Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Was the mountain held over their heads?

And they stood under the mount {1} R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an cask, and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah, good; if not, here shall be your burial.' --- Shabbath 88A


This teaching has been the subject of much discussion, commentary, and even doubt. I remember arguing with my teachers about it. They took it literally, I didn't, and because neither of us had yet encountered the various sages who agreed with me, my faith was called into question. All might have been lost, in fact, were I not rescued and supported by other teachers, teachers who knew the truth about midrashim, and also knew that Rishonoim had taught things like " ...if the words of the ancient [Sages] contradict the intellect, we are not obliged to accept them."

Now in my (very) (very) early middle age, I find myself agreeing with the men my younger self disdained. I think its likely R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa meant what he said (though we're not obligated to accept it); also I think its equally likely that the apologia I offered yesterday to explain this midrash is off point by 180 degrees.


Where was God when the Torah was given? The Bible isn't clear. On the one hand, it says "And the Lord went down upon the mountain{2}" and elswhere reports that God "called to [Moses] from the mountain.{3}" Later, God says "You have seen for yourselves that I talked to you from heaven{4}," and at the end of the story Moshe recalls, "Out of heaven He caused you to hear his voice.{5}" So which is it? Heaven or mountain? Some midrashim try to have it both ways:

Rabbi Akiva said: One verse says [I spoke to you from the heaven; another says God descended on the mountain] This teaches that god must have bent the highest parts of the heaven down to the top of the mountain, and spoken from there - but from the heavens! ---Mechilta
Elsewhere, the same collection of midrashim cites the view that God was able to speak both from the mountain and from the heavens because Sinai ascended into heaven:
And they stood under the mount {1}This teaches that the mountain was actually uprooted from its place and then they came close and stood underneath it. ---Mechilta

Yesterday, writing about R. Abdimi's drash, I said this: I believe [R. Abdimi] is saying that following the miracles the Israelites had seen, they were in no position to refuse God's invitation; thus it was as if the mountain was being held over their heads.

Today, I'm recanting.

Today, I think its more likely that R. Abdimi was weighing in on the "Where was God" question. I think it was his opinion - intended literally - that God held the mountain over their heads. I don't believe he was correct, nor am I obligated to accept his view, but I no longer thing he was trying tell us something about the collective state of mind of the new Israelite nation. I think he meant exactly what he said, and that he was attempting to reconcile the same contradiction addressed by the midrashim cited above.

1. Ex. 19. 17. The translation is literal.
2. Ex. 19:20
3. Ex. 19:3
4. Ex. 20.21
5. Deut. 4:36
6. Mechilta translations belong to James Kugel.

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