Sinai – The Mountain

Here is a paradox for your perusal. On the one hand, Har Sinai is a constant presence in our lives.The Ramban (Devorim 4:9) emphasizes that it is a positive command to inform our descendants of the experience of Har Sinai, and that a person who forgets the events of Har Sinai has transgressed a negative command.Sinai is a memory to live by. On the other hand, little attention is given to remembering the mountain itself. Even its exact location is a matter of speculation. There is dissonance between the physical mountain itself and what we received upon the mountain.

Subsequent Story of the Mountain

The story of what happened to Har Sinai after Matan Torah is sparse. Far into the Tanach, the mountain reappears for the first time when Eliyohu Hanovi felt he was unsuccessful in his fight against King Achav and his battle to draw Klal Yisroel to Hashem. During this episode, an angel gives him sufficient food for forty days and forty nights, and he travels to Chorev [another name for Har Sinai], the mountain of Hashem. There, Hashem appears to him not with wind, fire or earthquake, but with a still small voice, and instructs him to anoint Elishah as navi in his place (I Melochim ch. 19). This incident indicates Har Sinai retained a level of spiritual significance. A teaching of Pirkei Avos (6:2) intimates the same idea: “Every day a heavenly voice goes out from MountChorev and announces and says, ‘Woe to people for the humiliation of the Torah.’”

Where is the mountain located? Chazal give us no clue where to find it. The Gemara (Bava Basra 74a) relates how an Arab trader once showed Raba bar bar Chana the location of Har Sinai and how he heard a heavenly voice bemoaning the golus of Klal Yisroel, “Woe to me that I made an oath; and now that I have made an oath, who will annul it for me?” But it says nothing of the mountain’s location.

Josephus does specify its whereabouts, laconically informing us that it is somewhere within Arabia Petraea. Since this Roman province includes modern Jordan, southern Syria, the Sinai Peninsula, and part of Saudi Arabia, his hint is not tremendously useful.

Academics, mostly non-Jewish, have expended vast time and effort trying to track down the mountain, striving, but not always succeeding to find a mountain that is close to Midyan, three days’ walk from Egypt, has a stream running from it, and has room for a gigantic crowd at its foot. Everyone wants to throw another suggestion into the ring. So far, there are about thirty candidates for the mysterious mountain. Of course, every theorist is convinced that his theory is the correct one.

What comes to mind when you think of Har Sinai?One of the craggy, crevassed mountains peppering the Sinai Peninsula? Non-Jewish “tradition” identifies the mountain as a 7,497 feet peak near St. Catherine in the Sinai region. Another tradition places the mountain at nearby Mount Serbal. A later claim favors Jebel Musa that is also in the same area. Other Sinai candidates include Mount Sin Bishar, Mount Helal, and Mount Hashem el-Tarif. Some scholars have suggested looking for the mountain in Saudi Arabia, and one Jewish scholar went to the extent of claiming it is somewhere in Africa. As for Jews the importance of Har Sinai is not so much where it is now, but the purpose it served in the past.

Indeed, the Torah itself clearly states that the awesome kedushah that pervaded Har Sinai during Matan Torah was only temporary and that it would eventually dissipate. As the verse says, No hand shall touch it, for animal or man who will be stoned or thrown down, whoever touches it shall not live. When the trumpet sounds long they will ascend the mountain (Shemos 19:13).

The Gemara (Taanis 21b) explains that the mountain was important because of Hashem’s presence. Once He left, it reverted to what it was before.

What triggered the Gemara’s discussion? Rav Nachman bar Rav Chisda was urging Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok to leave a town where the people had a lower standard of learning, and move to a town that was full of important talmidei chachomim. In reply, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok cited a dictum of Rabi Yossi:

“It is not the place that makes a person honorable, but the person who brings honor to his place. For so we find at Har Sinai. All the time Hashem’s presence rested there the Torah said, Also, flock and cattle shall not graze opposite the mountain. But once Hashem’s presence left, the Torah said, When the shofar blows long they shall ascend the mountain (Shemos 19:13). We find the same with the Ohel Mo’ed in the desert. All the time it was set up, the Torah said, They shall send from the camp every tzaru’a (Bamidbar 5:2). But once its curtains were rolled up, all zavin and metzora’in were permitted to enter there.”

It would seem that the same rule applies to the Mishkons of Eretz Yisroel. The Gemara (Zevochim 112b)says that after Shiloh was destroyed, people were again permitted to offer sacrifices onaltars located outside the Mishkon. Similarly, it would seem that even though the Mishkon stood at Shiloh for 369 years from soon after the Jews entered Eretz Yisroel until the holy aron was captured in the days of Shmuel Hanovi, we can happily walk over the rocks where it was once located.

