Shavuot: Freedom and Necessity at Mount Sinai

One of the most famous images in the Talmud is that portrayed by Rav Avdimi in Shabbat 88a; G-d held Mt Sinai over the heads of the Children of Israel and threatened: if you accept the Torah – fine, but if not – this will be your burial spot. Rav Avdimi derives this from the words in Exodus 19:17 b’tahtit hahar (see source #1). Rav Avdimi was not the first sage to use the image of the mountain being held over the heads of the children of Israel. Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael (a tannaitic midrash on the book of Sh’mot) is probably the earliest source to interpret the phrase b’tahtit hahar as implying that the Children of Israel stood under an uprooted Mt Sinai (see source #2). According to this midrash, exposed to a host of frightening natural phenomena (meteors, quaking, thunder, lightning), the people huddle together underneath the mountain. The darshan reads tahtit not as the “foot” of the mountain, but as the “underside,” and explains that the mountain was uprooted to provide a secure place for Israel in the face of these frightening phenomena. Israel voluntarily goes under the mountain. The image here is one of protection, reassurance and playful intimacy (Let me see your face, hear your voice, etc).

Rav Avdimi’s use of this image is embedded in the following sugya:

Bavli Shabbat 88a

And they took their places at the foot [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.’”

Rav Aha bar Ya’akov said, “From this [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.]

Rava said, “Even so, they accepted the Torah again in the days of Ahashverosh, 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.”

Hizkiah said, “What is the meaning of what is written (Psalms 76:9): From heaven you pronounced sentence, the earth was frightened and grew calm? If [the heavens were] frightened – why did they grow calm? And if they grew calm – why were they frightened? Rather, at first they were frightened, and subsequently they grew calm.

And why were they frightened? [This can be explained] in accordance with the teaching of Resh Lakish, who said, “What is the meaning of that which is written (Genesis 1:31): And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. What is the import of the definite article – ‘the sixth day’ [which does not appear in any of the parallel verses about the other days of creation]? This teaches that the Holy One, blessed is He, stipulated with the works of creation, and said to them, ‘If Israel accepts the Torah – you will endure; but if not – I shall return you to [being] unformed and void.’” (The Torah was given on the sixthday of Sivan; for original Hebrew/Aramaic, see source #3)

Rav Aha bar Ya’akov thinks Rav Avdimi meant to make a statement about coercion which would have clear legal implications: the Israelites should not be held to their acceptance since it was made under duress. Rava’s answer indicates that he accepts Rav Aha bar Ya’akov’s understanding of the implications of Rav Avdimi’s statement. The sugya concludes with the statements of Hizkiah and Resh Lakish, the meaning of which we will explore below. There are two questions that the order of this sugya should cause us to ask: (1) Did Rav Aha bar Ya’akov and Rava understand Rav Avdimi’s intention correctly? (2) What are the d’rashot of Hizkiah and Resh Lakish doing in this context? I think these two questions answer each other.

The redactor of Shabbat 88a realizes that the “duress” reading of Rav Avdimi (the reading of Rav Aha bar Ya’akov) is not the only one. He brings the statement of Resh Lakish immediately afterward to show the similarity between Rav Avdimi’s statement and that of Resh Lakish. Resh Lakish’s statement cannot possibly be about coercion for Israel does not yet exist. Both Resh Lakish and Rav Avdimi are talking about necessity. The point is not that Israel cannot be held accountable for not keeping its commitment to the Torah, but rather that neither Israel nor the world as a whole can continue to exist without Israel’s acceptance of the Torah. The world exists in order that the Torah should be accepted (and, presumably, fulfilled) in it; and Israel exists to be the instrument of bringing the Torah into the world. If this does not happen then the world, and Israel, will not – cannot – continue to exist.

I suspect that this is the original meaning of Rav Avdimi’s statement, and that Rav Aha bar Ya’akov and Rava, with their overly literal and legalistic reading, misinterpreted it. It seems that the redactor understood the literary and dramatic sense of Rav Avdimi’s image and that it was not meant to carry legal implications. The legalistic reading of Rav Avdimi is the one assumed by later sources and commentators – probably because Rav Aha bar Ya’akov’s objection and Rava’s resolution immediately follow Rav Avdimi’s d’rasha. Resh Lakish is brought only later in the sugya, and the connection between his d’rasha and that of Rav Avdimi is not made explicit. One has to have finely tuned literary sensibility to grasp the similarity between Resh Lakish and Rav Avdimi not just as a formal parallel, but as a repetition of the same basic world view. (See source # 4 for more Talmudic thinking about this question.)

