The encounter at Sinai

We will never know exactly what happened at Sinai, what our ancestors experienced there.

Shavuot illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Shavuot illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
I STAND in my synagogue as the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – is read on the morning of Shavuot. I always find that a moving experience. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to imagine that I am standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai as these words are uttered from above. I remember that the sages said the souls of all Israelites yet to be born were actually present then at that event. It was, after all, the climax of the events of the Exodus, leading from freedom from human bondage to the creation of a holy people, committed to the service of God.
The liturgy of that day designates Shavuot as “the time of the giving of our Torah.” And yet when we look at the accounts in the Torah of these events, we find that strangely enough nowhere are we told to commemorate what happened at Sinai.
Neither is Shavuot ever connected to the events of Sinai or to the giving of the Torah.
The Biblical story of the Exodus is replete with instruction about what to do year after year in order to remember and relive that event. The Pascal lamb was to be offered, the matzah was to be eaten and there is the oft repeated command to speak of the Exodus to our children. The Spring holidays that may have originated as agricultural festivals concerning the birth of lambs – Passover and the wheat harvest – were reinterpreted as historical holidays commemorating the Exodus.
But nothing is said anywhere in the Torah about commemorating Sinai, and all the references to Shavuot are agricultural with not a word about Revelation or the giving of either the Decalogue or the Torah. This is very strange, especially when we consider that an entire week is dedicated to the fact that we dwelt in Sukkot – booths – when wandering in the wilderness. Is that really more important than Sinai? One might say then that Sinai is a double mystery: the event itself is mysterious and the absence in Biblical legislation of a festival to celebrate it is hard to fathom. Perhaps those two mysteries are somehow related.
First of all the event. What happened at Sinai? Not merely what historical event stands behind the Biblical narrative, but what does the Biblical narrative itself mean to convey? The full story, as told in Exodus, is a description that beggars understanding.
How often does Moses go up and down the mountain and why? (I think it is four times, but I am not certain.) What words do the Israelites actually hear from God, if any? What is the meaning of the expression “And all the people saw the sounds and the lightning”? (Exodus 20:15). Akiva interpreted that to mean that they actually saw sounds rather than merely hearing them. Rabbi Ishmael, ever the rationalist, said it merely meant that they heard what could be heard and saw what could be seen.
There is no question, however, that the Biblical account in Exodus 19-20 is meant to convey the impression of an event that is beyond the norm. Like an impressionist painting, it depicts a mood, an atmosphere rather than a clear image. Something never before witnessed is taking place, accompanied by “thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn” – not blown by any human being – so that “all the people in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). Twice it is repeated that “the Lord came down upon the mountain” and the “blare of the horn grew louder” (19:19). There is fire, smoke, trembling and God speaking in thunder.
No wonder the people are afraid and ask that God not speak to them “lest we die” (20:16). All in all this is a display that even Cecil B. DeMille could not begin to duplicate.
It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
All of this was foreshadowed when the Lord appeared to Moses in a burning bush.
The bush in Hebrew is called a sneh, a version of the same word as the name of the mountain, Sinai. There too the central feature was a supernatural flame – one that did not consume the bush (3:1-2). Moses was even told that the Israelites will return to worship God at this same mountain (3:12).
The purpose of the Sinai event, however, is very clear. It is for God to make a new covenant with Israel. Before this they were a people favored by God because of the merit of their ancestors, promised a land of their own and that they would become a great nation. Now they become something quite different, a holy nation – God’s own treasured people –and take upon themselves the observance of God’s law – if they agree (Exodus 19:5-6). Is this not an event of such overwhelming importance that it should be commemorated? Yet that does not happen. I would suggest that it is the very nature of this encounter with God that makes it impossible to duplicate and therefore impossible to commemorate by a yearly holy day. Other holidays celebrate God as the God who works through nature, therefore we have harvest holidays. Some holidays celebrate God as the God who works through history, therefore we can celebrate a historical event, the Exodus.
But Sinai is an event that cannot be even properly described. It is a direct encounter with God, an encounter not of one individual (Moses or any prophet), but of an entire people. To try to duplicate that in any way would be to trivialize it. Therefore the Torah itself does not suggest any way in which it can be celebrated year after year.
And yet, after more than a thousand years had passed, the Sages did just that. It is not until the days of the Second Temple, long after the Torah was completed, that the Pharisaic Sages turned Shavuot into “the time of the giving of our Torah.” And so it has remained ever since.
I can suggest two reasons for the change.
The first is that the passage of a large span of time renders the event so far distant that there is danger that it will no longer retain its importance, if it is not properly commemorated.
The second is that the importance of the Torah as a unique, divine work had come to play such an important role in Judaism that this had to be acknowledged in the rituals of the Jewish year. To attach it to Shavuot seemed only natural, especially since, according to the Torah itself, the revelation at Sinai had taken place “on the third month” (Exodus 19:1) – the month of Sivan, when Shavuot occurs.
It is true that the Torah itself never indicates that the entire Torah was given at that time, only that the Decalogue and a certain set of laws originated at Sinai, while others were given throughout the period of 40 years before entering Canaan. The verse in Deuteronomy 5:28, however, says, “I will give you the whole Instruction – the laws and the rules – that you shall impart to them, for them to observe in the land that I am giving them to possess,” which could easily be interpreted to mean that God gave Moses the entire Torah then. That is what Rabbi Akiva believed when he taught that the Torah was a unique mystical work that existed even before the world was created, written by God and presented at Mount Sinai – every letter, every word, every crown complete. How could we not celebrate the day on which we were given such a precious gift? One of the difficulties in identifying Shavuot with the Sinai events is that Shavuot, of all the holidays, is not given a specific date on the calendar. It comes on the fiftieth day after “the day after the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11) of Passover. The Sadducees interpreted the word ‘the Sabbath’ quite plausibly to mean the Sabbath day that comes during the week of Passover.
That could be a different date from year to year, so that the date of Shavuot would also vary. If that is so, it could not be identified with the anniversary of the Sinai revelation since that must have happened on one specific date. That may be the reason that the Pharisees insisted that “the Sabbath” here does not mean Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, but refers instead to the first day of Passover, a specific date (the 15th of Nisan) which also gives Shavuot a specific date, the 5th of Sivan.
For those of us, and I am one of them, who, on the basis both of the Biblical narrative itself and the work of modern Biblical commentators, do not believe that the complete Torah was given to Moses at Sinai, how should we understand what we are celebrating when we speak of “the time of the giving of our Torah?” “Our Torah” need not mean the five books of Moses. It can mean God’s instruction or teaching – that is what the Hebrew word torah means – that began at Sinai. The Decalogue and whatever other laws were promulgated then are the core of the Torah. The Decalogue itself represents the terms of the covenant that was concluded at Sinai between God and Israel and which has shaped Judaism ever since.
We will never know exactly what happened at Sinai, what our ancestors experienced there. The Torah itself could not describe it in terms we can understand. It was an encounter beyond that we have experienced.
At the very least it was a ceremony in which Moses proclaimed what he believed to be God’s essential commands and in which Israel entered into a covenant with the Lord. When I stand to hear the reading of the account of that event as it is chanted on the morning of Shavuot, I try to feel what it must have been like to participate in such an event. I am well aware that what I am hearing is not an accurate, factual account of what happened but an attempt to convey an impression of it, and that will have to be enough.  Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a Jerusalem author and lecturer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a founder of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
His most recent book is ‘Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy’ (JPS), now available in a Hebrew edition published by Yedioth Books and the Schechter Institute