Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the Faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Yithro

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Parashat Yitro 5758-1998

Mattan Torah-- Midrashic Elements in Chagall's Paintings

Dr. Naftali Deutsch

Program in Jewish Art

Before Marc Chagall became a world-famous artist, he studied in heder in Vitebsk, the town where he was born. The impact of the Pentateuch with Rashi's commentary which he learned there, especially the legends interspersed throughout Rashi's commentary, can be seen in his artistic work at every stage of its development. His oil painting, Receiving the Torah, 130 x 194 cm, provides a good example. The canvas, signed by the artist and dated in his own hand, "1950-1952," is presently in a private collection in Paris.[1]

Many paintings have been made on the theme of Revelation at Sinai, both in Jewish art and general art, usually showing the Tablets of the Covenant being given to Moses on the mountain, while the Children of Israel gather at its foot. Chagall's painting is divided into two unequal triangles by a diagonal line that crosses the canvas from the upper left to the lower right corner. The left triangle is wider and very dark, with the figure of Moses receiving the tablets executed in light tones. The pale blue of Moses' body and his outstretched hands perhaps is meant to refer to the talit in which he is wrapped. Two grey hands come out of the heavens, handing Moses a pair of bright golden tablets, the same color as the horns radiating from his head. Chagall decided to portray the special moment when the tablets were being held simultaneously by heavenly hands, as it were, and by Moses' hands, perhaps influenced by the legend in Exodus Rabbah (Jethro, ch. 28.1): "R. Berakhya said: The tablets were six hands (tefahim) long; as if two hands' width were held by the Creator, and two hands' width held by Moses, and two hands' width separating hands from hands." However, this legend is not cited by Rashi, and if Chagall had meant to illustrate it, he probably would have rotated the direction of the tablets, painting them with the rounded (top) part up and the base down; as they appear in this work, G-d and Moses grasp the tablets on each side.

In the right-hand triangle, the Children of Israel are assembled at the foot of the mountain. Near the upper corner Chagall painted a bride, whose white wedding gown stands out against the dark background. As is known, Chagall's works often incorporate figures of a bride, but here he might have recalled the Rashi which compares the Children of Israel at Sinai to a bride waiting for her groom: "The Divine Presence came to meet them, like a groom going to meet his bride, for it is written, 'The Lord came from Sinai (mi-sinai)' (Deut. 33:2), and does not say came to Sinai." (Ostensibly it would have been accurate to say that the Lord came to Sinai to reveal Himself there to the people of Israel and give them the Torah; since it is written that the Lord came from Sinai, we are to understand that He had arrived at Sinai first, and then set out from there [the chuppah] to meet the people [i.e. the bride]-- see Rashi on Ex. 19:3, s.v. likrat ha-elokim.)

The metaphor of Revelation at Sinai as a groom meeting his bride comes from the Mekhilta and appears in other anthologies of Jewish legends. For example, Exodus Rabbah, 28:3: "The Holy One, blessed be He, acted in the way of kings, as it is said, 'From Lebanon, my bride, with me!'" (Song of Songs 4:8; the verse is associated by the Midrash with Revelation at Mount Sinai); also Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 16: "'Ke-khalloto : When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact' (Ex. 31:18): Just as this bride [kallah]..." (Ke-khalloto, Hebrew for "when He had finished," evokes associations with kallah, meaning bride.)

Chagall did not crowd masses of figures into the triangle to illustrate the multitude of Children of Israel at Mount Sinai, nor did he try to make them appear as if they belonged to ancient times. He portrayed them like Jews from the shtetl in Eastern Europe. They, too, were present at that great moment, and they stood there with eyes gaping wide. Perhaps here Chagall was thinking of two other legends, one cited by Rashi (Ex. 20:15), on the words, "And all the people witnessed (lit. saw) the thunder": "From this we learn that there was not a single blind person among them...," for it says that everyone saw. The second comes from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 41 (Eshkol ed., Jerusalem, p. 158): "The dead souls in sheol ( the netherworld) arose to their feet, as it is said, 'But both with those who are standing here with us this day,' (Deut. 29:14); and all those destined to be created until the end of time stood with them there at Mount Sinai, as it is said (ibid.), 'And with those who are not with us here this day.'"

We may have read more into Chagall's work that he intended. Perhaps he was not conscious of some of the legends which we have discovered in the painting, but the fact that they fit in with Chagall's conception of the Revelation at Mount Sinai attests to the impact of the interpretive spirit of the Midrash on the artist's sensibilities.[2]

[1] From Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall, Leben und Werk, K?ln, 1961, p. 508.

[2] I wish to thank Semadar Tuito, a student in the seminar on Midrash in World Art (1996), for her help in this study

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