"ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר"
“They stood at the foot of [lit. under] the mountain.” (Shemot 19:17)

QUESTION: The Gemara (Shabbat 88a) says that by stating “betachtit hahar” — lit. “in the bottom of the mountain” — the pasuk teaches that Hashem lifted the mountain and covered them with it as though it were an overturned large barrel.

When Hashem offered the Jewish people the Torah they immediately responded “Na’aseh venishma” — “We will do and we will listen (study).” If so, why was it necessary for Him to suspend the mountain over them and warn them that if they did not accept the Torah, they would be killed? (See Gemara, Shabbat 88a, Tosafot)


1) Written Torah and Oral Torah

The Torah consists of two parts, the Written and the Oral. The Jewish people were ready to accept the Written Torah, but not the Oral Torah, which explains the written one, transmitting the entire corpus of Jewish law. To persuade them Hashem held the mountain threateningly over them.

(מדרש תנחומה, פ' נח-ג', פני יהושע)

* * *

The Gemara (Avorah Zarah 2b) says that Hashem placed the mountain over them and threatened, “Im atem mekablim et haTorah” — “If you accept the Torah all is well, but if not, your burial will be there.” Is the word “et” superfluous?

Perhaps, the abovementioned can be explained as follows: The Gemara (Pesachim 22b) says that the extra word “et” in the verse et Hashem Elokecha tira” — “You shall revere Hashem your G‑d” (Devarim 6:13) comes to include [to revere also] Talmidei Chachamim — Torah scholars.

The Oral Torah consists of the Sinaic transmitted teachings of the Sages which explain and elucidate the Written Torah. Thus, after the Jews declared “Na’aseh venishma” on their own volition, Hashem suspended the mountain over them and said “If you accept ethaTorah — the Talmidei Chachamim’s [elucidations] of the Torah — i.e. the Oral Torah — all is well.”

2) Diligent Torah Study 24/7

When Hashem offered the Torah to the Jewish people, He told them of the various positive mitzvot and negative commands. In additional to performing the mitzvot, it is also necessary to study Torah diligently and assiduously, merely for the sake of Torah study, as the verse says, “Vehagita bo yomam v’laylah” — You should contemplate it day and night” (Joshua 1:8).

When the Jews said “Na’aseh venishma” it referred only to meticulous observance of the mitzvot but not to toil in the study of Torah. For this Hashem had to suspend the mountain over them to force them.

Careful analysis of Hashem’s words indicate that this was the case. He said to them “If you accept the Torah it will be good,” but He did not say “If you accept the mitzvot,” since for mitzvot they had said “Na’aseh venishma,” and there was never any reservation about it.

(חיד"א בספר אהבת דוד)

3) Not for the Sake of Reward

Prior to Hashem’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people Moshe was instructed to tell them the great benefits for their accepting the Torah. Moshe told them the following: “And now, if you will hearken well to Me and you will keep My covenant, you will be to Me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:5-6). Upon hearing this the people graciously responded, “Everything that Hashem has spoken we will do.”

Such a response puts them into the category of a servant who serves his master al menat lekabel peras — for the sake of receiving a reward. To elevate them to a higher level after they had said “Na’aseh venishma, Hashem suspended the mountain over them to force them to accept the Torah even without any anticipation of reward. This represents strict submission to His will, and in the end the rewards they will receive for fulfilling Hashem’s commands will be even greater.

(הפלאה על מס' כתובות)

4) Ahavah and Yir’ah

A Jew’s service of Hashem must be out of ahavah — love — and yir’ah — fear. The acceptance of the Torah expressed by “We will do and we will listen” was an acceptance out of love. Ahavah — love — is an essential aspect in the relationship between Hashem, His Torah and the Jewish people, but it is insufficient by itself and cannot be the only motivation. There had to be an acceptance out of fear as well. To this end, holding the mountain over the heads of the Jewish people was necessary to instill in them a way of service in which ahavah and yir’ah combined together.

There are many levels and details to this which are discussed at length in Likkutei Amarim-Tanya, chapters 40-45. Love and fear are figuratively called “wings.” Rabbi Chaim Vital explained in Sha’ar HaYichudim, ch. 11 that the wings are to a bird what arms are to a man. The wings are not the essential parts of the bird in comparison to the head and the entire body. Nevertheless, it is the wings that enable the head and body to fly and reach heights. By way of example, fear and love raise the Torah and commandments one engages in to the exalted heights of the supernal worlds and they become united with the infinite light that is manifest there.

