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Herbert Basser





If You Don’t Accept the Torah, Mount Sinai Will Be Your Grave





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Herbert Basser





If You Don’t Accept the Torah, Mount Sinai Will Be Your Grave








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If You Don’t Accept the Torah, Mount Sinai Will Be Your Grave

In several midrashim, God lovingly lifts Mount Sinai over the Israelites to protect them from the dangers of the revelation. One midrash, however, has God threatening to bury the Israelites with the mountain if they don’t accept the Torah. The difference is the intertext.


If You Don’t Accept the Torah, Mount Sinai Will Be Your Grave

The Camp Before Sinai, James Tissot c. 1896-1902 (detail). Jewish Museum.

Lifting Mount Sinai Over Sinai

Before the revelation of the Decalogue, the Israelites gather at the foot of Mount Sinai:

שמות יט:יז וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר.
Exod 19:17 Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the base/bottom of the mountain.

An early Tannaitic midrash, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, explains that the Israelites were scared of the thunder and lightning, so God lifted the mountain to protect them:

וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ – נִצְפְּפוּ. מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִתְיָרְאִין מִפְּנֵי הַזִּיקִין, מִפְּנֵי הַזְּוָעוֹת, מִפְּנֵי הָרְעָמִים, מִפְּנֵי הַבְּרָקִים הַבָּאִים.
“And they took their places”—they huddled together. This teaches that the Israelites were afraid of the winds, and the earthquake, and the thunder, and the lightning that was coming.
בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר – מְלַמֵּד שֶׁנִּתְלַשׁ הָהָר מִמְּקוֹמוֹ, וְקָרְבוּ וְעָמְדוּ תַּחַת הָהָר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: "וַתִּקְרְבוּן וַתַּעַמְדוּן תַּחַת הָהָר" (דברים ד:יא).
“At the bottom of the mountain”—this teaches that the mountain was torn away from its place, and they came and stood below the mountain, as it says (Deut 4:11): “and they approached, and they stood below the mountain.”

The basis for this midrash comes from a literal reading of the word תחתית, translating as “underneath;” in fact, this is how the Septuagint translates the phrase, ὑπὸ τὸ ὄρος, “beneath the mountain.” Moreover, the parallel verse in Deuteronomy 4:11 states,וַתִּקְרְבוּן וַתַּעַמְדוּן תַּחַת הָהָר “and they approached, and they stood below the mountain,” using the preposition תַּחַת, which typically means “under.”

If Israel was beneath the mountain, then God must have lifted it above them. The point is made explicitly in a version of the midrash found in one MS of the 8th century halakhic work, Sheiltot:

וכן הוא אומר "ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר" לא אצל ההר...
For it says “And they took their places at the bottom of the mountain”—not next to the mountain….[1]

“My Dove in the Cranny of Rocks”: A Positive Intertext

The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael passage then continues by quoting a verse from the Song of Songs, which it understands as a historical allegory, as is typical of rabbinic interpretation of the Song. It construes this encounter in a loving way, with Israel as God’s dove protected under the mountain, so that they can hear and see the revelation in safety:

עֲלֵיהֶם מְפֹרָשׁ בַּקַּבָּלָה: "יוֹנָתִי בְּחַגְוֵי הַסֶּלַע, בְּסֵתֶר הַמַּדְרֵגָה, הַרְאִינִי אֶת מַרְאַיִךְ, הַשְׁמִיעִנִי אֶת קוֹלֵךְ, כִּי קוֹלֵךְ עָרֵב, וּמַרְאֵיךְ נָאוֶה" (שיר השירים ב:יד).
Regarding this, tradition relates (Song 2:14): “O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is comely.”[2]

This interpretation appears in Song of Songs Rabbah 2:14, glossing this same verse:

ר[בי] ע[קיבא] פתר קרייה בישראל בשעה שעמדו לפני הר סיני, 'יונתי בחגוי הסלע' שהיו חבויין בסתרו של סיני.
Rabbi Akiva explained the verse in reference to Israel at the time when they were standing before Mount Sinai. “O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks,” for they were concealed in the hidden places of Sinai.

In both of these texts, being under the mountain is a sign of protection. Song of Songs 2:14 is used as an intertext or second hook, to highlight the positive and intimate nature of God’s protective gesture of covering the people with the mountain during the revelation.

