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The encounter between God and the Jews at Mount Sinai was a totally unique event in all of human history.

by Rabbi Ken Spiro

Passover is often described as the holiday of freedom. And in liberal democracies, freedom is often misunderstood as the ability to do whatever you like with no oppressive authority telling you what to do. But that is not how the Bible and Judaism define freedom. The Jewish idea of freedom is best summarized by the famous expression: “Praise the servants of God who are not servants of Pharaoh.”1 That is, freedom is seen as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself; true freedom means to be free of outside influences and pressures so that we can be free to pursue ultimate meaning – relationship with God.2 In the specific context of the Exodus story, it means being free from an oppressive authority in order to commit to a chosen responsibility at Mount Sinai.
1 2

Talmud, Tractate Megillah 14:a Maharal, Gevurot HaShem, Chapter 51.


Which brings us to the question: What happened at Mount Sinai? To answer quite simply, the Jewish people – every man, woman and child – had an encounter with God. It was a totally unique event in all of human history. The Bible itself states3 that this never happened any place else. You can check all history books, and you’ll never find a similar story of God speaking to an entire people. All other claims about revelation in human history are based on the experience of one individual or at best a small group of initiates. For example, Islam is founded on the teachings of Mohammed who said that an angel spoke to him in a cave and revealed the teachings contained in the Koran to him. The notion of an entire people having an encounter with God Himself is unique to Judaism. And it’s the one claim that cannot be faked. So for example, I can claim that I had a vision last night and God spoke to me, and if I’m charismatic enough and you are gullible enough, you might believe that I am a prophet. But I can’t convince you that you saw something that you know you didn’t see. Maimonides summed it up perfectly when he wrote: The Jewish people did not believe in Moses our teacher because of the miracles he performed. If one believes in something because of miracles, he may suspect that they were performed through sleight of hand or sorcery… We believe in Moses because of what happened at Mount Sinai. Our own eyes saw, not a stranger’s, our own ears heard, and not another’s… The revelation at Sinai is the only real proof that Moses’ prophecy was true and above suspicion…4
3 4

Deuteronomy 4:33.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 8:1; also see his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed) 2:33. And Judah HaLevi, The Kuzari 1:6, 1:81, 1:87.


Jews say that they have kept the Torah for thousands of years, not because of miracles or any other supernatural phenomena of Jewish history, but because they all stood at Mount Sinai and heard God speak, and for generation after generation that very fact was passed down. And the story of the survival of the Jews as a people is, to a large extent, the story of the chain of transmission of Torah from one generation to the next.

A Nation is Born
At Mount Sinai, the descendants of Jacob and his 12 sons, who had escaped from slavery in Egypt, who had been known until then as Hebrews and/or Israelites, become the Nation of Israel. This is another unique event which says a lot about the Jewish people. What’s so unique about it? Well, consider how the French became “the French.” Did they all wake up one morning to collectively decide they liked white wine and blue cheese, and they were going to speak French? No. It was a long process. As with every other nation, this process involved a people living in a specific geographic area for an extended period of time and evolving a common language and a common culture born of a shared historical experience. Eventually, this people developed a political entity and government (with a king at its head) and they defined their boundaries, flew a flag, minted coins and called the whole thing France. For Jews, the process of becoming a nation started outside their national homeland – in fact, while they were in bondage and under the most adverse conditions designed to erase any cultural or historical identity. Jews did not become a nation by pledging allegiance to the State of Israel. A scraggly band of escaped slaves became a nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and saying to God, “We will do and we will listen” – that is, pledging to fulfill the commandments of the Torah and with time to understand the mission that came with it. Just as Abraham many generations earlier made the choice and

commitment to live, and if necessary to die, for the reality of the one God, so too, these descendants of Abraham made the same commitment. And


