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SBL e-journal

Tzvi Novick





Land or Torah: What Binds Israel as a Nation?



APA e-journal

Tzvi Novick





Land or Torah: What Binds Israel as a Nation?






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Land or Torah: What Binds Israel as a Nation?

This fundamental question lies at the heart of two stories: God suspending Mount Sinai over the Israelites to compel them to accept the Torah, and Joshua, with the Jordan River suspended over the Israelites, compelling them to accept mutual responsibility for each other's private sins.


Land or Torah: What Binds Israel as a Nation?

The Law on Mount Sinai, Jan Luyken, 1708. Wikimedia

Mutual Covenantal Responsibility at Sinai

The famous rabbinic dictum has it that כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה “all Israelites are guarantors one for the other,” or in other words, that each is responsible to "pay" for the sin of the other.[1] But what is the extent of such responsibility? Under what circumstances does such responsibility arise? Rabbis reflecting on this question were drawn to Deut 29:28, which distinguishes between “concealed things” and “overt things.”

דברים כט:כח הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
Deut 29:28 Concealed things are for the Lord our God; but overt things are for us and for our children ever, to do all the provisions of this Teaching.

On the basis of this verse, the Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (ba-hodesh 5, Horovitz-Rabin ed., p. 219) imagines that the Israelites at Mount Sinai negotiated with God about covenantal responsibility for “concealed things,” understood to mean hidden transgressions.

ר' אומר :להודיע שבחן של ישראל, שכשעמדו כולם לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה, והשוו כולם לב אחד לקבל מלכות אלהים בשמחה. ולא עוד אלא שהיו ממשכנין זה על ידי זה.
Rabbi says: It[2] comes to convey Israel’s praises, that when they all stood together before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they made their hearts as one to receive the kingdom of God with joy.[3] And moreover, they made themselves collateral, one against the other.
ולא עוד אלא שנגלה הקב"ה לכרות עמהן ברית על הסתרים, שנאמר הנסתרות ליי' אלהינו. אמרו לו: על הגלויין אנו כורתין עמך ברית ואין אנו כורתין עמך על הסתרים שלא יהא אחד חוטא בסתר ויהא הציבור מתמסכין.[4]
And moreover,[5] the Holiness, blessed be He, revealed himself to covenant with them concerning the concealed things, as it is written (Deut 29:28), “Concealed things are for the Lord our God….” They said to him: Concerning the overt things we covenant with you, but we do not covenant with you concerning the concealed things, so that it should not be that one person sins in concealment and the congregation should be taken as collateral.[6]

According to R. Judah the Patriarch, the Israelites at Sinai, in “receiving the kingdom of God,” unite together, and pledge themselves as collateral for each other. To serve as collateral for the other in this context evidently means to offer oneself as the locus of punishment for the other’s sin. Each Israelite gives God the legal right, as it were, to obtain satisfaction from one Israelite for the sin of another Israelite.[7]

But the two parties to the covenant do not see eye to eye on the scope of this right. God wishes to have this covenantal responsibility extend even to sins committed in secret. The Israelites push back, and accept responsibility only for sins committed openly.[8]

Collective Responsibility at Jericho

But the story does not end there. We find evidence in favor of mutual responsibility even for covert sins in Joshua 7. This chapter is set in the aftermath of Israel’s conquest of Jericho. God proscribes the spoils of Jericho, and marks them out for total destruction, but an Israelite named Achan clandestinely steals from them.

יהושע ז:א וַיִּמְעֲלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מַעַל בַּחֵרֶם וַיִּקַּח עָכָן בֶּן כַּרְמִי בֶן זַבְדִּי בֶן זֶרַח לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה מִן הַחֵרֶם וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Josh 7:1 The Israelites, however, violated the proscription: Achan son of Carmi son of Zabdi son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of that which was proscribed, and the Lord was incensed with the Israelites.

Although the violation is committed by only one man, and in secret, the verse attributes the sin to “the Israelites” as a whole. Indeed, God exacts punishment from them all in the continuation of the chapter, when the Israelites are defeated in the battle against the city of Ai.[9]

At some point after Sinai but before Achan’s crime, then, the Israelites must evidently have accepted interpersonal responsibility for concealed transgressions. But when precisely? According to the 3rd century C.E. amora, R. Shimon ben Laqish (best known as Resh Laqish), it was when the Israelites crossed the Jordan River. To get to his point, we need to establish the context.

