Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Yitro 5770/ February 6, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Israelites at Mount Sinai

Dr. Gilead Sasson

Department of Talmud


This week's reading tells us about the theophany at Mount Sinai, in which the Israelites were privileged to experience a direct encounter with G-d.  As Moses would later describe it, “Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain” (Deut. 5:4).  How did this encounter affect the Israelites?  The tanna, Rabbi Jose, holds that at Mount Sinai the Israelites were elevated to the level of godlike beings (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael [Lauterbach ed.], vol. 2, p. 272):

Rabbi Jose says:   It was upon this condition that the Israelites stood up before Mount Sinai, on condition that the Angel of Death should have no power over them. For it is said:  “I said:   Ye are godlike beings,” etc. (Ps. 8:6).   But you corrupted your conduct.   “Surely ye shall die like men” (ibid., v. 7).

When the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai they were transformed from mortals to heavenly-like beings over whom the Angel of Death had no power. But after they corrupted their ways and sinned by making the golden calf, they fell in stature and again became mortal.  

The Israelites’ immortality at Mount Sinai is expressed in other tannaitic remarks as well (Leviticus Rabbah 18:3, Margaliyot ed., p. 406):

Rabbi Yohanan, citing Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Jose ha-Gelili, said:   When the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do” (Ex. 4:7), the Holy One, blessed be He, called to the Angel of Death and said to him:   Even though I made you Cosmocrator (=ruler) over all my creatures, you have no sway over this nation.   Why?  Because they are My children, as it is said, “You are children of the Lord your G-d” (Deut. 14:1)…  As it is said, “The tablets were G-d’s work … incised (Heb. = harut) upon the tablets” (Ex. 3:16); read not harut, rather herut (=freedom)…  Rabbi Judah said:  freedom from the Angel of Death.

Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai finds substantiation for this idea already in Scripture.  Regarding the question of what finery the Israelites had at Horeb (Ex. 33:5-6), he responds (Tanhumah Shelah, Buber ed., p. 76):

Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says:  They were clothed in armaments, with the Tetragrammaton written on them, and as long as these remained in their hands no evil befell them, neither the Angel of Death nor any other thing; but once they sinned, Moses said to them:  “Now then, leave off your finery, and I will consider what to do to you” (Ex. 33:5).

From where did the above tannaim (Rabbis of the Mishnaic period) take the idea that the Israelites were immortal at Mount Sinai?  The answer may be found in amoraic sources (Rabbis of the Talmudic age) that develop this notion.  These sources indicate that the fall was not to the level of just any human, but to the level of a specific person (Exodus Rabbah 32.1):

When the Israelites said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do” (Ex. 4:7), the Holy One, blessed be He, said:  I commanded primordial Man one thing so that he would uphold my command, and I made him equal to the ministering angels, as it is said:  “Man has become like one of us” (Gen. 3:22). [1]   For those who perform 613 commandments, aside from all the detailed rules, is it not fitting that they too be immortal?   Thus it says, “from Mattanah (place name, but also means “gift”) to Nahaliel (place name, but play on nahal=inherited + El (godliness)” (Num. 21:19), for the Lord bestowed on them everlasting life.   But when they said, “This is your G-d, O Israel” (Ex. 32:4), death came to them. [2]   The Holy One, blessed be He, said:   I see you have followed the pattern of primordial Man, who could not stand the test even three hours, and after nine hours was doomed to die. [3]   “I had taken you for divine beings” (Ps. 82:6), but I see you followed the ways of primordial Man.  Indeed, “you shall die as men do” (loc. sit.).

The verse from Psalms, “I had taken you for divine beings ... but you shall die as men do,” is used to draw a comparison between the Israelites at Mount Sinai and primordial Man in the garden of Eden.  According to this homily, just as primordial Man in Eden was not subject to death, so too the Israelites were protected against death at Mount Sinai.  In both instances, sinning caused them to fall and lose their immortality. [4]

Also other amoraic homilies compare the Israelites with primordial Man, both falling from great heights to deep depths (Genesis Rabbah 18.6, Theodore-Albeck ed., p. 168):

Rabbi Eleazar said:  Those who did not last in tranquility even six hours include primordial Man, the Israelites, and Sisera.  Of Man, it says, “yet they felt no shame (lo yitboshashu. 2:25) – not even six (shesh) hours elapsed.  Of the Israelites it says, “the people saw that Moses was so long in coming (boshesh; Ex. 32:1) – they lasted six hours.

