Lecture 197: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (VI) – The Covenant at the Foot of Mount Sinai
This week’s shiurim are dedicated in loving memory
of Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky z”l whose yahrzeit is 17 Cheshvan
of Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky z”l whose yahrzeit is 17 Cheshvan
In our previous shiur, we began to examine the erection of the altar and the twelve pillars at the foot of Mount Sinai, as described at the end of Parashat Mishpatim. We discussed the relationship between the site of the altar and the site of Moshe's breaking of the first set of the tablets, as well as the ramifications of this issue with respect to the sanctity of Mount Sinai.
In the coming shiurim, we will continue to examine several additional aspects of this issue. Our goal is to understand the essence of the covenant entered into at the foot of Mount Sinai, the significance of the sacrifices offered there by the young men of Israel, and the sprinkling of the blood on the altar and on the people.
We have chosen to expand upon the covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai both because of its special significance and because of the important novelties that were introduced there into the sacrificial service with respect to the relationship between an altar and a pillar, the identity of those offering the sacrifices (the young men of Israel/firstborns), and the nature of the sacrifices that were offered (peace-offerings, and not only burnt-offerings).
It is not our intention to cover all aspects of the covenant, but rather to focus on the matters relevant to our study.
The erection of the altar and the twelve pillars was part of the covenant entered into at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Torah records the events in the following order:
- God commands Moshe: "Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples, for all the earth is mine" (Shemot 19:5).
- The people answer: "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (ibid. v. 8).
- God commands Moshe to tell the people to be ready by the third day for a Divine revelation (ibid. v. 11).
- The Ten Commandments are heard. The people are alarmed and ask not to hear the commandments directly from the mouth of God. God accedes to their request, and transmits the rest of the mitzvot to Israel by way of Moshe, and not in direct manner.
- After God gives the commandments to Moshe, He wishes to enter into a covenant with Israel. God commands Moshe to come up to Him with Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders.
- Moshe goes to the people and tells them all the words of God and the judgments, and they promise to keep them.
- Moshe writes all the words of God in a book and begins to make the covenant. He builds an altar, erects twelve pillars, sacrifices burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, divides the blood into two parts, and sprinkles half of the blood on the altar.
- Moshe reads from the book of the covenant, and the people once again promise to obey God. Moshe sprinkles the second half of the blood on the people, and the covenant then takes force.
- Following the making of the covenant, Moshe, Aharon, his sons, and the elders ascend the mountain, as they had been commanded.
We will discuss several issues:
- The timing of the covenant: Did this take place prior to the giving of the Torah or afterwards?
- The significance of the building of an altar and twelve pillars.
- The people who offered the sacrifices (young men/firstborns).
- The details of the sacrifices: burnt-offerings, peace-offerings, the sprinkling of blood on the altar and on the people.
The Special Status of the Covenant
There is no doubt about the special importance of the covenant between God and the people of Israel and of the importance that Scripture assigns to it. At the foundation of the covenant lie the Ten Commandments, as is stated explicitly:
And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Words. (Shemot 34:28)
And He declared to you His covenant, which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Words, and he wrote them upon two tablets of stone. (Devarim 4:13)
Similarly in the Torah's introduction to the Ten Commandments in the book of Devarim, it says:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Chorev. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. (Devarim 5:2-3)
Even though the book of the covenant contained more mitzvot than the Ten Commandments and they were added to the book by Moshe, it is the Ten Commandments that are termed the words of the covenant, as they comprise the foundation of all the commandments and of God's covenant with the people of Israel.
Regarding the covenant itself, Moshe was commanded to go up with Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel, who were to participate to the extent possible as representatives of all the people of Israel, the priests, and the judges. The entire nation of Israel had to be full partners in the making of the covenant; the High Priests, their children, and the judges were chosen to represent the entire people. During the making of the covenant, all of the people of Israel saw to a certain decree with whom they were entering into a covenant, at different levels of intimacy. The nobles beheld the God of Israel – "And they beheld God" – while the people saw "the sight of the glory of the Lord like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain."
This covenant enjoys unique importance; it expresses the eternal relationship between God and the people of Israel. While the covenants that preceded it in the book of Bereishit – the covenant with Noah and the covenant with the patriarchs and the tribes – related to the particular events and characters connected to them, here, for the first time after the exodus from Egypt and in direct relationship to the giving of the Torah, a covenant was made between God and the people of Israel. In this sense, the previous covenants served as early stages that led up to this important event.
