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Torah Sparks

February 18, 2006 - 20 Shevat 5766

Annual: Ex. 18:1 - 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial: Ex. 19:1 - 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 436; Hertz p. 290)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 - 7:6:9:5-6 (Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


Yitro (Jethro), Moses' father-in-law, arrives at the Israelite camp with Moses' wife Zipporah and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Moses tells Yitro of all the goodness that the Lord has done for the people Israel. The next day, Yitro sees that Moses is busy adjudicating cases from early morning to late at night. Yitro tells Moses that he is going about his task incorrectly; he should choose leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens to judge most disputes among the people. Moses should judge only the most difficult cases. Moses follows his father-in-law's advice.

We come now to the mountain that changed the course of history. The Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai. Moses goes up and down the mountain a number of times, warning the people to prepare for God to speak. They are to avoid going near the mountain and also to avoid any sexual encounters. On the third day God will speak to them from the mountain. There is thunder and lightning and a dark cloud, and the people hear the voice of God.

The people Israel hear the Ten Commandments. God tells them that he is the Lord, who brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. There should be no other gods before him. The people shall not take God's name in vain. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Then, in a transition from commandments about God to commandments about humanity, the Israelites are told to honor their father and mother.

Five commandments now deal with interpersonal relations. It is forbidden to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, to bear false witness, or to covet a neighbor's belongings. The people hear the thunder and lightning and are frightened, telling Moses to speak to them in place of God. Moses gives some final laws about the altar.

Issue #1 - What Happened at Sinai

"And when the voice of the shofar sounded long, and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice" (Exodus 19:19)


  1. What actually was said at Mount Sinai? The answer is not obvious, either in the text or in the writings of later commentators. What answer makes sense to modern Jews? Is that a question we can ever answer unequivocally?
  2. Professor Arthur Green, in his book Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology, writes, "Jewish tradition contains both maximalist and minimalist views on this key question. The Bible's claim in this regard is fairly obvious, 'Y-H-W-H spoke all these words, saying' is followed by the Ten Commandments. But some of the early rabbis expand this claim vastly and include the entire Torah within the scope of revelation at the moment of Sinai. - Their later followers expanded the claim even further, insisting that the Oral Torah (including Mishnah and Talmud) was from Sinai as well. The next expansion of this position was given voice in a saying attributed to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: 'Everything a faithful student is ever to say was already given to Moses at Sinai.' - The final maximalist view is that of the Zohar, 'There is nothing that has not been hinted at in the Torah'" (p. 110-111). Taken at face value, this position says that every lesson taking place at every Hebrew school, day school and adult education class was given at Mount Sinai. Is there any way that we moderns can make sense of this maximalist position?
  3. The minimalist position says that only the first two commandments were given directly by God. (Those are the commandments in which God speaks in the first person.) The rest came from Moses. Green continues, "The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig apparently at one point considered a more restricted formulation, whether God had spoken even the first word of the commandments ('I am'). All the rest is Israel's commentary, elaboration, and response to the interaction with God. Another radically minimalist view is to be found in the teachings of a Hasidic master. This view has God speaking only the first letter of the first word anochi (I). That letter, aleph, is by itself silent" (p. 111-112). This view suggests, therefore, that even the Torah itself cannot be seen as the direct word of God. Is there any way that we moderns can make sense of this minimalist position?

Issue #2 - Adultery

"You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:13)


  1. The seventh commandment forbids adultery. But the original commandment, understood in the context of its time, just prohibited a married woman from having relations with a man not her husband. There was no parallel prohibition preventing a married man from having relations with an unmarried woman not his wife. In biblical times, a man could take more than one wife or a wife and a concubine. Is this fair? There was a double standard. How far did the rabbis go in removing it? In the time of the Torah, if a man suspected his wife of committing adultery, even without witnesses or other proof, he could put her through an ordeal, drinking bitter waters (the laws of Sotah). If she was guilty, certain painful physical symptoms developed, not unlike a spontaneous abortion. Only when the number of adulterers increased did Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakki outlaw the ordeal of the bitter waters (Sotah 9:9). This is one of the first times the rabbis ruled, in effect, that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Men who are unfaithful cannot accuse their wives of being unfaithful.
  2. Why was the Torah so much stricter with women than men? Could the core of the issue have been because of a concern about paternity? This remains a controversial issue. Today, some say fidelity and monogamy are not for everyone. For example, in her book Standing Again at Sinai feminist theologian Judith Plaskow writes that marriage is "the decision of two adults -- any two adults -- to make their lives together, lives that include the sharing of sexuality. In doing so, nobody possesses their partner's sexuality. On the contrary, our sexuality is a fundamental part of our spiritual self. Different couples would define their sexual responsibilities in different ways, with monogamy being but one choice in a menu of possibilities. The only requirements are 'honesty, responsibility, and respect'" (p.200). Can Judaism accept such a radical idea?

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