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The revelation at Sinai was the most consequential event in the relationship between the children of Israel and God. In it, God, both revealed Himself and the content of His covenant to His people. The rabbinic tradition has spent an inordinate amount of energy attempting to capture its significance. Certain images have played a profound role in shaping the Jewish consciousness. One, in particular, stands out as ubiquitous in the Jewish imagination. The Torah depicts how Moshe prepared the children of Israel for this auspicious event in these words: “And Moshe brought out the people toward God from the camp and they stationed themselves at the bottom of the mountain (Takhtit hahar)” (Exodus 19:17)
The words “takhtit hahar”, literally “at the bottom of the mountain” seem clear. If, however, these words are read super-literally an entirely different image comes to mind, namely, the children of Israel are pictured standing literally “under the mountain”. Many people are familiar with this image as it appears in the Babylonian Talmud (see further on.), but it should be known that this depiction has an interesting history, having been captured in a good many different midrashim, each with its own particular take and message. What I propose to do here is to examine the earliest mention of this midrash on these words along with how it was repurposed in the Talmud.
This midrash is first found in the Mekhita d’Rabbi Yishmael, a midrash on the book of Exodus from the period of the Mishnah (2nd-3rd century):
And they stationed themselves – they were huddled closely together. [The following] teaches that [the people of] Israel were afraid of the meteors, the quaking, the thunder and the lightning: . . . at the bottom of the mountain [or, underneath the mountain] – teaches that the mountain was unearthed from its place, and they drew near and stood underneath the mountain, as Scripture says (Deut. 4:11): And you drew near and stood beneath the mountain. Regarding them it is made explicit in the tradition of Scripture (Song of Songs 2:14): O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff; Let me see your face, let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet and your face is comely. Let me see your face – this [refers to] the twelve monuments for the twelve tribes of Israel; let me hear your voice – this [refers to] the Ten Commandments.
In what is most likely the earliest extant version of this interpretation, God lifts up Mount Sinai and places it over the children of Israel as protection from any danger which might have been a byproduct of this auspicious and spectacular sacred event. The verses used as proof verses are from Song of Songs and are intended to reflect God’s love for His people.
For Rav Avdimi, in the Babylonian Talmud, however, the image of God holding Mount Sinai over the head of the children of Israel reflects an entirely different message: And they took their places at the bottom [or, on the underside] of the mountain (Exodus 19:17). Rav Avdimi the son of Hama the son of Hasa said, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed is He, lowered the [detached] mountain over them like a vat and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave’.” (Shabbat 88a) This midrash turns the message of this image on its head. It is no longer intended to be a source of comfort. Instead, it is intended as a threat. According to my friend and teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Lewis, Rav Avdimi’s wants to teach that the existence of the children of Israel, indeed, the existence of the whole world is dependent on the children of Israel’s acceptance and observance of the Torah.
The Talmud adds an additional layer to this midrash, changing its meaning and significance once again: “Rav Aha the son of Ya’akov said, ‘From this (Avdimi’s teaching) [are good grounds for] a notification of coercion regarding the acceptance of the Torah [i.e., the people could claim exemption from their commitments on grounds of coercion to enter the commitment in the first place.] In other words, if we were to accept Avdimi’s description of the giving of the Torah, the experience at Sinai represented a coerced agreement and its acceptance would be invalid. Such an interpretation would have left the children of Israel without liability for their transgressions!
The Talmud then brings Rava’s opinion to somewhat countermand Rav Aha’s legal opinion: “Rava said, “Even so, they accepted the Torah again in the days of Ahasuerus, as it is written (Esther 9:27): The Jews fulfilled and committed themselves . . . [saying they ‘fulfilled’ before they ‘committed’ implies that] they fulfilled what they had already [i.e., at Sinai] committed to.” (Shabbat 88a) Rava, then, has the Jewish people voluntarily recommitting themselves to their acceptance of the Torah in the time of Esther.
We have traveled quite a distance from the original interpretation found in the Mekhilta. I realize that this whole “literary” and “legal” discussion of the evolution of an already fantastic midrashic image may seem far-fetched. I would ask you to see in it the incredible flowering of rabbinic creativity; an attempt to use an amazing interpretation to put on the table significant ideas, whether they be God’s love for His people, the import of responsibility to the Torah and its place in maintaining the world, a lawyerly attempt to assuage the nation’s responsibility for its sins and again, an attempt to commit the nation’s commitment to its relationship with God.
All of this is but a small taste of the glory and excitement found in the study of Torah. Come and learn!