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Tzvi Novick





Standing Under Sinai: On the Origins of a Coerced Covenant



APA e-journal

Tzvi Novick





Standing Under Sinai: On the Origins of a Coerced Covenant






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Standing Under Sinai: On the Origins of a Coerced Covenant

Tracing the tannaitic and biblical sources for the famous claim that God held Mount Sinai over the Israelites and threatened to bury them if they did not accept the Torah.


Standing Under Sinai: On the Origins of a Coerced Covenant

Moses speaks with God, and the Israelites in the foreground panic when they hear thunder and see flashes of light and smoke coming out of the mountain (Ex. 20:21). Gerard Hoet, 1728.

God the Godfather: Holding the Mountain over Israel at Sinai

A famous exegetical narrative in b. Shab. 88a teaches that God, at Sinai, made Israel an offer it couldn’t refuse.

”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 (תחתית) of the mountain” (Exod 19:17) – Said R. Avdimi b. Chama b. Chasa: “It teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, turned the mountain over them like a tub (גיגית), and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good; and if not, there[1] will be your burial.’”[2]

In the immediate continuation, R. Acha b. Jacob spells out the troubling implication of R. Avidimi’s exegesis: “From here is a great protest (מודעא רבה) against the Torah.”[3] A moda‘a (מודעא) is a document in which witnesses testify that a party to a transaction participated in it against his (or her) will.[4] Thus, R. Acha points out that by having the Israelites accept the Torah under duress, R. Avdimi effectively gives them a contractual out. The exegetical narrative suggests not only that Israel could by right void its agreement to observe the Torah, but also, as the Babylonian Talmud clarifies elsewhere (b. ‘Abod. Zar. 2b), that Israel cannot claim its acceptance of the Torah as a source of merit, because it was coerced.

What could have led R. Avdimi to advance such a problematic reconstruction of the Sinai covenant? The claim is especially jarring because a relatively straightforward reading of the biblical text—one highlighted in other midrashim, especially in connection with the Israelites’ declaration, “we will do and we will listen” (נעשה ונשמע) (Exod 24:7)—would mark out the Israelites for praise for their readiness to enter into the covenant.[5] The reference in Exod 19:17 to the people standing “at the foot (תחתית) of the mountain” does, of course, license the inference that they stood under (תחת) the mountain.[6] But this wordplay cannot have been R. Avdimi’s lone inspiration.

I suggest that R. Avdimi’s exegesis is ultimately indebted to two sets of sources, one from tannaitic literature, and the other, from the Torah.

The Tannaitic Background: From Inversion to Coercion

The Mountain as Protection

The great scholar of Talmudic and medieval Jewish thought, Ephraim Urbach (1912-1991), observed that R. Avdimi’s exegesis appears to rework a tannaitic comment on the same verse (Mek. R. Ishmael ba-Chodesh 3 [Horovitz-Rabin ed., 214]):

”ויתיצבו“– נצפפו. מלמד שהיו ישראל מתיראין מפני הזיקין מפני הזועות מפני הרעמים מפני הברקים הבאים.
“And they took their places.” Pressed together. It teaches that they were scared on account of the flashing and trembling and thunder, on account of the approaching lightning.
”בתחתית ההר“– מלמד שנתלש ההר ממקומו, וקרבו ועמדו תחת ההר, שנאמר: ”ותקרבון ותעמדון תחת ההר.“ עליהם מפורש בקבלה ”יונתי בחגוי הסלע בסתר המדרגה הראיני את מראיך…“
“The foot of the mountain.” It teaches that the mountain was plucked from its place, and they approached and stood under the mountain, as it is said, “and you approached and stood under the mountain” (Deut 4:11). Of them it is explicated in the tradition (Song 2:14): “My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, show me your appearance, etc.”[7]

In this earlier account, God positions the mountain over Israel not to threaten them, but to protect them from the thunder and lightning and to allay their anxiety.

