Yitro & Bereishit: Don’t Even Touch It

Finally, after walking through the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula for two and a half months, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers arrive at Mount Sinai, where Moses first encountered God.1

They camp at the foot of the mountain, and Moses climbs up and down four times in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23). On each trip, he gets instructions from God at the top, and reports them to the people below.

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton, 19th century

The second time Moses climbs up, God tells him:

“Here I am, coming to you in a thick canopy of cloud, so that the people will hear my words along with you, and also [so that] they will trust you forever!” (Exodus/Shemot 19:9)

No one will be able to see God, but all the people will hear God’s words—an extraordinary phenomena.

And God said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. And they must wash their clothes. And they must be ready for the third day, because on the third day, God will come down on Mount Sinai before the eyes of the people. And you must set boundaries for the people all around [the mountain], saying: Guard yourselves against going up on the mountain, or negoa its outskirts.  Anyone hanogeia the mountain must definitely die.” (Exodus19:10-12)

negoa (נְגוֹעַ) = touching. (A form of the verb naga. נָגַע = touched, reached.)

hanogeia ( הַנֺּגֵעַ) = who is touching. (Another form of naga.)

One might think that if God touched the top of Mount Sinai, any human who touched the bottom of it would automatically die, as if the whole mountain were electrified. But then God clarifies that anyone (except Moses) who dares to touch the mountain while God’s presence rests on it must be executed. And the people must perform the execution without touching the offender.

“A hand lo tiga him! Because he must definitely be stoned or shot; if a beast or if a man, he must not live. When [there is] a protracted sound of a ran’s horn, they may go up on the mountain.”  (Exodus19:13)

lo tiga (לֺא תִגַּע) = it may not touch. (Another form of naga.)

All the people have to be clean and consecrated before they can safely hear God’s voice coming from the cloud that lands on Mount Sinai. But even in this condition, they cannot see God. And touching the mountain while God is on top is taboo. Like some other taboos in the bible, this one is communicable by touch.2

Don’t go up Mount Sinai, God commands. Don’t even touch it! Don’t even touch someone who touches it!

Touching the Tree of Knowledge

The order not to touch the mountain reminds me of the conversation between the snake and Eve in the garden of Eden. Both God in Exodus, and Eve in Genesis, say that death is the penalty for touching something holy.

The snake speaks first in the first Torah portion of Genesis, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8).

He said to the woman: “Did God really say you should not eat from any tree of the garden?” And the woman said to the snake: “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden. But as for fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God said: ‘You must not eat from it, and lo tigeu, lest you die.’” (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-3)

lo tigeu (לֺא תִגְּעוּ) = you must not touch it. (Another form of naga.)

Eve, by Lucan Cranach the Elder, 1528

In Genesis, God orders the primordial human not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the garden.3 But God says nothing about touching or not touching the tree. Although God delivered the original order to the one primordial human being, before it was divided into male and female, there is no reason why the female human would not remember it. Maybe she simply added “and you must not touch it” on the spur of the moment.

Why? The classic commentary suggested that she was “making a fence around the Torah”: protecting herself from accidentally violating God’s actual prohibition by avoiding doing something that could lead to the violation.4 (One of the more famous examples of a fence around the Torah is the rule in many orthodox Jewish communities that bans turning on a stove or an electric light on Shabbat. If you feel free to make heat and light, you might forget the biblical prohibition against lighting a fire on Shabbat.5)

At first glance, a rule to avoid touching the Tree of Knowledge seems like a reasonable fence. If Eve does not get close enough to that tree to touch it, she will not be able to eat its fruit. Yet after further conversation with the snake, she transgresses both her own fence and God’s order.

Bereishit Rabbah, a fifth-century collection of commentary, adds some action and dialogue to the biblical story: “Rabbi Chiyya taught: That means that you must not make the fence more than the principal thing … When the serpent saw her exaggerating in this manner, he grabbed her and pushed her against the tree. ‘So, have you died?’ he asked her. ‘Just as you were not stricken when you touched it, so will you not die when you eat from it.’”6 According to Bereishit Rabbah, if the fence seems too important (in this case because Eve claims touching the tree carries a death penalty), then once you break the fence, it feels insignificant to break the original command as well.