Many later sources assume Rav Aha bar Ya’akov’s reading and ask how Rav Avdimi’s statement can be reconciled with the biblical passage that the Children of Israel responded to Moshe’s reading of the Sefer Habrit in Exodus 24:7 by saying na’aseh v’nishma (We will do and we will listen, see Exodus 24:7). Here, Israel readily and voluntarily accepts the Torah; they don’t seem to be coerced at all. The Talmudic discussion of na’aseh v’nishma follows directly after the sugya with Rav Avdimi’s statement.

Tosafot suggest a simple answer. G-d held the mountain over their heads even though they had already said na’aseh v’nishma because G-d was concerned lest the Israelites retract out of fear of the great fire at the theophany at Sinai (see source #5).

Midrash Tanhuma offers another solution to the apparent contradiction between na’aseh v’nishma and the mountain held threateningly overhead (see source #6). This long homiletical midrash in praise of Torah sheb’al peh (Oral Torah) suggests to me a different way to blend the freedom to accept the Torah with the necessity of the Torah’s acceptance by Israel in order for the world to exist. It strings together a series of smaller d’rashot which emphasize the difficulty in learning Torah sheb’al peh, and the near superhuman qualities necessary to master it. The qualities this midrash describes as necessary to learn Torah are not primarily intellectual, they are moral and spiritual. Whereas the Written Torah is comprised of general statements and principles, the Oral Torah is comprised of details; Torah sheb’al peh is “longer than the earth and wider than the sea.” Only someone who is willing to forego earthly satisfactions and desire for honor and prestige, who lives a life of ascetic self-denial and unswerving concentration, has a chance of becoming a master of the Oral Torah.

According to Midrash Tanhuma Israel responded na’aseh v’nishma – “We will do and obey” – to the offer of the Written Torah, whereas they agreed to accept Torah sheb’al peh only when the mountain was held over their heads, because the study and observance of the Oral Torah is so difficult and demanding. A Written Torah principle like “You shall be holy” is not difficult to accept on account of its generality. But when the Oral Torah attempts to set out the specifics of that general statement – what is actually entailed in living a “holy life” – the details seem to go on without end, and many of the specific demands seem beyond human capacities. The same could be said of a statement like “You shall do the just and the good”. But even much more limited instructions such as “You shall not steal” turn out to have seemingly endless ramifications for economic life. Some areas of halakha are famous for the multitude and subtlety of their rules, e.g., the rules falling under the biblical law not to do melacha (“work)” on Shabbat. The difficulty in mastering these rules, and in observing them, is very great, so Israel needed to be coerced to accept the project.

But it is not the massive quantity or the conceptual subtlety that seems to me to be the essence of the difficulty in mastering Torah sheb’al peh – it is the lack of necessity. By this I mean that once we let go of the idea that we live in a world in which there is a “right-because-necessarily-so” answer to any given question – life questions become open-ended and we become responsible in a different, and to my mind deeper, sense for our lives and the shape of the world we fashion together. It’s no longer that our searchis for necessity, but that our burden is inescapable, and endless.

Necessity of the metaphysical sort implies an end to the search, something defined, “ready-made”. A world without such necessity implies there can never be such a resting point. In the terms of the Tanhuma, one might say that Written Torah comes to us without our choice – through the medium of prophecy – but in a defined text of general guidelines which we accept willingly; whereas Torah sheb’al peh is the product of our own intellect and wisdom, and we need to be coerced precisely because it is not a defined corpus, but one that we need continually to renew without ever knowing that we got it right. That is the burden of Oral Torah that was forced onto us.

The search for this understanding is necessary in a different sense: it is the inescapable destiny of those who have received the Written Torah. In the Tanhuma’s sense, to stand under the mountain means to accept perforce the necessity of living our lives in a world with general guidelines, but no logically coerced implementations, so that there is no escape from the endless process – and task – of trying to get it right. Where what is “right” is never something you can simply – and stably – hold on to. With no necessarily so answers we are left only with the ongoing human task of Oral Torah.