Was Malachi At Sinai? (Malachi 1:1-2:7)

The book of Malachi is the last of the prophetic books of the Tanakh. It opens differently from that of the other prophets – “Masa – A pronouncement (literally: The burden): The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi”. Rashi understands the words “d’var HaShem – the word of God” to mean that this prophecy was already given to Malachi at Mount Sinai.

The origins of this idea are found in a provocative midrash: “R. Isaac said: That which the prophets will in the future prophesy in each generation was [already] received at Mount Sinai; for Moses said to Israel: ‘But both with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and with him that is not here with us this day.’ (Deut. 29:14) It does not say ‘that is not here standing with us this day’, but just ’with us this day’, namely, these are the souls that will one day be created; but since they have no substance in them, the word ‘ standing ‘ would not be appropriate. Even though they did not yet exist at that time, still, each one received his share [of the Torah]; for so it says, ‘A pronouncement: The word of the Lord to Israel though Malachi.’ (Mal. 1:1) It does not say ‘in the days of Malachi’, but ’through Malachi’, for his prophecy was already with him since Sinai, but he was not given permission to prophesy until the proper time…. Not only did all the prophets receive their prophecy from Sinai, but also each of the Sages that arose in every generation received his [wisdom] from Sinai, for so it says: ‘These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly. (Deut. 5:19)” (adapted from Shemot Rabbah 28:6)

This midrash asserts that Malachi, the last of the prophets, who lived at the time of the return from Babylonian exile, actually received his prophecy at Sinai where he attended the revelation of the Torah as a soul only to be born centuries later. Rabbi A.J Heschel, in his opus, Torah Min Hashamayim, points out the anomaly found in this statement: “souls with no substance, still uncreated, receive the Torah at Mount Sinai! How can that which is not, receive that which is?” (Heb. Ed. Part 2 p. 259) What stands behind this traditional but ahistorical outlook? This midrash, like the Greek philosopher, Plato, assumes that all wisdom existed in ideal form before creation. For Rabbi Isaac, this meant that all Torah was revealed at Sinai only to be disseminated at the appropriate time. (Ibid. pp. 260-1)

This approach has become the calling card of the traditional Jewish world even though it was never the exclusive view. The rabbinic tradition also recognized the seemingly antithetical idea that wise sages throughout time could formulate new Torah ideas – “hiddushim”. Here is a seasonal example: “Thus taught the sages: Hanukkah lights … since they are set aside for us to perform a commandment it is prohibited to use them. One should not say that since the sages commanded it and not the Torah, I will not observe it. Regarding this God said: ‘You are not permitted to say thus, rather all that the Sages decree, it is incumbent upon you to perform… since I (God) agree with their words!” (Tanhuma Naso 29) (See S. Rosenberg, Lo Bashamayim He, p. 18) This idea is consonant with the thought of the modern philosopher, Hegel, who was the first to make the world aware of the historical development of ideas.

Both of these approaches have been turned into dogma by the various modern Jewish movements. It seems to me preferable to view them as models of approaches to explaining our relationship to Torah wisdom which are helpful rather than absolute. Turning any theological model into a dogmatic statement is likely not only to be intellectually misleading but religiously false as well.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.