Rabbi Eleazar’s homily is based on a play on the words boshesh (be long in coming) and ba’u shesh (six came).  Even though hitboshashu means something quite different from boshesh – the former being related to shame, the latter to delaying – nevertheless Rabbi Eleazar draws a connection between the two, and in turn between primordial Man and the Israelites (as well as Sisera, of whom the same word, boshesh is used).   Neither he nor they “lasted in tranquility,” i.e., they did not survive long in their elevated status, rather they quickly fell.  Another homily comparing the fall of Israel with the fall of primordial Man appears in Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah (5.3, Mandelbaum ed., p. 83):

Rabbi Ishmael taught:  Prior to sinning, man was feared by others, and after sinning, he began to fear.  Thus, before sinning primordial Man heard the voice [of G-d] as a close member of the household, and after sinning he heard it as a distant dweller of the forest.  Before sinning he would hear the voice standing on his feet – “They heard the sound of the Lord G-d [while] moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day” (Gen. 3:8; taking “They” as the antecedent of “moving about”).  But after having sinned, he would hear the voice and hide – “and the man and his wife hid” (loc. sit.)…  Before the Israelites sinned, what does Scripture say?  “Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain” (Ex. 4:17).   Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said:  Seven partitions of fire were flaring up at each other, yet the Israelites looked and were not afraid.   After having sinned, they could not even look at the mediator, as it is written, “Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant, [and they shrank from coming near him]” (Ex. 34:30).

Prior to sinning both primordial Man and the Israelites were on a spiritually elevated level, enabling Man to hear the voice of G-d while still standing on his feet, and the Israelites to see the Lord revealed at mount Sinai.   After sinning, Man could no longer hear the voice of G-d directly, nor were the Israelites capable of looking at so much as the face of Moses, G-d’s intermediary.

What prompted the Sages to draw a comparison between the Israelites and primordial Man?   A connection between the passages emerges from several points which they have in common:  1)  Both deal with beginnings, one of mankind, the other of the Israelite people; ) both Man and the Israelites were on an elevated level, enabling them to have a direct connection with G-d;  3) Man and the Israelites were commanded no to do a certain thing (not to eat from the tree of knowledge; not to make a graven image);  4) after a short while Man and the Israelites transgressed the divine command;   5) their sin caused a greater distance between them and G-d. [5]   These similarities prompted the Sages to transpose the motif of immortality from one passage to the other, from Man to the Israelites.  Just as Man in the Garden of Eden was on an elevated plane, above the reach of the Angel of Death, so too were the Israelites.  And just as Man was punished by mortality after his sin, so too were the Israelites punished with mortality.


[1] The comparison of man to the ministering angels is based on the following tannaitic source:  “Rabbi Pappias expounded: ‘Man has become like one of us’ (Gen. 3:22) – like one of the ministering angels” ( Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Horowitz-Rabin ed., p. 112).

[2] Ba mavet (= death comes) is a play on words with the place name, Bamoth, which appears further on in the verse cited from Numbers 21:   “from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth.”

[3] The Sages used several methods for deducing the hour of the day when Man sinned.  For a partial review of these, see Pesikta Rabbati 46, Ish Shalom ed., p. 187, n. 34.

[4] For further reading on the fall of primordial Man after sinning and on his bringing mortality to the world see E. E. Urbach, HazalPirkei Emunot ve-De`ot, Jerusalem 1983, p. 371ff.  On p. 375 he discusses the sources that draw a comparison between primordial Man and the Israelites.

[5] In both instances the distancing is performed by angels: the cherubim guard the way to the tree of life, and the Lord seeks to send a divine messenger to guide them along their way to the land of Canaan.