Just as a bird must have both wings in order to fly, a Jew must have both ahavah and yirah to properly serve Hashem and reach the “heights.”

(ראה שמות, יתרו כ:י"ז)

5) Benefit of Commanded vs. Voluntarily

Originally when the Jews were offered the Torah they agreed to accept it on their own volition. They consented to obey Torah directives but preferred to be considered as “eino metzuvah v’oseh” — one who is not commanded but who nevertheless performs mitzvot. They calculated that in this way they would receive the maximum reward.

The reason Hashem forced them to accept even after they had already proclaimed Na’aseh venishma is expressed in the the Gemara’s statement (Kiddushin 30a): “One who performs a mitzvah having been commanded to do so is greater than one who performs a mitzvah voluntarily, without having been commanded to do so.” The reason is that the one who is obligated is more worried and anxious lest he not fulfill. Also, the yeitzer hara makes a greater effort to deter the commanded person from doing the mitzvah. Since it is more difficult for him to perform the mitzvah, his reward is greater. (See Tosafot and Ritva, ibid.)

Hence, due to Hashem’s love for the Jewish people He suspended the mountain to force them and place them into the category of “one who is commanded and performs” so that they would receive the maximum reward for their performance of mitzvot.

6) Torah Observance Under All Circumstances

It was not a great surprise that the Jews readily accepted the Torah and proclaimed “Na’aseh venishma.” After all, in the wilderness all their needs were provided for: they ate manna from Heaven and drank water from Miriam’s well. Their clothing miraculously enlarged as they grew, and it was cleaned by the Clouds of Glory, which also protected the Jews. Under such conditions, there was absolutely no reason not to adhere to the teachings of the Torah.

By placing the mountain over the people, Hashem was asking them a question: “There is no guarantee that the tranquility you are currently experiencing will last forever. How will you conduct yourselves when a ‘cloud’ hovers above you: i.e. what will happen when problems befall you? When you will experience difficult times and your very existence is threatened, will you still keep the Torah?”

“If you have any doubts,” Hashem told them, “You should know that it is to your advantage to keep the Torah under all circumstances. For as soon as you forsake the Torah, sham tehei kevuratchem — that will be your burial.”

(מצאתי בכתבי זקני הרב צבי הכהן ז"ל קאפלאן)

7) The Chassidic Explanation

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidut offers a novel explanation to Hashems uprooting the mountain and placing it over the Jews.

Bitul and Torah

A prerequisite to be worthy of receiving the Torah is bitul — self nullification. This was accomplished through the Egyptian bondage where the Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians with crushing labor and embittered with hard work with mortar and with bricks. Affliction and suffering breaks the spirit of a person and it discourages him from being conceited. It was also later demonstrated with their declaring Na’aseh venishma.

While in Egypt, however, the Jews sunk into the defilement of Egypt and attained only katnut — an elementary level — of avodat Hashem — service of Hashem. In the weeks that followed the exodus, their level of avodat Hashem was elevated immensely.

A Loving Embrace

Hashem’s enveloping the Jews with the mountain (see Shabbat 88a, Maharsha) was actually a Divine revelation with which He “embraced” them. It is analogous to a person embracing a friend whom he loves immensely. Such love is described by King Shlomo as “His right hand embraces me” (Song of Songs 2:6). When one embraces another he envelopes the other’s entire physical being. Likewise, by covering the Jews entirely with the mountain Hashem held them in His grip and covered them with His revelation.

The supernal love Hashem demonstrated towards the Jews via this revelation awakened in their souls a love to Hashem which brought them to the sublime level of bitul represented by their declaration “Na’aseh venishma — we have no mind and will of our own, and we are totally subjugated to His will.” Thanks to this self nullification, they were worthy to be the recipients of Hashem’s Torah.

(The abovementioned follows the opinion of Midrash Tehillim (1:4) that the Jews declared “Na’aseh venishma” after the mountain was suspended over them. Thus, the question raised by Tosafot, [how to reconcile the coercion of the suspended mountain with the voluntary declaration of “Na’aseh venishma”] is moot).