Touching Mount Sinai

In Exodus, on the other hand, God tells Moses that the people may not climb Mount Sinai on the day that God will descend, and God also says the people may not touch the mountain until the signal of the sound of a ram’s horn. Both prohibitions, against climbing and against touching, come from God. God makes the fence.

What is the reason for it? 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote that some people might have been so eager to catch a glimpse of God, they would trample the boundary markers and run up the mountain. The death penalty was a deterrent.

19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch wrote that one reason for the two prohibitions was to make the people realize they were nowhere near Moses’ spiritual level. This seems plausible to me, since God tells Moses that after the people hear God speak from the cloud on the mountaintop, they will trust Moses forever (Exodus 19:9, above). Recognizing Moses’ high spiritual level—or closeness to God—would help to foster this trust.

Another reason, Hirsch wrote, was: “The distinction between the people about to receive the Torah, and the Source from which they are to receive it, is underscored also in terms of physical separation.”7

The realm of ordinary people at the foot of the mountain is mundane. The realm of Mount Sinai is the realm of God and God’s teachings.8 Only God’s prophet, Moses, goes back and forth between the two realms.9

There is also a practical reason for prohibiting both climbing and touching Mount Sinai on the day of revelation: the mountain becomes a dangerous place.

And it was the third day, in the morning, and there was thunder and impressive lightning on the mountain, and a very loud sound of a ram’s horn … And Mount Sinai was all in smoke from the presence of God that came down on it in fire, and its smoke rose like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain shuddered violently. (Exodus 19:16-18)

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817-1820, detail

Thus the prohibition against getting close enough to touch the bottom of Mt. Sinai is a reasonable fence around the prohibition against climbing the mountain—which, in turn, is a fence around the prohibition against attempting to look and see God.

Nobody breaks the fence. Moses leads the people to the foot of the mountain, but they cannot bear to get any closer. They are already seeing too much, experiencing synesthesia.

Then all the people were seeing the thunderclaps and the flames and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking. When the people saw, they were shaken and they stood at a distance. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen. But may God not speak to us, or else we will die!”  (Exodus 20:15-16).

The people back  away from the supernatural volcano. No fences, with or without death sentences, are needed to keep them at a distance.

I have heard people say they wish they could experience a miracle like seeing God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  Personally, I think a miracle like that would terrify me as much as it terrified the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  I am grateful that, by the grace of God, my own numinous experiences have been only gentle intimations.

Sometimes there is no question that we will follow a rule, because we want to follow it with all our heard and soul.  But sometimes we recognize that a rule is a good idea, yet we have no emotional investment in it. That is when we need a fence around the rule to keep us on track.

  1. At the burning bush in Exodus 3:1-4:17. The “mountain of God” is called Mount Choreiv in some passages and Mount Sinai in others, since the book of Exodus was redacted from more than one original source.
  2. For example, when someone who have been in contact with a corpse is ritually purified by being sprinkled with water containing the ashes of a pure red heifer, the person who does the sprinkling has to wash his clothes and wait until nightfall to return to a state of ritual purity. While the sprinkler waits, “Anything that he touches is impure, and the person who touches him will be impure until nightfall.” (Leviticus 19:19:22)
  3. Genesis 2:17.
  4. The phrase “Make a fence around the Torah” originated in Pirkei Avot 1:1, a compendium of rabbinic advice composed around 200 C.E.
  5. Exodus 35:3.
  6. Bereishit Rabbah 19:3, translated by www.sefaria.org.
  7. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, copyright 2005, p. 322.
  8. Torah (תּוֹרָה) = instruction, teachings; divine law; the first five books of the bible; all instructions in the Hebrew Bible.
  9. In Exodus 19:24, God tells Moses to go down and bring his brother Aaron up to the top of Mount Sinai, but this request is not followed up in the text; the Ten Commandments are delivered instead. On another day, Aaron climbs partway up Mount Sinai, along with two of his sons and 70 elders (Exodus 24:9-14), but only Moses and his attendant Joshua complete the trip to the top.

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