Talmud Tips

For the week ending 6 June 2020 / 14 Sivan 5780

Shabbat 86 - 92

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Under the Mountain

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasah said, “This teaches that Hashem uprooted the mountain (Mount Sinai) from its place and held it over the Jewish People as if it were a barrel and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah — good. But if not, there will be your burial place.’”

This Sage’s teaching that a seemingly extreme ultimatum was given to the Jewish People at the time of Matan Torah can be derived from the following verse: “Moshe brought the people from the camp toward Hashem, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. (Shemot 19:17) The word translated here as “at the bottom” would be expected to be written in the Torah as “b’raglei hahar.” Instead, the word “b’tachtit” indicates “underneath,” meaning that Hashem situated them underneath the mountain, saying that they would be buried there if they refused to accept the Torah — but all would be good if they accepted it.

Tosefot and other commentaries pose an apparent contradiction in the existence of this scenario. Prior to this, the Jewish People had already stated their willingness and desire to accept the Torah, saying: “All that Hashem speaks, we will do and we will hear (i.e. listen and learn).”(Shemot 24:7) Clearly the nation had already expressed willingness to accept the Torah, so why did Hashem need to hold the mountain over them, seemingly an act done to force them to accept the Torah?

Numerous answers to this famous question have been tendered by our great Torah commentaries throughout the ages. Here is a selection of their approaches in answering this question:

One: Before the Jewish People stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they indeed sincerely and willingly declared, “Na’aseh v’nishma.” However, when the time arrived and they were actually standing at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the verse describes the scene: “And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because Hashem had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently.” (Shemot 19:16) They stood there in tremendous fear of the “great fire” (which is often a reference to Divine justice meted out to those who transgress the Torah’s laws). They were also in a state of tremendous awe, being in such proximity to the Divine Presence. Would they change their minds and try to back out of their initial promise to willingly accept the Torah? Hashem held the mountain over them, telling them what would happen to them if they would dare do so. As a result, the people — of course and perforce — proceeded to accept the Torah. (Tosefot)

Two: They willingly agreed to accept Torah she’b’Ktav — the Written Law. Hashem needed to force them to accept Torah she’b’al Peh — the Oral Law. (Midrash Tanchuma)

Three: They willingly accepted to observe the mitzvahs only when they were present in the Land of Israel. Hashem forced them to accept upon themselves to fulfill the mitzvahs even when they would be outside of the Land of Israel (where applicable, such as mitzvahs not dependent on the Land — teruma,ma’aser,Shemitah, etc.). (Ramban)

Four (and the final one for this current essay): Hashem forced the Jewish People to receive the Torah. Of course it was laudable that they had already shown their love for Hashem and His Torah by declaring that would willingly accept it. But Hashem wanted to “make a point” to emphasize an essential aspect of the significance of the Torah in its relationship to Mankind and the entire Creation. What is this point? The Creation and the existence of Mankind would have no meaning and be irrelevant without the Torah in the world. The world had to have the Torah. It is a “must.” To show this existential necessity, Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish People “by force.” One might then say that when then the mountain was on top, it just appeared that way. In reality, the recipients of the Torah were the ones who were really atop the mountain. (Maharal)

(*For a better understanding of the chronology of the relevant events, especially the “threat” in 19:17 appearing in the Torah before the statement of willingness — “na’aseh v’nishma” in 24:7, see Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7.)

  • Shabbat 88a

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