“Under the Apple Tree”: A Second Positive Intertext

In a similar midrash, elsewhere in Song of Songs Rabbah, the lifting of the mountain is also connected to a positive and intimate verse:

שיר השירים ח:ה מִי זֹאת עֹלָה מִן הַמִּדְבָּר מִתְרַפֶּקֶת עַל דּוֹדָהּ תַּחַת הַתַּפּוּחַ עוֹרַרְתִּיךָ שָׁמָּה חִבְּלַתְךָ אִמֶּךָ שָׁמָּה חִבְּלָה יְלָדַתְךָ.
Song 8:5 Who is she that comes up from the desert, leaning upon her beloved? Under the apple tree I roused you; It was there your mother conceived you, there she who bore you conceived you.

Glossing the words in bold, the midrash states:

דרש פלטיון איש רומי ואמר: נתלש הר סיני ונצב בשמי מרום, והיו ישראל נתונים תחתיו, שנאמר: 'ותקרבון ותעמדון תחת ההר'."
Plation, a man of Rome,[3] expounded saying: “Mount Sinai was torn away and stood in the high heavens,[4] and Israel was situated beneath it, as it says (Deut 4:11) ‘and they approached and stood beneath the mountain.’”[5]

Here again, the intertext is about Israel as God’s beloved, whom he places under the apple tree, i.e., mountain, and arouses them with the revelation of the Decalogue.

“The Rose of the Sharon”: A Third Positive Intertext

Yet another positive intertext for this midrash appears in the homiletic commentary on Psalms known as Midrash Shochar Tov, making use of wordplay (1.20):

"אני חבצלת השרון" (שיר השירים ב:א)—אני הוא וחביבה אני שהייתי חבויה בסיני [שכפה עלי ההר כגיגית, שנאמר "ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר" (שמות יט:יז)], ובשעה קלה הרטבתי[6] מעשי כשושנה, ואמרתי כל אשר דבר ה' נעשה ונשמע (שמות כד:ז).[7]
“I am a rose (chavatzelet) of the Sharon” (Song 2:1)—It is me, and I am beloved (chaviva), for I was covered (chavuya) at Sinai [for He turned the mountain over me like a vat, as it says (Exod 19:17) “and they took their places at the bottom of the mountain”], and very quickly I freshened my actions like a rose, and I said (Exod 24:7) “all that the LORD says I will do and I will listen.”

While the intertexts in these various midrashim differ, they are all from the Song of Songs, and their point is the same: God’s act of covering the Israelites with the mountain demonstrates divine favor.

God’s Threat at the Mountain

In contrast to all these positive portraits of God covering Israel with the mountain, the Babylonian Talmud, apparently quoting from the 3rd century halakhic midrash, Mekhilta de-Rashbi (ad loc.),[8] records a negative and frightening version of this midrash[9] (b. Shabbat 88a):

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר א"ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב"ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם
“And they took their places at the taḥtit (base/bottom) of the mountain”—Rav Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: “This teaches us that the Holy Blessed One turned[10] the mountain over them (Israel( like a vat, and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, it will be well with you, but if not, there should be your burial site.’”[11]

What is the textual bases for the negative turn? The answer, I believe, is a hidden intertext, which is more easily noticed if we compare the key line in the Bavli version and that of the Mekhilta de-Rashbi, when God threatens the people:


Mekhilta de-Rashbi

אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם

אם מקבלין אתם עליכם את התורה <מוטב> ואם לאו כאן תהא קבורתכם

If you accept the Torah, it will be well with you, but if not, there should be your burial site

If you accept the Torah, it will be well with you, but if not, here should be your burial site

The text in the Mekhilta de-Rashbi initially makes more intuitive sense. If God is threatening to drop the mountain on them and crush them, then “here” will be their graves. And yet, for this reason, the “here” is suspect.

One useful principle in evaluating textual variants is lectio difficilior potior, “the more difficult reading is stronger.” This is not an ironclad rule, as many times difficult readings can simply reflect scribal errors, but here it holds nicely. It makes sense that a copyist, not understanding what “there” could be referring to, “corrected” it to the smoother “here.” It makes little sense for the opposite to have occurred. But if “there” is original, what does it signify?