(תורה אור, מגילת אסתר דף צ"ח, ד')

Sinai vs. Achashveirosh

In the Gemara (ibid.) Rav Acha bar Yaakov says “From here stems strong grounds for a moda’ah — notification — of coercion regarding acceptance of the Torah.” This means that if Hashem summons the Jews to a Beit Din and demands to know why they did not fulfill their commitment to observe Torah, they can respond that the commitment was coerced. The Gemara concludes with Rava’s statement, “Nevertheless, they accepted the Torah again in the days of Achashveirosh, as it is written, ‘The Jews established and accepted’ (Esther 9:27) which is interpreted to mean ‘They established in the days of Achashveirosh that which they had already accepted in the days of Moshe’.”

QUESTION: Why is the threatened annihilation contained in the decree of Haman and Achashveirosh less coercion than the coercion of Hashem’s suspending the mountain and threatening their very existence if they would not accept the Torah?

ANSWER: According to the abovementioned Chassidic insight, suspending the mountain was not a literal form of coercion, but rather it was Hashem’s demonstrating His love for the souls of Israel. It was His way of illustrating what the prophet Malachi (1:2) says “I love you, says G‑d.” This revelation of His love aroused in the Jews a exceptional love of Hashem and inspired them to reciprocate and declare “Na’aseh venishma” — their nullification and absolute submission to Him.

Hence, the difference between the mountain incident and the Purim story was that under the mountain their acceptance was not a result of their personal decision and conviction, but rather it was inspired from “above.” However, in the days of Achashveirosh there was no Heavenly intervention in the form of a Divine Revelation that inspired them to accept Torah. On the contrary, it was a time in History when the Jews experienced Divine concealment (as illustrated by the name “Esther,” which means “hidden” and “concealed” — Chullin 139b). Nevertheless, on their own, the Jews resolved to exhibit mesirut nefesh — self sacrifice — for the sake of Hashem — which is tantamount to the highest level of bitul — self nullification — and absolute submission to Hashem and His Torah.

(תורה אור, מגילת אסתר דף צ"ח ד')

"ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר"
“They stood on the bottom of [lit. under] the mountain.” (Shemot 19:17)

QUESTION: According to the Gemara (Shabbat 88a), Hashem lifted the mountain over the Jewish people and threatened to kill them if they did not accept the Torah. Rabbi Acha said, “This is an important defense for the Jewish people: If they should violate the Torah, they can claim that they accepted it only under duress,” implying that acceptance under duress is not considered true acceptance.

Tosafot asks, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 2b) says that “The nations of the world complained to Hashem, ‘Why didn’t You also force us (in a similar fashion) to accept the Torah?’ ” Doesn’t their complaint imply that, even if they would accept Torah due to the mountain being suspended over their heads, their acceptance would be proper and not susceptible to a claim of “duress?”

ANSWER: According to halachah, there is a rule that Devarim shebeleiv einam devarim — “What one has in his heart [not expressed verbally] is considered invalid” (Rambam, Mechirah 11:9). However, when a person is forced to do something and he makes a vow or takes an oath, he is not bound to it if he nullifies it in his heart (Rambam, Nedarim 4:2). If so, the Jewish people should have nullified their consent in their hearts and, since they did not, is not their claim of duress invalid?

According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pe’ah 1:1) when a Jew plans to do a good thing and for reasons beyond his control does not bring it to fruition, Hashem gives him credit as though he actually has done it. When a gentile plans to do evil, even if he does not do it, Hashem considers it as if it were done. On the other hand, a Jew is not punished for bad thoughts and a gentile does not receive credit for good thoughts that are not followed by appropriate deeds.

A possible explanation: the Jews believe that Hashem not only sees what we do, but also reads our minds and hearts, but the gentiles do not share this belief. Consequently, since Jews believe that Hashem knows what is in their hearts, Hashem indeed gives them credit for their good thoughts. However, the gentiles, who do not believe in this do not receive any remuneration for their good thought, but to prove that Hashem knows what is in their heart, they are punished for their bad intentions.

The concept of nullifying something in one’s heart applies only when one makes a vow under duress from someone to whom one’s real intentions can be concealed. Thus, Hashem will not hold him responsible when he nullifies it in his heart. However, when a person makes a commitment to Hashem, nullifying it in his heart would be an absurdity since Hashem also knows what is in the heart.

Hence, had Hashem forced the gentiles to accept the Torah, they would have been able to nullify their acceptance, since, according to their belief, Hashem does not know what is in their hearts, and so they would not have recourse to Rabbi Acha’s argument. However, the Jewish people, who believe that Hashem knows what is in their minds and hearts, cannot mentally nullify their acceptance, and therefore they can claim that they accepted the Torah under duress.

(שו"ת תירוש ויצהר סי' קי"ב)