This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Extended Warranty *

The Bible provides us with no definitive answer to the question of why God chose the nation of Israel to be the recipients of the Torah. At times we have the impression that this was another one of those arbitrary-looking decision by a deity with an inscrutable master-plan for history. On other occasions, our worthiness for this supreme gift is ascribed not to our own merit or that of Moses' generation, but to the spiritual and moral virtues of our earliest forefathers, especially the righteous Abraham.

During the talmudic era, Jews were often called upon to justify the immense pride they took in their possession of the holy scriptures. Understandably, their pagan neighbours would insist that there were no actual grounds for that pride, since the Almighty might have equally elected to reveal his law to some other nation. By the same token, the Jews had no right to criticize the other nations of the world who had never been offered the chance to observe the Torah.

In all likelihood, it was as a response to these kinds of arguments that our ancient preachers formulated the familiar homiletic motif that described how God had in fact offered the Torah to other peoples, but they had refused it because its ethical principles conflicted with their own depraved values and practices. I trust that many of my readers are familiar with versions of that midrashic tradition.

Somewhat less famous is a variation on that motif which sought to answer the question of why God waited to reveal his Torah until that particular juncture in history. The Bible itself touched indirectly on this matter when God revealed his covenantal plan to Abraham, informing the patriarch that the plan called for the enslavement of his descendants in a strange land and the postponement of their return to their homeland until the "iniquity of the Amorites" has reached proportions that justify the expulsion of Canaan's previous inhabitants from the land.

Nevertheless, some interpreters sought more specific explanations of why earlier generations were not deemed suitable or worthy to receive the Torah.

This theme was incorporated into two liturgical poems (piyyutim) by Rabbi Simeon ben Isaac (c. 950-c. 1020), a gifted poet who produced many creations that were incorporated into the early Ashkenazic rite. Among his beloved works were two poems that he composed for the morning services of the two days of the Shavuot festival.

The stanzas of Rabbi Simeon's piyyut proceed through the generations of biblical history, building on the assumption that, from the beginning of time, the primordial Torah was ready and eager to be given an abode on earth. The Torah is depicted here as a cherished daughter whose doting celestial father was impatient to find her a suitable shiddukh among humankind. Toward that end, she was offered in marriage to the leading figures of each generation; however, she finds something inappropriate in each of those eligible suitors. In a manner similar to the familiar midrash about the nations rejecting the Torah, in this piyyut each one of the potential recipients is rejected because his behaviour has violated at least one of the commandments.

Adam, for starters, was guilty of coveting and theft when he craved and pilfered the forbidden fruit; and of bearing false witness, when he denied his responsibility.

Noah, disappointing his initial promise, developed a shameful drinking problem.

Even the Hebrew patriarchs were not spared our poet's censure: In Abraham's case, it was for faithlessly asking God to provide an assurance of his promises to their progeny.

Isaac, in spite of his youthful readiness to offer up his own life as an unblemished sacrifice for his faith, was nevertheless guilty of faulty judgment in his old age, when he favoured Esau over Jacob and wanted to bestow his blessing upon him. Furthermore, when Isaac instructed Esau "take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field," he was setting into motion a fateful pattern of violence that would eventually (according to rabbinic tradition) play out in Rome's violent oppression of Israel.

Jacob's own family did not prove themselves much more worthy to be the recipients of the Torah after the brothers' criminal treatment of poor Joseph.

Evidently, Rabbi Simeon's outspoken criticism of Israel's ancestral heroes was not to everybody's taste. Though it was all rooted solidly in the scriptural narrative, many Jews were not accustomed to having their historical dirty laundry aired so explicitly. Hence, the poems' more problematic verses were deleted by some indignant medieval copyists of the festival prayer books. Alternatively (since it was difficult to do away completely with the words of such a revered poet) the consonants were written without the necessary vowels, in order to diminish their readability. With the advent of printing, the publishers achieved only partial success in restoring the lost texts.

The basic elements of the medieval liturgical poem were adapted from an ancient rabbinic midrash to the Song of Songs. In that text, as the Israelites were assembled at Mount Sinai, the Holy One assumed the personality of a bureaucratic credit manager who refused to release the Torah to them until they provided him with the names of trustworthy guarantors to ensure that they would observe it faithfully. When they proposed their forefathers as the guarantors, the Almighty rejected them all summarily, citing all the same objections that were mentioned in Rabbi Simeon's piyyut, and he again confronted them with the demand that thy produce guarantors whose trustworthiness was truly above reproach.

Left with no other alternative, the Israelites resigned themselves to the fact that their ancestors, no matter how illustrious they might have been in other respects, all suffered from some sort of blot on their records, and therefore the only option that remained was to invoke their faith in their as-yet-unblemished descendants. This arrangement was accepted gladly by God--with a grave admonition that any shortcoming in the accounts could now be collected from the future generations.

That puts quite a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of us descendants. Speaking for myself, I can't make any claims to exemplary virtue or sinlessness, but I am willing to make an effort to uphold the credit rating for our beloved Torah.

And if my own application gets turned down, I can always follow the precedent of our wise politicians, and bequeath the obligation to my grandkids.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, May 7, 2010, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Fleischer, E. Hebrew Liturgical Poetry in the Middle Ages Sifriyat Keter: 5. Sifrut. Jerusalem: Keter, 1975.
    • Grossman, Avraham. The Early Sages of Ashkenaz: Their Lives, Leadership and Works (900-1096). Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1981.
    • Mishcon, A. "The Suppressed Parts of a Shabu'ot Piyut." Jewish Quarterly Review 1, no. 4 (1911): 533-538.
    • Urbach, E. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated by I. Abrahams. Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1987.