“There” As a Cipher for “Grave”

Deuteronomy 21:1–19 requires the performance of a ritual in the case of murder on the outskirts of a city where the assailant is unknown. The elders of the city swear that they had no hand in the murder, and break a calf’s neck by a nearby brook.

דברים כא:ד וְהוֹרִדוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא אֶת הָעֶגְלָה אֶל נַחַל אֵיתָן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יֵעָבֵד בּוֹ וְלֹא יִזָּרֵעַ וְעָרְפוּ שָׁם אֶת הָעֶגְלָה בַּנָּחַל.
Deut 21:4 And the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing stream, which is not tilled or sown. They shall break the heifer’s neck there, in the stream.

Several midrashic texts pick up the use of the word “there” and argue that it implies a prohibition to derive any benefit from the carcass of the animal and instead it must be buried there. For instance, in Midrash Tannaim (ad loc.):

וערפו שם שאין ת"ל שם אלא מקום עריפתה שם תהא קבורתה מלמד שהיא אסורה בהניה...
“And they break its neck there”—the term “there” comes only to teach us that the place where its neck is broken, there it must be buried. This teaches the prohibition of receiving benefit from [the carcass]…[12]

Standing behind this midrash is an assumption that the word “there” is a cipher for a place of burial. We see this assumption in the rabbinic interpretation of a passage in Numbers about the manslaughterer who runs to the city of refuge to avoid being killed by the victim’s relative. There שָׁמָּה “there” is repeated three times:

במדבר לה:כה וְהִצִּילוּ הָעֵדָה אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ מִיַּד גֹּאֵל הַדָּם וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֹתוֹ הָעֵדָה אֶל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָס שָׁמָּה וְיָשַׁב בָּהּ עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁח אֹתוֹ בְּשֶׁמֶן הַקֹּדֶשׁ.
Num 35:25 The assembly shall protect the manslayer from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge there to which he fled and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred oil.

Commenting on this passage, the Mishnah states (m. Makkot 2:7):

נגמר דינו בלא כהן גדול ההורג כהן גדול וכהן גדול שהרג אינו יוצא משם לעולם... שנאמר אשר נס שמה שם תהא דירתו שם תהא מיתתו שם תהא קבורתו.
If the conviction takes place while there is no high priest, or if it is the high priest himself who has killed somebody, the person can never leave…. As it says, “Who fled there” (Numbers 35:25), there must be his residence, there must be his death, there must be his burial.[13]

While the extraneous שם there is quoted as the hook, in theory, the midrash had no need of it, since the verse’s requirement that the person remain there until the death of the high priest seems enough of a hook without this extra one. Again, I suggest that the word שם was irresistible to the homileticist, since it is a cipher for burial spot.[14]

Important Verses with “There” and Burial

The rabbis may have felt this way about the term שם (and its variant שָׁמָּה) because several important verses about death and burial that use the term. For instance, the term appears twice in the death of Miriam, as well as in the death of Moses:

במדבר כ:א ...וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם.
Num 20:1 …Miriam died there and was buried there.
במדבר כ:כח ...וַיָּמָת אַהֲרֹן שָׁם בְּרֹאשׁ הָהָר...
Num 20:28 …And Aaron died there on the top of the mountain…[15]
דברים לד:ה וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד יְ־הוָה... לד:ו וַיִּקְבֹּר אֹתוֹ בַגַּיְ...
Deut 34:5 And Moses, servant of YHWH died there34:6 And He buried him in the valley…

In Jacob’s description of the burials in the cave of Machpelah, the word comes up more than once:

בראשית מט:לא שָׁמָּה קָבְרוּ אֶת אַבְרָהָם וְאֵת שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ שָׁמָּה קָבְרוּ אֶת יִצְחָק וְאֵת רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ וְשָׁמָּה קָבַרְתִּי אֶת לֵאָה.
Gen 49:31 There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah.

The term also appears in Ruth’s famous speech to Naomi, when she swears to never leave her mother-in-law:

רות א:יז בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר...
Ruth 1:17 Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried….

