Parashat Yitro

Portable Holiness

God was careful to teach the Israelites that holiness derives from encounters with God in Torah study; it is not intrinsic to locations like Mt. Sinai.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.


Along the way out of Egypt, Moses meets up with his father-in-law, Yitro, who also brings to him his wife and sons, who have apparently been "back home" in Midian during the liberation events. Yitro sees that Moses is taking on too much as the leader of the people, and gives him advice on how to set up a community organizational structure so that disputes can be resolved quickly and fairly.

In the third month out of Egypt, God calls to Moses and tells him to prepare the people for a great revelation at Mount Sinai. After three days God reveals Godself on the mountain, and with smoke and lightening and shofar blasts the Ten Commandments are spoken, in the sight of all the people at the base of the mountain.

In Focus

"You shall set boundaries around [it] for the people, saying 'Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge, for the person who touches the mountain will surely die.' A hand shall not touch it, for he shall either be stoned or thrown down. Whether it is an animal or a person, they shall not live; upon the extended sounding of the shofar, they may go up the mountain" (Exodus 19:120-13).


Before the giving of the Torah, Moses is told by God to instruct the people to prepare themselves, both physically and spiritually. Mount Sinai becomes a kind of restricted holiness zone, and anybody who approaches the sacred mountain prematurely will die--whether for disobedience or because of the "holiness energy" in that area is unclear.

The mountain becomes almost "radioactive" with Godliness, and the people must be exceedingly careful around such great power, just as we would be around an source of powerful electric or heat energy. Still, after the giving of the Torah, this Godly energy will pass, and then the mountain becomes just like any other.


It is hard for those of us in the modern world to conceive of "holiness" being a palpable, almost dangerous presence, as the Bible seems to present it. Commenting on this passage, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen (lived in Russia, died in 1926; his Torah commentary is called Meshech Hochmah) reminds us that extraordinary events do not necessarily make a place intrinsically holy:

The Blessed Holy One desired to root out from among the Israelites any remnant of thoughts of idol-worshipping, and to implant in their hearts the strong faith that nothing in Creation has any special holiness except from the Blessed One, the Source and Wellspring of holiness in the cosmos. This was so that the Israelites would not make a mistake and [think that because] Mount Sinai in itself was holy, that was why the Torah was given on it. [Thus] they were told that immediately after the receiving of the Torah, when the Shechina (divine presence) departed, the mountain would be as any ordinary mountain, with flocks and cattle herding on it. The holiness of the mountain lasted only when the Shechina was on it (Source: Itturei Torah).

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.