“Turning” (כפה) and the “Dome” (כיפּה) at the Sea

Building on Urbach’s observation, as well as on an important article by Saul Lieberman, Gerald Blidstein has noted that the verb “turn” (כפה), employed by R. Avdimi, also occurs in a related statement (Avot R. Natan A 33 [Schechter ed., 98]) attributed to a tanna, R. Eliezer, in his interpretation not of the Sinai event but of the splitting of the sea.[8]

רבי אליעזר אומר: ”תהום כפה עליהם מלמעלה ועברו בו ישראל כדי שלא יצטערו.“
R. Eliezer says: “He turned (כפה) the deep over them from above and Israel passed through it, so that they not be troubled.”

The reference to the deep suggests a connection to an anonymous tannaitic interpretation of the words “the deep froze (קפאו)” in the song of the sea (Exod 15:8) to mean that God “made [the deep] like a dome (כיפה)” (Mek. R. Ishmael Shirah 6 [Horovitz-Rabin ed., 138]).[9] As Blidstein clarifies, the “dome” that R. Eliezer finds at the sea should probably be understood to represent an interpretation of the “rock” of Song 2:14. Whereas the anonymous interpreter (elsewhere identified as R. Akiva) in the above passage from Mek. R. Ishmael ba-Chodesh 3 (Horovitz-Rabin ed., 214) interprets Song 2:14 with reference to Sinai, R. Eliezer interprets it with reference to the sea.

Rereading R. Avdimi in Light of the Tannaitic Texts

Neither כפה not כיפּה appears to occur in extant tannaitic exegesis in connection with the motif of the lifted up mountain at Sinai.[10] But both do occur in the context of corresponding interpretations of the splitting of the sea. We may therefore suppose that R. Avdimi’s exegesis was inspired, in part, by these words. כפה means “to turn, invert,” but it also means “to compel.” Perhaps R. Avdimi, rethinking received traditions about inversion and domes at the sea and at Sinai, found in them a subtext of compulsion.[11]

The Biblical Background: Standard and Non-Standard Theophanies

But there is a longer story to tell about the emergence of R. Avdimi’s exegesis, and we may begin to tell it by returning to the debate between R. Akiva and R. Eliezer about whether Song 2:14 refers to the sea or Sinai. This debate is part of a larger tendency in the rabbinic tradition to think about these two events as the ultimate instances of divine revelation, or theophany.

Thus, for example, R. Eliezer famously comments on the words “this is my God” from the song of the sea (Exod 15:2) that “a maidservant at the sea saw what Isaiah and Ezekiel did not.” (Ezekiel and Isaiah are singled out because they enjoyed visions of God’s very throne [Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1-2].) But the same claim is made elsewhere for the Sinai revelation, in connection with the words “before the eyes of all the people” (Exod 19:11).[12]

Likewise, and from a different body of evidence, while the modern synagogue-goer can expect to hear Aramaic poems prior to the Torah reading for the first day of Shavuot and the haftarah portion for the second, both of which evoke God’s appearance at Sinai, the medieval Ashkenazi rite also included Aramaic poems for another occasion, the Torah reading for the seventh day of Passover, on the splitting of the sea.[13]

The disappearance of the latter practice conforms to the assumption that defines rabbinic and post-rabbinic Judaism, namely, that the theophany par excellence occurred at Sinai. Indeed, we tend not to think of the sea event as a theophany at all. Yes, the biblical texts speaks of God fighting against Egypt, even removing (or perhaps locking) the wheels of the Egyptians’ chariots (Exod 14:25), but God does not seem to appear at the sea in the same dramatic, earth-shattering way that he does at Sinai.

From a biblical perspective, however, it is the sea and not Sinai that represents the characteristic setting for a theophany of this sort. In the words of the biblical scholar Samuel Loewenstamm, “the motif of the trembling of nature before God has its roots in His image as a warrior.”[14] It is the “man of war” of the song of the sea (Exod 15:3) who makes the waters flee and turn back (cf. Ps 114:3). Their fright is a proxy for that of God’s enemies, for that of Edom, Moab, and Canaan upon whom “terror and dread descend” (Exod 15:15). In the Ancient Near East, too, it is only before warrior gods and goddesses that nature trembles, and never, for example, before Shamash, who serves only as the god of judgment.[15]

Fear and Trembling at Sinai: Why Is Sinai a Terrifying Theophany?

The Sinai theophany is, on this background, most unusual. Why should God appear at Sinai in so terrifying a fashion, when there is no war to be fought, and no enemy to terrify?

