Considering the Amoraic Midrashic Imagery of God Enclosing the Jews Beneath Mt. Sinai (Shabbat 88a) [Talmud Tuesday]
A common midrash that appears in discourse around Purim and especially Shavuot (which is coming up very soon) is that of Rav Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa, as recorded on bShabbat 88a, expounding on Exodus 19:17:
וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ, בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר
“And they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 19:17).
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
Rav Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa, said, “[This] teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He cupped upon them the mountain like a tub (or a vat), and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, then good. And, if not, here will be your grave.'”
One thing that has bothered me greatly is a common misunderstanding of the imagery that can be expressed in the following manner:
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.1
The simplest way of expressing the problem with this description of his midrash is that “Rav Avdimi does not claim that the mountain was suspended over them.”2 Indeed, he does not such language. Rather, as I wrote [nearly nine years ago], “it’s not simply ‘under’ the mountain, but rather inside of the mountain.”3 Otherwise, the language used would have been something along the lines of “The Holy One, blessed be He suspended a mountain above them, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, then good. And, if not, I will drop this mountain upon you.'” There are two problems with this: one: since there is no further action required on God’s behalf for their location to be their grave; two: there is no suspension or lifting up of the mountain [to be dangling in the air].
Thus, it seems, in this midrashic imagery of Rav Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa, that God has enclosed the Israelites within the mountain. Indeed, this is how Rabbi Shmuel Eidels described it centuries ago:
מדלא כתיב תחת ההר וכתיב בתחתית משמע בתוך התחתית כגיגית שמוקפת גם מצדדין והיינו נמי שם תהא קבורתכם כקבר המוקף גם בצדדין
Since it is not written “underneath the mountain”, but it is written “in the tahtit“, it implies that within the insides like a barrel that encompassed them also from the sides. And also, “there will be your grave” – like a grave surrounded also on the sides.4
Curiously, this language appears only once elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud, but, there, too, it appears that this barrel encompasses someone, confronting them with danger.5
What emerges from this imagery is that
Rav Avdimi offers the frightening picture of the Israelites receiving the Torah within Mount Sinai as God overturned “the mountain upon them like an (inverted) cask.” According to Rav Avdimi, God threatened His people with certain death should they refuse the Torah; so, with no viable alternative, they received the Torah under severe duress.6
In a more expanded fashion:
It seems likely that Rav Avdimi’s derashah was designed to convey the notion that the children of Israel, who had witnessed God’s mighty hand in the form of the miraculous plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, and whom God himself had addressed directly at Mount Sinai, had no choice but to accept the Torah. In other words, the image of the overturned and threatening mountain seems to be a picturesque way of saying that with all they had witnessed, the generation of the wilderness could not have refused the Torah.7
In sum, Rav Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa’s imagery of the encounter at Mt. Sinai is typically misconstrued as to paint God hanging the mountain over the Israelites, threatening to drop it on them if they don’t accept the Torah, while an accurate depiction is that his imagery is really that of God having enclosed the Israelites within Mt. Sinai and threatening to simply leave them there should they choose not to accept the Torah.
1. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, “The Significance of Sinai on Purim”, moderntorahleadership (3 March 2015) [https://moderntoraleadership.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/the-significance-of-sinai-on-purim/↩
3. Drew Kaplan, “Finally Figuring Out The Midrash”, Drew Kaplan’s Blog (4 June 2006) [http://drewkaplans.blogspot.com/2006/06/finally-figuring-out-midrash.html]↩
4. מהרש”א על שבת פח., ד”ה שכפה עליהן ההר כגגית ↩
5. See bSanhedrin 77a: “…איתמר כפה עליו גיגית ופרע עליו מעזיבה”↩
6. Amram Tropper, “A Tale of Two Sinais: On the Reception of the Torah according to bShab 88a”, in Rabbinic Traditions between Palestine and Babylonia, ed. Ronit Nikolsky, Tal Ilan (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2014), 148.↩
7. Tropper, “A Tale of Two Sinais”, 148, n. 5.↩