Acceptance of Responsibility at the Jordan River

Earlier in the book of Joshua, the Israelites cross through the Jordan River after it has split:

יהושע ג:טז וַיַּעַמְדוּ הַמַּיִם הַיֹּרְדִים מִלְמַעְלָה קָמוּ נֵד אֶחָד הַרְחֵק מְאֹד (באדם) [מֵאָדָם] הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר מִצַּד צָרְתָן וְהַיֹּרְדִים עַל יָם הָעֲרָבָה יָם הַמֶּלַח תַּמּוּ נִכְרָתוּ וְהָעָם עָבְרוּ נֶגֶד יְרִיחוֹ.
Josh 3:16 The waters coming down from upstream piled up in a single heap a great way off, at Adam, the town next to Zarethan; and those flowing away downstream to the Sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea) ran out completely. So the people crossed near Jericho.

This verse describes the way in which the Jordan River split: The river became blocked at the point at which the Israelites entered it, and the waters that flowed to that blockage point from upstream piled up to a great height. How high?

The Tosefta (t. Soṭ. 8:3) records a debate between R. Judah, who says that the waters stood 12 mil high, whereas according to R. Eleazar b. R. Shimon, the waters rose “upward and upward, domes (כיפין) upon domes, to (a height of) around three hundred mil.”

Responsibility to Dispossess the Canaanites (Tosefta)

The anonymous Tosefta continues as follows (t. Soṭ. 8:5):[10]

עודן בירדן, אמ' להם יהושע: "דעו על מנת כן אתם נכנסין לארץ, שתורישו את יושביה, שנאמר, 'והורשתם את ישבי הארץ מפניכם ואבדתם וגו' ואם לא תורישו והיה כאשר דמיתי לעשות להם אעשה לכם.' ואם אין אתם מקבלין, באין מים ושוטפין אתכם."
They were yet in the Jordan. Joshua said to them: “On this condition are you entering the land, that you dispossess its inhabitants, as it is written, ‘And you shall dispossess [all] the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy … But if you do not dispossess … ‘then what I planned to do to them, I will do to you.’ (Num 33:52, 55–56) And if you do not accept, the waters will come and flood you.”

According to the Tosefta, Joshua threatens the Israelites as they cross the Jordan: If they do not accept upon themselves the obligation to dispossess the Canaanites, then the waters that have been piling up—in “domes upon domes,” per the preceding section of the Tosefta—will overwhelm them.[11]

Responsibility for Private Sins (Resh Laqish)

The Talmud Yerushalmi or Palestinian Talmud (y. Sot. 7:5 [22a]) quotes a version of the Tosefta passage, including the tradition of the piling up of the Jordan’s waters “dome upon dome.”[12] What follows immediately afterward is, like t. Sot. 8:5, a story about a threat issued in the Jordan River, but the nature of the threat is different.

אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש: "בירדן קיבלו עליהן את הנסתרות. אמר להן יהושע: 'אם אין אתם מקבלין עליכם את הנסתרות המים באין ושוטפין אתכם.'"
Said R. Shimon b. Laqish: “In the Jordan they accepted upon themselves the concealed acts. Said to them Joshua: ‘If you do not accept upon yourselves the concealed acts, the waters will come and flood you.’”

According to Resh Laqish’s revision of t. Sot. 8:5, Joshua in the Jordan compelled Israel under pain of death not to commit to dispossessing the Canaanites, but rather to accept that which, according to R. Judah the Patriarch, they refused to accept at Sinai: communal responsibility for concealed transgressions.[13] The Talmud continues with the proof for Resh Laqish’s view, from the aforementioned case of Achan.

אמר רבי סימון בר זבדא: "ויאות. תדע לך שהוא כן, שהרי עכן חטא, ורובה של סנהדרין נפלה בעי."
Said R. Simon bar Zavda: “And it is reasonable. Know that it is so, for behold, Achan sinned and a majority of the Sanhedrin fell at Ai.”[14]

Thus, if in the first stage of Israel’s covenantal history, at Sinai, the people accept responsibility only for sins committed openly, in the second stage, upon entering the land of Israel, they are compelled to accept responsibility also for concealed sins.

God Cancels Israel’s Responsibility

According to the continuation of the passage in the Yerushalmi, this new state of affairs does not endure forever.

אמר רבי לוי: "ביבנה הותרה הרצועה. יצתה בת קול ואמרה: 'אין לכם עסק בנסתרות'"
Said R. Levi: “At Yavneh, the strap was unknotted. An echo came forth and said: ‘You should have no truck with concealed things.’”

