When Mount Sinai Was Lifted Up[1]

Traditional Judaism has always asserted that the Torah can be understood in an infinite number of ways, as it addresses itself to the individual abilities and concerns of every person in every age and locality.

This principle has also been applied to the account of the giving of the Torah itself, which we commemorate in the festival of Shavuot. The events at Mount Sinai have been interpreted by Jews over the ages in a rich variety of manners, reflecting the concerns and approaches of the respective commentators, and their reactions to developments in the world around them.

By way of illustration, I would like to focus on one particular passage in the Sinai narrative that has lent itself to diverse interpretations.

In describing the preparations for the revelation, the Torah states that "Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood beneath the mountain (Exodus 19:17).

The Hebrew phrase used here (be-tahtit ha-har) evidently means that they encamped at the foot of the mountain.

Hoever, looked at with a more narrow literalism, it can be understood as "they stood underneath the mountain"

A similar wording is employed in Deuteronomy 4:11: "And you came near and stood under the mountain [tahat ha-har]."

The wording inspired commentary by a number of Jewish Sages.

Love for God

The renowned Rabbi Akiva, who dominated Jewish life at the beginning of the 2nd Century C.E., had a singular mystical approach to religious life.

Central to his outlook was the Song of Songs, a unique biblical book which consists of sensuous love poetry. It was through Rabbi Akiva's advocacy that the Song of Songs was ultimately accepted, with opposition, into the Hebrew Bible.

He believed that the eroticism of the Song was a symbolic expression of the highest degrees of individual and national intimacy with the Divine.

He was guided by the powerful love imagery in some of the decisive moments his life, including his own mystical experiences, and his ultimate act of martyrdom at the hands of the Romans, a fate to which he was condemned because of his own passionate commitment to Torah.

He perceived martyrdom as the ultimate expression of his love for God.

It was in keeping with such a religious outlook that Rabbi Akiva regarded the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai as precisely the kind of immediate religious ecstasy that was being poetically portrayed in the Song of Songs.

In this spirit, some sages of the Midrash applied to the Sinai events the passionate words of the Song: "0 my dove, who are in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff " (2:14). This was expounded as if to say that God had lovingly lifted the mountain in order to offer a protective shield for his people.

When the people encamped "beneath the mountain", they were doing so in the most literal manner, and God was extending over them his caring protection.

Accepting the Torah

A later rabbi adapted the same image to make a totally different point, as recorded in the following well-known passage from the Babylonian Talmud:

"And they stood in the bottom of the mountain"-- This teaches that God overturned the mountain on them like a tub and said to them: "If you accept the Torah, fine. But if you don't, then here shall be your burial!"

The implications of this passage were troubling to the other talmudic Sages.

One rabbi argued that this would undermine the entire basis for adherence to the Torah, since according to Jewish law a commitment made under threat or duress is not considered binding. It could also be used by gentiles to deflate the pride that Jews have always taken in their willingness to obey the word of God.

Reprinted from the Chicago Jewish Star

Interestingly, the noted Babylonian Sage Rava resolved the problem by asserting that the real acceptance of the Torah took place in the time of Mordecai and Esther, when "the Jews ordained and took upon them and upon their seed" (Esther 9:27).

Rava seems to be saying that we should be suspicious of commitments made in the heat of ardor, to the accompaniment of thunder, lightning and assorted pyrotechnics.

What is more important and lasting is the carefully considered decision made at a time when God's glory is not so visible, as was the case in the time of the Purim story.

Two Torahs

A number of commentators were troubled by the fact that the above portrayal of the Israelites' acceptance of the Torah under threat seems to run counter to the prevalent view that they had accepted the Torah with full willingness. First, before even hearing what was contained in the Torah, they had declared unconditionally "We shall do it!"; and only afterwards "and we shall hear" the details of its contents (Exodus 24:17).

According to one medieval view, the about-face can be resolved by distinguishing between two different Torahs.

Jewish tradition recognizes that, in addition to the written text of the Pentateuch, God revealed at Mount Sinai the Oral Torah, which is of equal sanctity and authority.

Following this approach, it was suggested that it was easy to get the Israelites' unconditional consent to the finite-looking corpus of the written Torah.

Not all the Hebrews, however, were so ready to commit themselves to the Oral Torah, a vast body of lore that encompasses the classical literature of the Talmud, commentaries and codes, infinitely expanding and developing through the generations. It was with respect to this branch of the Torah that the Almighty was required to resort to threats and coercion.

It is interesting to note that the first known appearance of this interpretation seems to be in a sermon preached in the early Middle Ages, aimed at underlining the interdependence of the Written and Oral Torah.

It is clear that the homelist was responding to an actual challenge: This was the era which marked the rise of the Karaite movement, a Jewish sect that claimed to accept only the written Bible, and to reject the authority of the Rabbinic-Talmudic traditions.

Our anonymous commentator was saying, in effect, that the same problem had existed in the time of Moses, and that the response had to be forceful and decisive.

Cleansed at Mount Sinai

Other midrashic interpretations of the Sinai revelation have also been explained as reactions to sectarian challenges.

For example, in one talmudic passage Rabbi Yohanan stated that when Israel stood before Mount Sinai they became cleansed of the filth that had been injected into Eve by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

This strange-sounding comment takes on new meaning when we contrast it to the Christian teachings of the apostle Paul, who argued that the Torah had no power to cure people of the "original sin" of Adam and Eve; only through the acceptance of Christianity could such purification be realized.

In fact, according to this view, all the "Law" [i.e., the Torah] did was magnify people's consciousness of sin.

Rabbi Yohanan is countering such arguments by saying that, whatever defilement may have attached itself to humanity, it was removed at Mount Sinai by virtue of the acceptance of God's Torah.

Ironically, in Rabbi Yohanan's version only the Jews were cleansed. The heathen nations, who had not been present to accept the Torah, remained in their spiritual impurity.

A Place in the Qur'an

A final note: The legend of the lifting up of Mount Sinai makes its appearance in an unexpected place: the Qur'an. According to Muslim belief, this work, the sacred scripture of Islam, contains the revelations spoken to the prophet Mohammad (570-632 CE). It is a work that is deeply influenced by Jewish teachings.

The Qur'an provides a lengthy description of the story of the Israelite Exodus. It includes this passage, in which God is said to relate:

And then We took a covenant with you and raised the mountain over you: Accept forcefully what We have given you, and remember what is in it. (Sura II, 60)

Most of the Muslim commentators, who could find no basis for this story in the biblical text itself, and who were of course not experts in talmudic writings, insisted that the passage must be understood figuratively.

The commentators might have been tipped off, however, to Mohammad's use of a Jewish source by his choice of words.

Thus in the sura cited above, for the word "mountain" he uses not the expected Arabic term jabal, but an Aramaic equivalent: tura. Tura is also the word that is employed to translate "mountain" in the standard Jewish Aramaic translations of the Torah.

Jewish readers, at any rate, can easily discern the influence on the Koran of the Rabbinic traditions we have been discussing.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

First Publication: Chicago Jewish Star Magazine May 25-June 7 2001, p. 9.