Job, when describing death, refers to his returning “there”:

איוב א:כא עָרֹם (יצתי) [יָצָאתִי] מִבֶּטֶן אִמִּי וְעָרֹם אָשׁוּב שָׁמָה
Job 1:21 Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there

Clearly, Job is not planning on returning to his mother’s womb, and seems to be using the term as a reference to the grave or the state of non-being. Here, medieval commentators point out explicitly that “there” implies a burial place. For instance, R. Sa’adia Gaon (882–942), in his commentary on the verse, writes:

ומה שאמר איוב אחר המאורעות וערם אשוב שמה, אין הכוונה בכך לבטן אמו אלא לקבר...
Job says after all these disasters “Naked shall I return there” meaning not to his mother’s womb but to the grave…[16]

Finally, Ecclesiastes writes about what happens to the righteous and the wicked:

קהלת ג:יז אָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי בְּלִבִּי אֶת הַצַּדִּיק וְאֶת הָרָשָׁע יִשְׁפֹּט הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי עֵת לְכָל חֵפֶץ וְעַל כָּל הַמַּעֲשֶׂה שָׁם.
Eccl 3:17 I mused: “God will doom both righteous and wicked, for there is a time for every experience and for every happening there.”

Glossing the seemingly superfluous “there,” Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) writes:

ענין שם – רמז לעולם הבא. כמו: "וערום אשוב שמה", רמז למקום הקבר, ואם ישוב שמה "אל האדמה אשר לקח משם", ישוב גם זה, והענין: אחר שימות.
The purpose of “there” is to hint at the next world. Just like (Job 1:21) “naked I will return there” hints at the place of burial, and if he (the righteous person) is to return there to (Gen 3:23) “the earth from which he was taken,” so too will the other (the wicked person). The point is, after each dies.

In other words, a verse merely needs to use the word “there” in the right context, and the listener or reader will know that what is meant is a grave. But context and implied meaning, while clear to medieval peshat commentators such as ibn Ezra, who are sensitive to such nuance, are not necessarily the basis for rabbinic discussions in midrash.

Instead, the rabbis work with the idea that words, when superfluous in scripture, are cues. We do not know why or how they came to have these associations, and the medieval commentators try to explain, but context is not how midrashic exegesis works. All we know clearly is that “there” is associated with “grave,” and the rabbis are highlighting this point when they write “there will be your grave.”

A Midrash with Two Hooks and a Hidden Bridge

Once we realize that “there” can function as a reference to a grave all on its own, we understand that the midrash in the Bavli (and the likely uncorrupted form of Mekhilta deRashbi) has two hooks. The word תחתית “bottom” implies the lifting of the mountain, and the word שם “there” implies a grave. But how can the word “there” be part of the basis for the homily, if verse doesn’t actually use the word?

The answer appears to be that midrash is borrowing this word from a hidden intertext. In the description of the theophany accompanying the second set of tablets, we find a verse that uses the same unusual verb “took their places” (נ.צ.ב in hitpaʿel form) and followed by “there,” a completely superfluous adverb telling us nothing we did not already know:

שמות לד:ה וַיֵּרֶד יְ־הוָה בֶּעָנָן וַיִּתְיַצֵּב עִמּוֹ שָׁם וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם יְ־הוָה.
Exod 34:5 YHWH came down in a cloud; he took his place with him there, and proclaimed the name YHWH.

In the Talmudic passage, the usage of שם תהא קבורתכם “there will be your grave” suggests an unstated analogy (וַיִּתְיַצֵּב /וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ), and a borrowing of the word from one context into another in a kind of implicit gezeira shava.[17] The words function as a kind of bridge. This bridge is never actually quoted in the midrash, however, and its existence must be inferred from the unusual phrasing of the threat “there will be your grave.”

The midrashist wove his startling tapestry to claim that beneath the Torah’s story of the bestowing of the Torah lies a simple but essential message. Without Torah there can be no Israel.


May 11, 2021


Last Updated

June 13, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Herbert Basser is Professor (Emeritus) of Religion and Jewish Studies at Queen’s University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and his B.A. from Yeshiva University. Basser served as Hillel Rabbi in the University of Florida and the University of Manitoba. He is the author/editor of 11 Books, among which are The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-Based Commentary (with Marsha B. Cohen), Studies in Exegesis: Christian Critiques of Jewish Law and Rabbinic Responses 70-300 C.E., and The Mystical Study of Ruth: Midrash HaNe’elam of the Zohar to the Book of Ruth (with Lawrence Englander)