This is just as well because no one knows its exact location. It is true that the 19th century explorer, Charles William Wilson, suggested the northern plateau of Tel Shiloh as a good candidate for the Mishkon’s site and aerial photos indicate that the area was hewn for some specific purpose. Nonetheless, despite archeological excavations since 1922, no one has pinpointed the Mishkon’s location with certainty. File this together with the lost Har Sinai.

Where did Hashem’s Glory Move To?

At what point did Hashem’s glory leave Har Sinai? The Rishonim propose several answers. In his long commentary, the Ibn Ezra suggests that this happened at the precise time Hashem’s glory filled the Mishkon:

“The glory was continually on the mountain until the Mishkon was erected, as it is written: And the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkon (Shemos 40:34). Afterwards, it spoke with Moshe in the Tent of Meeting. It was perhaps then that Moshe blew the shofar and granted permission to ascend [the mountain] following the departure of the glory.”

This parallels the opinion of the Ramban (beginning of parshas Terumah)that the glory of Sinai transferred to the Mishkon:

“The secret of the Mishkon is that the glory that dwelt at Har Sinai should dwell upon it in secret [and not publicly as at Har Sinai]. For the verse says there, And the glory of Hashem rested on Har Sinai (24:16)… and so it says in the Mishkon, And the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkon (40:34). The glory that appeared to them at Har Sinai was constantly with Yisroel in the Mishkon. When Moshe entered it, the word spoken to him at Sinai came to him… It was heard from between the keruvim similarly to [the verse], And His words you heard from the midst of the fire (Devorim 4:36). This is why they were both gold [that is the color of fire].”

In other words, the public revelation of Hashem’s glory at Har Sinai continued as a permanent, but hidden revelation in the Mishkon.

Rabbeinu Bechaye (Bamidbor 7:87)finds more parallels between Har Sinai and the Mishkon: “Just as [Hashem] descended upon Har Sinai with groups of ministering angels, so Yisroel assembled into groups (degolim) when the Mishkon traveled. Just as He made a border around Har Sinai and said, No hand shall touch it (Shemos 19:13), so He made borders for the Mishkon, And the stranger who draws near shall die (1:51). Here too, when the inauguration of the altar was complete and the Mishkon was erected, they offered twelve sacrifices. Corresponding to this, at Har Sinai Moshe built twelve matzevos for the twelve tribes of Yisroel.”

Elsewhere (Shemos 19:17), Rabbeinu Bechaye enumerates four parallel levels of sanctity for the mountain and the Mikdosh. At Sinai the four levels were the bottom of the mountain, the top of the mountain, the cloud, and the thick cloud. In the Mikdosh we have the gate of the courtyard, the courtyard, the heichal, and the holy of holies.

The Bais Hamikdosh

Unlike Sinai where Hashem’s presence was temporary and transitory, the Bais Hamikdosh retains its kedushah forever. Because of this, the Rambam (Bais Habechirah 6:15-16) writes that it is theoretically possible to offer korbonos at the site of the Bais Hamikdosh even after it is destroyed. Due to practical considerations, however, this is difficult or impossible to carry out.

Despite Hashem’s glory leaving Sinai and transferring to the Mishkan and the Bais Hamikdosh, it is clear from the sources at the beginning of this article that Sinai retained some degree of importance for it was chosen as the site of one of Eliyahu’s visions and remains the source of a heavenly voice that imparts an important message to mankind every day. This was the place where Moshe saw the burning bush, and this is where he met Aharon on his way to Egypt.

Indeed, the Zohar (Shemos 21) writes that Har Sinai was no normal mountain but prepared for Moshe since the creation. “Said Rabi Aba, ‘They were prepared for each other since the six days of creation.’”

In a similar vein the medrash (Medrash Tehillim 68) says, “From where did Sinai come? Said Rabi Yossi, ‘It was uprooted from Har HaMamoriah like challah from dough, from the place where Yitzchok Avinu was bound… And from where do we know that it will return in the future? Because it says (Yeshayahu 2:2), The mountain of the house of Hashem will be established at the top of the mountains.

The Yalkut (Yeshayahu 391) goes even further, saying that the two mountains will one day reunite: “In the future, the Holy One will bring Sinai and Tabor and Carmel [to Yerushalayim] and build the Bais Hamikdosh on top of them.”

May we soon witness that wonderful day.

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