Parshat Yitro

Parshat Yitro

The prohibitions surrounding Mount Sinai

In anticipation of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai the people are commanded to keep their distance from the mountain:

Set bounds to the people around it, saying ‘Guard yourselves from going up on the mountain and touching its edge, for all who touch the mountain will surely be put to death. No hand will touch him, but he will surely be stoned or shot through, whether beast or man he will not live; when the yovel sounds they will ascend the mount.’ (Shmot 19, 12-13)

These verses are an exhaustive description of the prohibitions surrounding Mount Sinai; not only are the people prohibited from ascending the mountain, they may not even touch it. On a simple level the function of these prohibitions is to create an atmosphere of holiness and sanctity. Separation and differentiation do not only create distance, there is also a positive aspect to the prohibition as the distance creates the space necessary for a higher level of spirituality.

A midrash in the Mechilta describes the importance of each detail enumerated in the prohibition and the unique role each one plays:

“Set bounds to the people:” I infer to the east of the mountain, so the text says “around it.”

“Saying:” This teaches us that they were forewarned (which means they can be punished if they transgress).

“‘Guard yourselves:” A prohibition (a commandment not to act).

“From going up on the mountain:” Is it possible that although he can’t go up he can still touch it? [To negate this possibility] the text says “and touching its edge.”

Can it be that he can’t go up and he can’t touch but he can go up on a litter? [To negate this possibility] the text says, “Going up the mountain and touching its edge.”

(Mechilta d’R.Y. Yitro, Masechta d’b’Chodesh, 3)

According to the midrash the word “surrounding” comes to eliminate the possibility that one would try to climb the mountain by skirting the edge only to approach it and ascend from a different direction. The midrash also points out that the prohibition against touching the mountain and the prohibition against going up the mountain are to be understood both jointly and independently. One cannot try to get around them by ascending in a strange way, like using a litter or stretcher, since according to the Mechilta the multiple details constitute multiple prohibitions. Yet this also means that the prohibition against touching the mountain is not merely meant as a safeguard against ascending the mountain, since one can ascend the mountain without touching it, or touch it without going up.

The Maharal’s commentary expands on the approach advanced by the midrash and claims that the verses were written in such a way that there would be no possible loophole the people could exploit to ascend the mountain or even touch its edge.

“And touching its edge”- even [its edge]. This doesn’t mean specifically “its edge” is prohibited and that if he skipped [over it] and didn’t touch the edge [but touched an area further inside] it is permitted- for there is no logic in such an argument. (Gur Aryeh, Shmot 19)

The Maharal explains that the extra detail is not only meant to bolster the prohibition, create sanctity, or to prevent any loopholes; it is there to prevent overthinking. The words “and touching its edge” are not meant to be understood as a prohibition only against touching the edge of the mountain, but that it would be permissible if one were to find a way to leap over the prohibited edge and touch an area that is higher. Such a thought may sound preposterous, but the fact that the Maharal entertains the idea that someone could think this way shows that he believes that the prohibition was stated in a way that specifically addressed the type of people who were looking for a way to circumvent it.

Therefore, it seems that the Maharal is trying to teach us something about the type of person who would commit such a sin. He tells us to pay attention to the person the Torah is addressing. Like the old adage goes, “The punishment fits the crime,” and so we can gain valuable insight into the type of person who would commit this sin if we study the type of punishment given to the transgressor. We are told, “He shall surely be stoned or shot through.” Rav Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz, the author of Panim Yafot (and Sefer Hahafla’a) explains the connection between the type of crime and the type of punishment:

“You shall not let a witch live:” We must interpret the abnormal language of “shall not let a witch live” instead of saying, “surely be put to death”… because witches tend to hide themselves through magic so they can’t be killed, and so we must find creative ways so that they do not live…

Similarly we should interpret the verse “whether beast or man it shall not live.” Since it says in the beginning, “for all who touch the mountain will surely be put to death”… for if he went up the mountain one cannot go after him to catch him to stone him, so one has to find creative ways to kill him… (Panim Yafot, Shmot 22, 17)

The Panim Yafot compares witches and magicians to those who try to sneak up Mount Sinai. Initially the comparison seems to be practical; in both cases the sins they commit make them difficult to catch and punish. But there is an additional, more intrinsic, similarity which deserves to be further explored. Both these groups are trying to connect to a higher level of sanctity, and while the holiness they are trying to connect to may give them strength they attain it by committing a sin, going up an unacceptable path.

The Mechilta taught us that each of these prohibitions exists independently, and that we should not view these prohibitions as concentric circles where one prohibition merely expands upon the other that is included within it. Instead, these prohibitions are more like a Venn Diagram, two completely separate circles that stand for two completely separate prohibitions. At a certain point they may overlap, yet ultimately they exist independently of each other. The Maharal explained that the linguistic style of the verses is meant to address a certain type of person the Torah identifies as problematic. Finally, the Panim Yafot provided us with an additional insight, that the Torah is addressing a specific type of person, one who uses invalid means to attain holiness.

When we combine these insights we get a more complete picture of the type of person the Torah is addressing. Looking at the whole we can see two prohibitions that work on two different levels and address two different types of people. There is a fundamental difference between ascending the mountain and touching the mountain. Someone who ascends the mountain is looking for instant gratification, immediate sanctity. They want to bask in the atmosphere of holiness at the peak. The problem with such a lofty aspiration is that it betrays a lack of faith in the process. While this person believes in God they don’t believe that there is a process through which holiness can be attained. They think they do not need to climb from the bottom of the mountain, and that they can skip steps or make up their own path and still attain holiness.

On the other hand there is the one who touches the edge of the mountain without attempting to ascend it. Such a person has wrongly converted holiness into something tangible, something that can be absorbed through physical contact like people who try to kiss the hand of their Rabbi. They think that they can rely on such physical contact to fulfill their spiritual needs; instead of working themselves they rely on others to make the long journey for them.  

Those who wish to ascend the mountain do not want to touch it, and those who wish to touch it do not want to ascend. Here we have two distinct, inappropriate attempts to connect to holiness. One denies all boundaries and strives to access the heights of holiness while skipping over all the obligations that stem from the experience. The other is an irrational acceptance of the idea of holiness that desires contact with holiness without taking on any of the responsibilities or demands that such contact entails.  

Sun, 26 February 2017 30 Shevat 5777