The Centrality of the Covenant

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Yisro

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Why did God compel the Jewish people to accept the Torah?

Moshe led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 19:17)

The Medresh Tanchuma (Noach, no. 3) notes that while the Jewish people did indeed declare “All that God has spoken, we will perform and we will listen” (Ex. 24:7), they were not as enthusiastic about the prospect of accepting the Oral Torah. Thus, the Talmud (Shabbos 88a) illustrates how God made them an offer they could not refuse:

“…and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.” (Ex. 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: [the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse] teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above [the Jews] like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to [the obligation to fulfill the] Torah. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Achashveirosh, as it is written: “[The Jews] ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: [The Jews] ordained what they had already taken upon themselves [through coercion at Sinai].

The Gemara teaches us that until the time of the Purim story, in which the Jewish people willingly accepted the Oral Torah,the Jewish people could potentially claim that they did not enter into this agreement of their own accord.

The Parshas Derachim (Homilee no. 22) inquires, however, why the Jewish people would not simply be bound by the principle of Dina D’Malchusa Dina, that one is obligated to follow the laws of the country that they currently reside in (see Nedarim 28a). In other words, there should be no recourse for failing to adhere to the Oral Law – “The earth is the LORD’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants” (Psalms 24:1)- and we should be bound by His edicts regardless of whether we willingly express consent.

Interestingly, the Ran (Nedarim 28a, s.v. B’Moches) qualifies the principle Dina D’Malchusa Dina by excluding the rulership of the Land of Israel. In theory, we might be tempted to suggest that such an exception might even preclude the King of Kings. However, the logic behind Dina D’Malchusa Dina is that since the ruler of a given country has the right to expel people from his land, it follows that he also has the right to legislate laws for his land to determine whether one is an upstanding citizen and worthy of residing there. While a king has no right to expel the Jewish people from the land of Israel, it is patently clear from the fact that God exiled the Jewish people twice that He indeed posseses the right to do so. This brings us back to our initial question – why then did God necessitate the Jewish people formally accepting the Torah when they would just as easily be bound under the principle of Dina D’Malchusa Dina?

This brings us to another exception to the principle of Dina D’Malchusa Dina: The laws of the country must be equitable and non-discriminatory in nature (see Tur C.M. 369). For instance, if the government imposes a higher tax for its Jewish citizens, then the Jewish population would not be religiously required to oblige. Thus, when God sought to legislate the 613 commandments to the Jewish people, He could not bind them under Dina D’Malchusa Dina, since it would be singling out and imposing a higher burden upon the Jewish people in contrast to the other nations of the world who are only required to adhere to the Seven Noahide Laws.

Finally, R. Mordechai Carlebach asserts that Dina D’Malchusa Dina is simply the wrong mechanism to effectuate what God sought to accomplish. God did not simply wish to impose additional commandments upon the Jewish people, rather He desired to enter into a covenant with them. Such a covenant would entail conversion in which the very essence of every individual (gavra) would be consecrated for the worship of God. God did not merely intend to increase our worship on a quantitative level, but rather wished to enhance it qualitatively in the form of an everlasting relationship. Thus, the Jewish people needed to accept the Torah, otherwise there would be no covenantal bond between God and His nation. 

However, the fact that the Jewish people converted at Mount Sinai raises a peculiar halachic conundrum. The Talmud (Kerisus 9a) teaches us that “one who converts is like a newly born child,” whereby he severs any legal bond to his biological family. This leads the supercommentary, Gur Aryeh (Gen. 46:10), to inquire how there could be a prohibition of incestual relations amongst the generation that stood at Mount Sinai:  If those who stood at Sinai converted, and thereby severed their earlier relationships, then effectively none of the Jewish people at that time would be considered relatives, thus there should be no sin of incest? The Gur Aryeh answers that unlike a lone convert who breaks from his trajectory to join the Jewish faith, the Children of Israel were always intended to take on the mantle and transcend to the status of the Jewish people. Thus, those who entered at the covenant at Mount Sinai were not actually becoming born anew – rather, they were fulfilling the destiny that was intended for them all along. 

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria,, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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