based on this Baraisa that you said it to us.’”

Rav Yosef was needless to say quite distraught over his misfortune. In modern parlance, his self-esteem was adversely affected by his experience. When he analyzed the celebration of Shavuos as zman matan Toraseinu, however, he rebounded from his state of depression. The broken luchos were precious in their own right and symbolic of something vitally important. In effect, Shavuos celebrates these very broken luchos. Rav Yosef ordered the preparation of an especially sumptuous feast, above and beyond his standard Yom Tov fare, to commemorate and underscore this very message.

ברכות ח’ ע”ב:

כדאמר להו רבי יהושע בן לוי לבניה: …והזהרו בזקן ששכח תלמודו מחמת אונסו דאמרינן לוחות ושברי לוחות מונחות בארון

(This is the third of R. Yehoshua ben Levi’s instructions to his sons.)

And be careful with the honor of an elderly scholar who has involuntarily forgotten his Torah learning.

(Rashi: either due to infirmity or because he was distracted by the hardship of earning a living.)

For we say that the second set of luchos and the broken pieces of the first luchos both rest in the Aron.

HaRif in Ein Yaakov comments that the writing on the first set of luchos flew away when they were broken (Pesachim 87b). Nevertheless, they were accorded the honor of being housed in the Aron. A scholar who has forgotten his Torah knowledge is analogous to those broken fragments of the first luchos. Thus, he too should be honored as he was previously.

Rav Yosef could empathize with this message. He could thus truly claim that without the Torah that this day commemorates, even Torah that has been forgotten or in a certain sense destroyed or withheld, he would be indistinguishable from any other Yosef in the market place.


Rabbi Mordechai Wecker studied in yeshiva for many years and was awarded Yoreh Yoreh Yadin Yadin semichahby Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. He has served as a Jewish educator for over forty years. In addition, he has served as head of school at Jewish day schools in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He has given shiurim on the weekly parashah and the siddur throughout his career.



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