In the same measure, it may be argued that the later covenants – the covenant at the plains of Moav prior to Israel's entry into the land, the covenant made by Yehoshua in Eretz Yisrael on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, and the covenants made by certain kings of Judah – are a continuation and further development of this fundamental covenant, which the Torah mentions several times in the book of Shemot and in the book of Devarim.
The Covenant of the Basins and the Binding of Yitzchak
R. Yonatan Grossman has convincingly demonstrated how the binding of Yitzchak at the Akeida serves as the background for the covenant of the basins. In both cases, a group of people are brought near to a mountain, and a small percentage of them continue to go up to the mountain, while the rest wait for their return. The correspondence expresses itself not only substantively, but linguistically as well. Identical terms and expressions are used in both stories. In both stories, altars are built; here, “young men” of Israel are sent, while in the Akeida story, we read, "Send not your hand upon the lad."
What this correspondence means is that the covenant of the basins is a type of Akeida. Just as Avraham, a single individual, was asked to bind his son as an offering, the entire people of Israel as a collective was similarly asked to offer their young men to God, and the young men offer burnt-offerings as a substitute for themselves.
On the other hand, while the Akeida clarified Avraham's fear of God, the covenant of the basins at the foot of Mount Sinai was characterized by love and joy. There, peace-offerings were brought along with the burnt-offerings, and feasting took place as part of the covenant itself: "And they beheld God, and did eat and drink" (Shemot 24:15).
The Akeida took place in total isolation; the altar built by Avraham was built at the top of the mountain. In contrast, the altar at the covenant of the basins was found at the foot of the mountain and the entire people participated in this meeting with God.
When was the Covenant Made?
The Mekhilta records a Tannaitic dispute about when the covenant was made:
What did Moshe do? On the fifth [of Sivan], he rose up early in the morning and built an altar, as it is stated: "And he rose up early in the morning and built an altar under the hill" (Shemot 24:4). He erected twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel; these are the words of R. Yehuda… R. Yose son of R. Yehuda said: On that very day, all the actions were taken. (Yitro, Massekhta De-Bachodesh 3)
According to R. Yehuda, the covenant was made before the giving of the Torah, whereas according to R. Yose son of R. Yehuda, it was entered into after the giving of the Torah. Proof to the former position may be adduced from the way the story is reported in the book of Devarim:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Chorev… The Lord talked with you face to face in the mountain out of the midst of the fire. (Devarim 5:2-5)
These verses suggest that the covenant was made before the Ten Commandments were given.
In addition, the Tanna’im disagree about the date on which the covenant was made, and especially about the relationship between the covenant and the revelation at Sinai. The Abravanel presents this as a dispute between the French sages, headed by Rashi, and the Spanish sages. The French sages assert that the covenant was made prior to the giving of the Torah. Throughout their commentaries to the Torah, they make frequent use of the principle that the Torah does not necessarily report events in their chronological order. According to this view, a distinction must be made between the order of events as reported in the Torah and the actual order of events. Accordingly, an explanation must be offered as to why the Torah reported the events out of chronological order.
The Spanish sages, in contrast, conclude that the covenant was made after the Torah was given, in accordance with the order of events as reported in the Torah. The Ramban, throughout his commentary to the Torah, tries to prove that the events described in the Torah were reported in their chronological order. He invokes the rule that the Torah reports events out of their chronological order only in cases in which the Torah itself forces us to arrange the events in an order that is different from the order in which they are reported.
Let us examine the various opinions and try to understand why some put the covenant before the giving of the Torah, whereas others put it after the giving of the Torah. What is the significance of the various arguments?
The Covenant Preceded the Revelation at Mount Sinai
The following are the rationales and explanations brought by those who say that the covenant was made before the Torah was given:
- The phrase, "And to Moshe He said" (ve-el Moshe amar) (Shemot 24:1) indicates the distant past.
- According to this opinion, the content of the book of the covenant is, as stated by R. Yehuda HaNasi in the Mekhilta, the mitzvot that were given prior to the giving of the Torah, or else the entire book of Bereishit and Shemot until the beginning of the account of the revelation at Sinai (Shemot 19:1). According to this approach, "And Moshe came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the judgments" (Shemot 24:3), refers to the judgments of God that were given prior to the giving of the Torah.