The strap is that which inflicts lashes, and for it to be unknotted is for it to be laid aside, so that there is no punishment for the crime in question.[15] R. Levi asserts on the basis of an “echo”—though the words in fact come from the book of Ben Sira[16]—that, at Yavneh, God frees Israel from responsibility for covert sins.

Why does God free Israel from responsibility for covert sins specifically at Yavneh? Likely because Yavneh stands, in the rabbinic imagination, for a new form of collective life after the destruction of the Temple. According to R. Levi, Israel maintains responsibility for covert sins until the destruction of the Temple and the consolidation of Jewish life around a new center—an exilic one, if not literally outside the land of Israel—namely, the rabbinic movement at Yavneh.

Communal Life in the Land of Israel

The implicit assumption of the narrative that we have traced, from Sinai to the Jordan River to Yavneh, is that corporate life in the land of Israel involves a categorically more intense form of community than does corporate life outside the land: Responsibility for covert sins only begins upon Israel’s entrance into the land of Israel, and ends with the destruction of the Temple.

A biblical precedent for this assumption is the priestly notion that Israelite sin can have a distinctive, collective effect in the land of Israel.[17] Israelite sin can so pollute the sanctum that God must abandon it, and abandon his people to foreign conquest and exile.[18] In this worldview, the Israelites have no choice but to be vigilant about ensuring that their fellow Israelites avoid sin. Nevertheless, the narrative reconstructed above does not reference the notion of defilement of the land.

Joshua’s Conditions

Instead, we may better appreciate the rabbis’ thinking by reference to a different tradition associated with Joshua, that of the “conditions under which Joshua bequeathed the land to Israel.”[19] According to this tradition, Joshua conditioned the Israelites’ inheritance of the land on their willingness to accept certain rules, most of which set limits on private property rights. One condition, for example, gives individuals the right to gather grasses from anywhere, even another person’s field; another allows someone who is lost amidst vineyards to cut a path forward.[20]

Both the institution of private property and the notion that mutual responsibility extends only to overt sins rest on the same assumption: Individuals are entitled to their own space, physical or religious, within which they may do as they choose, without the interference of or implications for the community. In both cases, Joshua, the foundational figure for collective Israelite existence in the land, qualifies this assumption. The community has a limited right to infringe on private property, and it has the obligation to ensure that individuals behave properly, even when concealed from the public.

The Bavli’s Suspended Sinai

Resh Laqish’s account of how God compelled the Israelites, in the Jordan River, to accept responsibility for covert sins, is strikingly similar to R. Avdimi’s famous retelling of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, in b. Shab. 88a.[21]

"ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר". אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: "מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: 'אם אתם מקבלים התורה, מוטב, ואם לאו, שם תהא קבורתכם.'"
“And they took their places at the foot of (lit. under) the mountain” (Exod 19:17). Said R. Avdimi b. Hama b. Hasa: “It teaches that the Holiness, blessed be He, set the mountain over them like an overturned tub, and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good, and if not, there will be your burial.’”[22]

In both cases, there are looming masses, described using the root כפ"ף or כפ"ה: the towering waters of the Jordan River, piled “domes (כיפין) upon domes,” and Mount Sinai, set over Israel like an overturned (כפה) tub. Likewise, in both cases, God issues a death threat should Israel not accept a specified element of covenantal responsibility.[23] We may readily conclude that the suspended mountain at Sinai is genealogically related to, and indeed likely dependent on, the towering waters of the Jordan River.[24]

Entering the Land or Standing at Sinai?

There is arguably a certain polemical tension between the Bavli’s story of the suspended mountain, where what God compels Israel to accept is the Torah, and Resh Laqish’s account, where the crucial thing is instead collective responsibility for concealed sins in the course of collective life on the land.

At stake may be the question: What, ultimately, is the elemental glue that binds Israel into a people? When we read R. Avdimi’s story in light of that of Resh Laqish, he seems to wish to push back against the view that the land of Israel is what constitutes the people Israel as a nation, and instead to assign this role to the Torah. Of course, we need not decide between these alternatives. On the festival of Shavuot, marking the bringing of the first fruits from the land, and the giving of the Torah, we can appreciate the force of both factors.


May 27, 2020


Last Updated

July 12, 2021


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Dr. Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has an M.A. from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. from Yale. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic Judaism.  He has also written on topics in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism, and on Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut) from late antiquity.