that is what made them a nation. And that is why we say that Judaism is not just a religion – it’s a national identity. Being a Jew is not the same as being a Christian. Christianity is purely a religious belief. You could be British, American, French and still be a Christian. Not so the Jews. The Jews can certainly become citizens of the countries in which they live and they often look and act like everyone else, but all the while, they and everyone else knows they are different. If they choose to deny this fact, the rest of the world will always remind them of it. Being a Jew is being part of a distinct people and a nation, which does have a land, language and history. Most importantly, however, and what lies at the heart of Jewish identity, is a specific relationship with God – a commitment to carry out the mission of Tikkun HaOlam. To maintain that relationship and to fulfill that mission, the Jews subscribe to an allencompassing worldview – another thing that makes them unique – that is spelled out in the Torah. The Jewish national identity was forged by the experience at Mount Sinai where the Jews committed to a particular way of life to be lived in accordance with the commandments of the Torah, which is the guidebook for accomplishing their mission on a personal and national level.5

The Ultimate Scribe
After the original mass revelation, Moses spent 40 days listening to God talking to him, dictating to him what came to be known as the basis of the Written Law, the 613 commandments of the Torah (which are encapsulated in Ten Statements, the so-called “Ten Commandments”) and also the principles how to apply these commandments (called the Oral Law).6

Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 88a (see in particular Tosafot commentary), also see Talmud, Tractates Shavuot 29a, Nedarim 25a, and Midrash, Breishit Rabbah 87:9.


Talmud, Tractates Brachot 5a, Sotah 37b, Chagigah 6a, Zevachim 115a; also see Sefer HaMitzvot, Shoresh 1, and Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Introduction.


It is interesting that some 1,300 years after the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, when Christianity came on the scene, it adopted the Written Law – the Torah and other parts of the Hebrew Bible – as part of its scriptures, but the Oral Law stayed uniquely Jewish, because it is the Oral Law that specifies how Jews must live every second of life. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough how significant the Oral Law is. One can’t live as a Jew without it. It’s going to become a very important issue when we look at splinter sects in Judaism later on in Jewish history. The Written Law was written down over a period of 40 years while the Jews wandered in the desert and God was dictating to Moses.

Although the Torah – Genesis, Exodus,

Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – are called the Five Books of Moses, Moses was not the author. God was the author. Moses was the scribe – the ultimate scribe. God dictated to Moses. However, it also very clear – as the Bible says over and over – that Moses was unique among all prophets: And there arose no prophet in Israel like Moses whom God knew face to face.8 Contrary to common misconception, prophecy is not the ability to predict the future, but a process whereby God communicates directly with someone, and He may reveal to him or her messages for humanity, profound spiritual truths, and sometimes what the future holds. Clearly, prophecy is not something that just happens to someone. To achieve prophecy means that a person is able to perfect himself or herself and transcend to a higher level of spiritual reality, and of course, what that level is depends on the prophet’s direct experience of the Infinite. (For more details about the Jewish understanding of prophecy see class #25.)

There’s a lot of material in the Bible that explains what happens later on in their wanderings, so obviously this wasn’t given in advance at Mount Sinai. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Introduction; Sefer Chasidim 1016; Midrash, Shemot Rabbah 5:18; Midrash, BaMidbar Rabbah 14:35; Talmud, Tractates Bava Batra 15a, Gittin 60a, Menachot 30a. 8 Deuteronomy 34:10.



Most prophets would be asleep or in a trance when God would communicate with them via a vision. They would later put that vision into words. Moses’ prophecy was unique in that God spoke to him while awake and fully conscious, as the Bible testifies: And He said, “Hear now My words. If there is a prophet among you, I, God, will make Myself known to him in a vision and will speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses, for he is the trusted one in all My house. With him, I speak mouth to mouth, openly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the image of God.”9 Moses heard God directly.10 And the Five Books of Moses – that is, the Torah – are considered a direct dictation, and which is why they have a unique position among all holy books of the Jewish people and a unique authority in the Jewish world.



Numbers 12:6-8. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1-6.


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