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Religion

Gift of Torah transcends time and space

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To get to the top of Mount Sinai entails an arduous jeep ride to the foot of the mountain. This is then followed by a two-hour trek up a pathway comprising 3 750 stone steps. There’s also a camel path, but travelling on the back of this animal will take even longer. I’ve heard that the views along the climb and from the top are spectacular.

Sadly, there’s no conclusive evidence that this mountain in the south of the Sinai Peninsula is indeed the site of the great revelation. The monastery at the base was established only in the sixth century, more than 2 800 years after the historical event took place.

At least three other venues are proposed by scholars as the possible site of Mount Sinai. Two of those are elsewhere in the Sinai Peninsula. But there’s also a suggestion that the revelation to Moses at the burning bush, which Hashem told him would be the site of the future revelation, was in the Midianite Desert, several hundred miles east in what is Saudi Arabia today.

Even if this was the site of the giving of the Torah, a pilgrimage there would be a historical, archaeological, and emotional journey but not a spiritual experience. Indeed, the mountain was consecrated during the days leading up to the revelation. Moshe was repeatedly instructed to warn the Israelites that they weren’t to ascend or allow their cattle to graze there.

However, once the ten commandments were delivered, the mountain lost all sanctity. “When the horn is sounded, they will be allowed to go up the mountain [Exodus 19],” says Hashem. Ironically, the place where the greatest display of godliness ever took place no longer has any inherent holiness. Hence, there’s no religious injunction to pray there. This explains why we’re unsure of the exact (or even approximate location) of this mountain.

Interestingly, the exact date of the gift of the Torah is equally nebulous. Over several pages in the Talmud, the rabbis debate whether we heard the ten commandments on the sixth or the seventh of Sivan. The Torah says they arrived at Mount Sinai on the first day of Sivan, but then it’s unclear how many days elapsed until they were ready to hear the divine voice. The timing of this tremendous event is thus similarly shrouded in uncertainty.

The lesson is clear. The gift of Torah received on Shavuot transcends the dimensions of both space and time.

We often hear diaspora Jews argue that to fulfil the precepts of the Torah and follow the laws of Judaism isn’t possible while living in a mixed society. Jews in Israel are free to dress as Jews, practice as Jews, and behave as Jews. Conversely, Israeli Jews often claim that the rituals are necessary only for those of us who live outside of the holy land – their Jewish identity can best be expressed through language and culture.

I also often hear the argument that Torah was applicable in a different era, but that in this modern age, there are other and better ways to connect with Hashem.

So we know neither when exactly Torah was given, nor where. For the laws given at Sinai are forever and for everywhere.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul, and the chairperson of the SA Rabbinical Association.

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