For Loewenstamm, the explanation lies in the fact that Israelite monotheism offers “no place for an absolute distinction between the different functions of the god. God does not cease to be a hero even during the giving of the law.”[16] God the warrior is, as it were, dragged along to Sinai by God the lawgiver, as an inapt but theologically inseparable sidekick.

We might alternatively think of the appearance of God the warrior at Sinai as something like a concrete manifestation of the assertion that opens the Decalogue. If God is He “who took you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod 20:2), and if the covenant that is to be made at Sinai rests on this identification, then God must appear “in costume,” as the warrior who defeated Egypt.[17]

But the biblical text puts forward its own, different explanation for the pyrotechnics at Sinai: “Be not afraid,” says Moses to the people, “for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him be before you, that you not sin” (Exod 20:17).[18] The Ancient Near Eastern motif of earth-shattering theophany has here been repurposed to give expression to the Torah’s distinctive interest in the alternatives of obedience to God’s will and transgression thereof.[19]

Putting God’s Fear in Israel

This development provides the fundamental context for R. Avdimi’s exegesis. The reason that God appears at Sinai as a warrior even though there is no enemy to fight is because he means to overawe Israel, and not only to ensure that Israel does not transgress the covenant, but also, on R. Avdimi’s view, to compel Israel to enter into the covenant in the first place.

While R. Acha is correct that R. Avdimi opens up a can of worms by implying that the Sinai “transaction” was coerced, a modern R. Acha might instead reservedly approve of R. Avdimi’s exegesis, finding in it a conception of Torah that pushes against the tide of an era in which it is conceivable and even natural to think of Jewish life apart from the Torah. The Torah is not, from R. Avdimi’s perspective, simply a set of terms that Israel took upon itself as a fully realized people prior to Sinai. It is rather a matter on which Israel’s collective life or death turns, a constitutive aspect of Israel’s existence as a people.

Addendum (2020)

The Mountain Pierces the Sky

While the Bavli builds its midrash about the suspended mountain upon a phrase in Exodus 19:17, some later midrashic texts use the parallel verse from Deuteronomy:

דברים ד:יא וַתִּקְרְבוּן וַתַּעַמְדוּן תַּחַת הָהָר וְהָהָר בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ עַד לֵב הַשָּׁמַיִם חֹשֶׁךְ עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל.
Deut 4:11 You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark, overcast, with thick cloud.[20]

The use of this verse allows for a novel feature of this exegetical complex to emerge, namely that Sinai’s peak ends up in the heavens. Consider, for example, Song Rabbah 8:1.

נתלש הר סיני ונצב בשמי מרום והיו ישראל נתונים תחתיו, שנאמר, "ותקרבון ותעמדון תחת ההר."
Mount Sinai was uprooted and stood in the high heavens, and the Israelites were set under it, as it is says (Deut 4:11), “And you came forward and stood at the foot of (lit. under) the mountain.”

In other words, when God lifts the mountain and makes it float in the air, its raised peak literally pierces the heavens.[21] 

YHWH Remains in Heaven

A theological payoff of, perhaps even the motive for, this development becomes clear in a similar passage in Pirqei de-R. Eleazer 41 (in the Higger edition: chapter 40), which appears likewise to rewrite Deut 4:11, and to meditate in particular on the reference to ערפל “thick cloud” at the end of the verse.

וממקומו נתלש הר סיני, ונפתחו השמים ונכנס ראש ההר בשמים, וערפל מכסה את ההר. הקדוש ברוך הוא יושב על כסאו ורגליו עומדות על הערפל, שנאמר, "ויט שמים וירד וערפל תחת רגליו".
And from its place Mount Sinai was uprooted, and the heavens opened, and the top of the mountain entered heaven, and the thick cloud covered the mountain.  The Holy One, blessed be He, was sitting on his throne, and his feet were resting on the thick cloud, as it says, “He bent the sky and came down, [thick cloud under beneath His feet]” (2 Sam 22:10).

Here we observe that, because the uprooted mountain reaches into heaven, God, even as he descends upon the mountain, can remain in heaven.[22]


May 19, 2015


Last Updated

October 16, 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.