The Significance of Sinai on Purim

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasya (Shabbat 88a) is generally taught as claiming that G-d suspended Mount Sinai over the Jewish people to ensure their acceptance of the Torah. Many teachers further tell their students that Rav Avdimi is playing with words. Shemot 19:17 records that the Jews stood “betachtit hahar,” which plainly means “at the base of the mountain,” but he interprets it homiletically to mean “underneath the mountain.” I suggest that every aspect of this presentation is wrong. Every other use of tachtit in Tanakh refers to a lower section. And Rav Avdimi does not claim that the mountain was suspended over them.

Here are Rav Avdimi’s actual words:

:מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם

אם אתם מקבלים התורה – מוטב

ואם לאו – שם תהא קבורתכם

This teaches that The Holy Blessed one kafah aleihem the mountain like a rain barrel, and said to them:

“If you accept the Torah – better;

but if not – your burial will take place there.”

What does “kafah aleihem” mean? Maharsha explains that a kippah is a dome, so what G-d did was reshape the mountain so that it formed a dome enclosing the Jews. He did not threaten to drop the mountain on the Jews, but rather to leave them buried inside it, in its “tachtit.” “Your burial will take place there,” an otherwise odd idiom, means that the mountain will become their mausoleum. As is usually the case, the “midrash” takes the verse literally, whereas the “pshat” makes the text conform to preconceived notions.

Why are teachers so convinced that Rav Avdimi is not pshat? On the first level, because we have a resistance to adding miracles to the text. This is a fascinating sensibility; in a story which involves all the supernaturalness of Sinai, why can’t a floating mountain fit in?

But on the second level, Rav Avdimi is playing with words and counterreading the text. His underlying point that G-d coerced the Jews into accepting the Torah is conveyed by a pun: “kafah” also means coerced. But the plain meaning of the biblical narrative is the Jews willingly accepted the Torah.

Yet Rav Acha bar Yaakov and Rava both accept Rav Dimi’s implication. Rav Acha bar Yaakov notes that this midrash offers the Jewish people an out: they can claim to have accepted the Torah under duress. Rava quickly removes any contemporary implications by asserting that Esther 9:27 records a subsequent willing acceptance of Torah.

This past Shabbat in YI Sharon, Rabbi Pesach Wolicki of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah offered a beautiful close read of Rava. The original Jewish willingness to accept the Torah is traditionally embodied in the phrase naaseh venishma, whereas Rava derives the subsequent willingness from the phrase kiymoo vekibloo. Rabbi Wolicki argued that the phrase in Esther is an intensification of the phrase in Shemot: asiyah, meaning practice, becomes kiyum, meaning firm establishment; shemiah, meaning obedience, becomes kabbalah, meaning internalization. Rava does not deny the significance of the original acceptance, but he sees it as the first step in a process.

Rabbi Wolicki pointed out, however, that Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 3) offers a very different solution: The threat of the mountain overhead related solely to acceptance of the Oral Torah, as the Jews had already accepted the written one.

Rabbi Wolicki read Tanchuma and Shabbat 88a synthetically, so that Rava’s reply relates only to the Oral Torah. Rather than depict First Temple Jews as completely unbound by Oral Torah, he suggested that the initial coercion related to the obligation to learn, while even Rav Dimi would concede that the Jews freely accepted the obligation to obey the Oral Torah. What changed in the time of Purim, or if one prefers the time of the Men of the Great Assembly, was the free acceptance of universal responsibility for the study of Oral Torah.

I agree with Rav Wolicki (barukh shekivanti) that this is an implication of Avot 1:1’s report that the Men of the Great Assembly emphasized the need to have many students, rather than the smallest elite group capable of ensuring continuity, and I love the message. I am not as certain that the Tanchuma is intended to be read together with Shabbat 88a. My own reading of Avot connected the new responsibility to the absence of prophecy rather than to a new, freer acceptance.

Happily, Tosafot HaRosh suggests a way of combining our two approaches:

ואומר ר”ת

דהתם נמי על ידי הדבור היה ובעל כרחם

אבל בימי אחשורוש קבלוה מאהבת הנס

בלב שלם מדעתם

Rabbeinu Tam says

That there too it was in accordance with a prophetic command, and against their will

but in the days of Achashveirosh they accepted it out of love of the miracle

wholeheartedly and of their own will

The problem here is that “love of the miracle” detracts from wholehearted willingness, and points to a fundamental weakness in Rava’s response. Rabbi David Silber argues that the enveloping mountain is a metaphor for an overall state of coercion; G-d took the Jews into a waterless desert, so that their survival obviously depended on His benevolent intervention. The Purim miracle emphasizes that their vulnerability was no less in Persia!

Ritva makes a further argument. The Jews are punished for their crimes prior to Purim, not least by exile to Persia. How can this be, if they really were not obligated? Ritva accordingly concludes that Rav Dimi is explaining the mistaken impression that led some Jews to believe themselves no longer obligated, and Rava is showing how to answer them leshitatam, in accordance with their own mistaken assumption.

Ritva’s position is actually a reaction to his grandteacher Nachmanides, who argues that the Jews’ initial acceptance at Sinai was transactional, trading obedience for land. G-d has the right to exile the Jews even if acceptance was coerced, since His promise of the Land was conditional. What changes at Purim is a willing acceptance of unconditional obligation.

Put more sharply, the exile of the Jews to Babylonia simply returned the Jews to the desert, and Haman’s plot was no more threatening than the risk of death by dehydration. The difference was that Babylonia was not explicitly a way station to Israel. The Jews nonetheless chose to remain distinctive, and thereby accepted their obligations unconditionally.

Ritva cannot accept this perhaps he believes that conditional obligation is not obligation; it’s a utilitarian decision. In Ramban’s schema, First Temple Jews would have the right to release themselves from obligation if they were willing to surrender the Land, and Shushan’s Jews had the right to assimilate. Ritva could not imagine this being true. Is not the whole point of the Esther narrative that the Jews have no real choice about being Jews? Isn’t Haman’s rise part of a Divine plan to make them realize this? How could Rava read the outcome as a new, free acceptance of their obligations?

Here is one possible answer: Haman’s plot is provoked by Mordekhai’s refusal to bow. It is halakhically permitted to bow to another person, and by not doing so, Mordekhai endangered Jews everywhere. So why did he do it? Perhaps G-d’s plan was not inevitable, it required the free-willed action of at least one Jew to work. At the end of the megillah, the Jewish people acknowledge Mordekhai was right, and that acknowledgement constitutes their acceptance of obligation.

Furthermore, Mordekhai knew that on the road to assimilation, red lines are always relative; with a gradual process, deviance can always be defined down, so that the next small step is not worth giving up life to prevent. Any line drawn as absolute will be arbitrary. By acknowledging that Mordekhai was right to draw such a line, the Jews specifically accept the legitimacy and authority of Oral Torah.

At the same time, the megillah is careful to note that a minority of Jews still contended that Mordekhai drew the line too early or too late. I suggest that this point is included to emphasize that the Jews also properly accept responsibility for the content of Oral Torah, and that unanimity, and especially the attempt to impose unanimity, are perversions rather than fulfillment of the obligations the Jewish people reaffirmed on Purim.

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