Guest post by Rabbi Eli D. Clark
Rabbi Eli D. Clark lives in Bet Shemesh, Israel. He served as Halakha editor of the Koren Sacks Siddur and also practices international tax law.
Why is there so little Tanakh study in the Orthodox world? If you read Kinot closely, you should have noticed the authors’ comprehensive knowledge of Tanakh. Who has that kind of knowledge today? Very few Gedolim in recent times studied Tanakh seriously. The most recent running commentary on Nakh from a recognized Gadol is that of Malbim, which was published in 1867.
That situation is starting to change in Israel, where Herzog College (next to Yeshivat Har Etzion) has led a resurgence in high-level Orthodox Tanakh study. Last week Herzog held its annual Tanakh Study Week. Over 5 days more than 4,200 people attended 205 different shiurim. The teachers hail from both academia and yeshivot; all are frum. Attendees range from teenagers to nonagenarians, students, teachers, Rabbanim, professionals and retirees. They come for one reason – to learn Torah.
It is difficult to convey the range of the shiurim (the Hebrew list is here – PDF). They cover specific stories, halakhot, personalities and chapters in Tanakh, specific commentators, and such diverse topics as anti-Christian commentary in the Renaissance, vegetarianism before Noach, Rashi’s use of Old French and the inclusion of Megilat Esther in Tanakh.
It is impossible to convey the quality and creativity of the shiurim. As a sample, I will summarize a shiur from last year that relates to this week’s parasha. The ideas are those of R. Dr. Avraham Shama. They are provocative in the best sense of the word. The summary and any errors are my own.
What is the essence of the Sinai experience? In Shemot, there is no advance indication that the revelation at Sinai will involve the giving of mitzvot. “God said to Moshe: ‘Behold I come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you, and also that they may believe in you forever’” (19:9). The goal is experiential, establishing Moshe’s religious authority. The content is secondary.
It may even be that the people do not actually understand the words God speaks at Sinai. Immediately after the revelation in Shemot, we read: “And all the people perceived the thunder and lightning, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking; the people saw it and trembled and stood afar off. They said to Moshe: ‘Speak you with us and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.’ Moshe said to the people: ‘Fear not; for God comes in order to test you, and in order that His fear may be upon you, that you sin not.’” (20:14-16).
In Devarim, on the other hand, it is clear that Sinai is part of the transmission of laws. “Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances …” (4:5). “And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous such as all this Torah” (4:8). “And God commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances” (4:14). In addition, in Devarim, the people are commanded to transmit what they receive to future generations. “Only take heed to yourself …, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children” (4:9). “And that they may teach their children” (4:10). This idea is absent from Shemot.
Thus, in Shemot, the stated purpose of the revelation at Sinai is to serve as the religious foundation for the Israelite who was taken out of Egypt, the covenant, the reason to serve God. Devarim “translates” the covenant into concrete laws and ordinances; it translates a visceral religious experience into a set of legal obligations that can be transmitted to future generations.
What was written on the tablets? Strangely, Shemot never answers that question explicitly. “God said to Moshe: ‘Come up to Me to the mountain and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the mitzvah, which I have written, that you may teach them’” (24:12). What is the specific content of “the Torah and the mitzvah”? Shemot never says; all it tells us is who wrote them. “He gave to Moshe, when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (31:18). “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, inscribed on the tablets” (32:16).
Only in Devarim is the explicit connection made between the tablets and the Ten Commandments. “He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the ten statements; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone” (4:14).
Admittedly, in the case of the second tablets, Shemot provides: “He was there with God forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten statements” (34:28). In light of Devarim, we know that the phrase “the ten statements” refers to the words revealed at Sinai. But, based only on what appears in Shemot, you would not readily conclude that the words revealed at Sinai constitute “ten” statements. There are 14 verses (counting “Anokhi”). There are 15 imperatives. In only one sense, the number of paragraphs, are there ten, and “lo tachmod” is spread over two paragraphs.
Devarim also contains ten paragraphs, but instead of repeating the phrase “lo tachmod” twice, Devarim begins the last paragraph with the words “lo titaveh,” clarifying, so to speak, that each of the ten paragraphs represents a separate commandment.
Perhaps this also explains why Devarim changes the order of the items one is forbidden from coveting. Shemot states: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (20:13). As noted, the command not to covet the house of one’s neighbor is a separate paragraph, but there is no clear reason why coveting his house should be a separate command from coveting his other property. In Devarim, on the other hand, the command not to covet the neighbor’s wife appears as a separate paragraph, followed by the command not to covet his house, servants, livestock and other property.
Thus, both in language and in the order of items listed, Devarim emphasizes that the two final paragraphs are two separate commandments, clarifying the identity of the ten paragraphs with the “ten statements” mentioned at the end of Ki Tisa.
We see that Devarim does not merely repeat the story of Sinai as it appears in Shemot, but presents the episode from a different perspective and in a subtly differently manner.