Connections Through the Generations

At Sinai, God started a conversation that Jews are still carrying on, through interpretation and reinterpretation of Jewish texts.


Jewish tradition is not clear on how much God said during the revelation at Mount Sinai. Some sources are minimalist; these hold that God spoke only the Ten Commandments, or even just the first word of the Ten Commandments. Other traditions are more expansive; these believe that God recited the entire Torah she’bikhtav, i.e., the written Torah, the Five Books of Moses, or even more expansively, that God revealed the Torah she’b’al peh, meaning all of the Bible and the Mishnah (the first post-Biblical document of Jewish legal theory), as well as all of the commentary upon those works. Except for that last, most expansive approach, one must imagine that God began a conversation on Sinai. The Jewish people, in God’s image, responded, and Conversational Torah, as it could well be called, has never ceased growing and spreading, recorded over the centuries in countless volumes of Jewish texts.

The conversation might be seen as a little lopsided. God’s one utterance seems to have provided the Jews with enough to respond to for millennia. Why is this? Ironically, the core of Israel’s side of the conversation is the assumption that the Torah is perfect and complete. One might think that if God’s words were perfect and complete, what would be left for Israel to say? Along these lines, the Jerusalem Talmud (the Yerushalmi) reports, “Even that which an experienced student might someday teach in front of his teacher was already stated to Moses at Sinai” (Peah 13a). What must it feel like to study and study and know that one’s most creative contribution is only the rediscovery of that which was already revealed? And when one unknowingly repeats the comment of an earlier sage, one is to recite a blessing for having merited to think along the same lines.
The reality of the Torah (and the Bible, the Mishnah, and all other Jewish texts), however, is that the texts have (apparent) gaps and contradictions, especially when one is forced to consider all of the texts simultaneously as part of the one, complete, perfect revelation given to Moses on Sinai. Issues of ritual or civil law might be repeated in different parts of the Torah, with or without variations in the details; both present a problem for the rabbinic mind. If Torah is perfect, then there is no need for repetition. If Torah is perfect, there can be no contradictions. Consequently, the rabbis developed the midrashic model of interpretation, which assumes that those same rough spots in the text–the repetitions, the contradictions–are part of an elaborate coding that God put into the text so that we could learn additional information. One part of the text could illuminate the meaning of an apparently distinct part of the text. Or seemingly extra words are included in order to teach additional details of the law’s application or aspects of the narrative. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers cast the arrogant, young Joseph into “an empty pit, it had no water,” the Torah relates. If the pit was empty, it obviously had no water, so why add that “superfluous” detail? To teach that the pit did have scorpions in it! (Genesis Rabbah 84:16).

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