- The Torah in the book of Devarim (5:27) describes how after the Torah was given, the people of Israel returned to their tents, whereas to Moshe it was said: "But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I gave them to possess it" (ibid. v. 28). Among the commandments and statutes and judgments listed in the book of Devarim, some were given to Moshe during his forty-day stay on Mount Sinai. According to this, Moshe's forty-day stay on the mountain began immediately after the Ten Commandments were received, and no covenant interrupted between them. Accordingly, the entire Parasha of Mishpatim was given earlier in Mara, and later a covenant was made prior to the giving of the Torah.
It is possible that the Ten Commandments were stated after the revelation of the Shekhina described in Shemot 24:10-11), and afterwards Moshe was commanded to receive the tablets on the mountain.
The Covenant Followed the Revelation at Mount Sinai
The Ramban raises several objections against those who say that the covenant was made before the Torah was given.
According to their understanding, the events are reported out of chronological order, for the Torah first describes what happened after the Torah was given, and then goes back and relates what happened before the Torah was given.
The Torah states: "And Moshe came and told [va-yesaper] the people all the words of the Lord and all the judgments" (Shemot 24:3). According to Rashi and those who follow his approach, the reference here is to the laws that were taught at Mara. But the word va-yesaper implies a new teaching, rather than a repetition of that which had already been taught, and it would have been more appropriate to use a different term.
Like the Ramban, the Ibn Ezra and the Seforno also locate the covenant after the giving of the Torah. According to this view, the events reported in the Torah are reported in their chronological order. After the Ten Commandments, God once again warns the people of Israel about the prohibition of idolatry (Shemot 20:20: "You shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold." He then teaches Parashat Mishpatim, at the end of which the people of Israel are admonished once again not to practice idolatry when they enter the Land of Israel. God commands Moshe to go up with Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel. Moshe goes to the people and teaches them the parasha of Ki Tomar (Shemot 20:20-23) and Parashat Mishpatim, and the people of Israel joyously accept upon themselves all of these obligations. The next day, a covenant is made, Moshe builds an altar, the young men of Israel offer sacrifices, and Moshe reads the book of the covenant in the hearing of the people. The people of Israel commit themselves to fulfilling the covenant and Moshe sprinkles the blood on the altar and on the people. Moshe goes up the mountain the next morning, immediately after the covenant, to receive the tablets of stone and the commandments.
The Meaning of the Various Opinions
The commentators do not relate directly to the meaning of the timing of the covenant. We will briefly address this issue.
Those who say that the covenant was made before the Torah was given view the covenant as a condition or preparation for the giving of the Torah, or else that the very making of a covenant obligates the immediate fulfillment of the commandments.
Those who say that the covenant was made after the Torah was given view the giving of the Torah as part of the entire package concerning which the covenant was made. They understand that everything that came before was a preparation for the giving of the Torah.
The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments prepared the hearts of the people of Israel and readied them to agree to enter freely and full-heartedly into a covenant with God.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 We have described the main actions as they appear in the Torah in order to present the framework of the covenant and as explained in the commentary of R. D.Z. Hoffmann.
 Those who enter into a covenant ordinarily make at least two written copies of the content of the covenant, one of which is kept by each of the parties to the covenant. Israel's copy of the covenant was written by Moshe and included in the book of the Torah, whereas God's copy was written by God Himself on the tablets of stone, which Moshe was commanded to take from the top of the mountain. When the Mishkan was built, the tablets were placed in the ark for safekeeping, as it were, under the feet of God, who rests on the keruvim on top of the kaporet on the ark. For this reason, the parasha of the covenant concludes with Moshe's ascending of the mountain to receive the tablets.
 It is interesting that the participants on the side of Israel are called "the nobles of the people of Israel," an expression that is not found in any other context.
 Yonatan Grossman, "Va-Yar et Ha-Makom Mei-Rahok," Megadim 25 (Kislev 1996), pp. 79-90.
 It should be noted that the Mekhilta supports the position of Rashi, and not that of the Ramban. When the Mekhilta describes the giving of the Torah, it says:
R. Yishmael says: At the beginning of the matter, what does it say? “And the Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come to the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field…'” (Vayikra 25:1-3) – sabbatical years, jubilee years, blessings and curses. At the end of the matter, what does it say? “These are the statutes and the judgments and the laws, which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moshe” (Vayikra 26:46). They said: We accept them upon ourselves. When he saw that they accepted them, he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, as it is stated: “And Moshe took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you concerning all these words'” (Shemot 24:8). He said to them: You are now tied, looped, and held fast [by the covenant]. Tomorrow, come and accept upon yourselves all of the commandments" (Mekhilta, Massekhta De-bachodesh 3, pp. 211-212).