Against the great men of the Children of Israel, He did not stretch out His hand; they gazed at G‑d, and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:10–11)

Everyone knows that the abridged version of Jewish history reads, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” So it would seem commendable that the elders of Israel ate and drank while gazing at G‑d on Mount Sinai. But most commentators don’t see it this way.

Before Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the first set of tablets, G‑d requested that he, Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel approach the mountain. There, “they saw the G‑d of Israel,” and as the verse above indicates, the elders celebrated the occasion with food and drink.

They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.

According to some commentators, it was highly improper for the elders to eat and drink in G‑d’s presence. The view that they were worthy of punishment seems to be supported by the Torah’s statement that “He did not stretch out His hand against them.” But other opinions maintain that there was nothing wrong in celebrating with feasting, that in fact this was commendable behavior.

Each of these contradictory opinions has associated problems. If it was commendable to eat, why does the Torah note that G‑d did not raise His hand against them to destroy them? If it was sinful to eat, how is it possible that after 49 days of refining their characters, and immediately after experiencing the holiest event imaginable, the 70 most elevated figures of the Jewish people would rush into impulsive behavior?

Furthermore, if it was improper to eat in celebration of receiving the Torah, why do we commemorate the experience today by feasting on cheesecake and other fine foods?

Yes, the elders sinned by feasting

Rashi and Rambam argue that the behavior of the elders was improper because they ate and drank inappropriately during this sublime occasion, or alternatively, because they attempted to obtain spiritual truths that exceeded their capabilities. In either case, they deserved to be punished, but G‑d refrained from punishing them in order not to ruin the joy of the occasion.

This opinion sticks closest to the obvious meaning of the text, because it explains why the Torah mentions that G‑d did not raise His hand against them, even though they deserved to be punished.

But as noted earlier, the idea that the notables of Israel sinned so quickly after 49 days of character refinement is disappointing and difficult to comprehend. And of course, this opinion is inconsistent with the pervasive Jewish practice of celebrating every memorable event with feasting.

No, they didn’t sin, because they didn’t feast physically

Another view, as Rashi himself notes, is that of Onkelos, who translates the Torah text: “And they saw the glory of G‑d, and they rejoiced in their sacrifices, which were accepted graciously, as if they ate and drank” (italics added).

The view that the elders did not physically consume food, but feasted spiritually on the splendor of the divine vision, was first mentioned in the Zohar in the name of Rabbi Yose, and is also held by Ibn Ezra and Ohr HaChaim. The latter sage observed that the visual experience provided the kind of satisfaction that ordinary people derive from consuming physical food and drink. The elders experienced what might be called “mystical satiation.”

The problem with this view is that the text states very clearly that they did eat and drink, and there is no compelling textual evidence that it was only spiritual consumption.

No, they didn’t sin, even though they actually did eat and drink

In stark contrast to these views, Ramban states that the nobles physically ate and drank, because it is an obligation to rejoice over receiving the Torah. Ramban supports his interpretation with multiple sources, including the verse in which G‑d commanded the people that after writing all of the words of the Torah on stones, “you shall slaughter peace-offerings and eat there, and you shall be glad before G‑d, your G‑d” (Deuteronomy 27:7).

Ramban concludes that if writing the Torah on stones was an occasion properly celebrated by eating and drinking, how much more so was the actual receiving of the Torah!

Why mention that G‑d did not stretch out his hand against them?

If we accept the view that it was commendable to feast, how can we explain the insertion of this puzzling verse: “Against the nobles of the Children of Israel, He did not send forth His hand . . .”?

In the Zohar, Rabbi Yehudah provides a hint that leads to an explanation. Rabbi Yehudah agreed that the elders did nothing wrong in consuming actual food and drink, because, through the enjoyment of the food, they were uplifted to G‑d.

Through the enjoyment of the food, they were uplifted to G‑d.

But we can go a step further. When the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, a unique transformation occurred. Prior to Sinai, the physical and spiritual realms were separate and distinct. People could experience G‑dliness, but physical reality remained mundane and could not be elevated or penetrated by spiritual energy. Once the Torah was received, it provided a means to uplift physical reality by bringing out the G‑dly, spiritual energy concealed within it.

The Torah is for the body more than the soul

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, provides a powerful illustration of this concept. We have the custom to stay up studying Torah on the first night of Shavuot. We refrain from sleep to make amends for the fact that the Jews went to sleep the night before they received the Torah.

The Rebbe explains that the Jews slept, not out of a lack of enthusiasm for what was about to happen, but out of a genuine desire that their souls reach a more spiritual level and gain greater insight into the Torah than was possible while they were awake.

The Torah’s purpose, however, is to bring the spiritual down to the physical, to engage, elevate and refine the physical. Therefore, the proper preparation was not to raise the soul higher at the expense of the body by sleeping, but to remain awake and present in the physical realm.

With this in mind, we can see that the giving of the Torah had to be celebrated with physical feasting. Even though the Torah was a spiritual gift, its purpose was to fuse the spiritual and the physical. The defining point of the event would be missed unless physical eating occurred.

Holy eating at Sinai: the prototype for Jewish celebrations

Returning now to Sinai, we can see that, consistent with Ramban and Rabbi Yehudah, it was not only proper, but obligatory, that the elders ate and drank to celebrate receiving the Torah. But their feast was a spiritual one: They ate the peace offerings, sanctified food that was eaten with spiritual concentration.

There is still a final reason why eating and drinking was not only proper but necessary. Receiving the Torah was such an intense spiritual experience that were it not anchored to physicality, those present would likely have yearned so deeply for G‑d that their souls would have left their bodies.

The Rebbe illustrates this idea with the image of a flickering candle flame that constantly strives upwards. So too the soul: were it not for the wick that connects it to the base of the candle, the body, the soul would depart and ascend. If they had not integrated their spiritual experience with physicality by eating and drinking, it is likely that the souls of the elders would have left their bodies.

Eat and enjoy, with holiness

The elders engaged in holy eating.

We can now resolve the seeming contradiction that even though the elders acted appropriately, we needed to learn that G‑d did not “stretch out His hand” against them. This verse points to the distinction between eating in G‑d’s presence before receiving the Torah, when it would have been a purely physical act and therefore sinful, and eating after receiving the Torah, when the physical world was pervaded with G‑dliness, and the eating and drinking could be done in a holy way. The elders engaged in holy eating.

What is the message for us today? This important and perplexing verse reminds us that when we feast on Shavuot and other holidays, we should take care not to forget the spiritual side of our celebration. Focusing on food only to satisfy our physical appetite is an improper way to commemorate receiving the Torah. But eating cheesecake with the intention of liberating the “sparks” of holiness within it is praiseworthy.

So, really, the most accurate summary of Jewish history should read: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat—with holiness.”