Chronological Conundrums by Ariel Herzog


It would be a fair assumption that many observant Jews nowadays believe that both the written Torah and oral Torah were given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai and that after forty days and forty nights, he passed it on to Bnei Yisrael.  This position, however, is not the one taken by all of Chazal and certainly is not Peshuto Shel Mikra.  Rather, Bnei Yisrael received only some things on Har Sinai, receiving the rest at other points in the desert.

The Torah from Bereishit until Har Sinai is simply a history of the Jewish people which constantly points at the ultimate time in history when we will be a great nation living in Eretz Yisrael.  It is clear that from Parashat  Yitro until the end of Sefer Shemot, Bnei Yisrael were at Har Sinai; it is likewise clear that the rest of the Chumash is spent in the desert until right before entering the land.  If one would take a glance at the Pesukim which talk about the time from the Luchot until Bnei Yisrael finish building the Mishkan (Shemot 19-40), it would appear that Moshe received three things at Har Sinai: the Ten Commandments, the “Brit,” and “Torah and the Mitzvah,” respectively.

The Torah tells us merely that the Ten Commandments were presented orally to Bnei Yisrael, giving us no introduction as to what they were, other than a hint, “And now, if you will listen to my voice and keep my Brit…” (19:5). This is the first time hitherto that Hashem has invoked the word Brit, so it must be hinting that these Ten Commandments were going to be a Brit.

After Hashem presents the Ten Commandments, the Torah says “And the nation stood from afar, and Moshe entered the mist in which was Hashem” (20:18). Throughout the rest of Chapters 20-23, Hashem proceeds to give Moshe commandments and a little speech about what will happen when Bnei Yisrael leave Midbar Sinai and continue on (at that point into Eretz Yisrael).  In Chapter 24, when Moshe descended from Har Sinai (the first two Pesukim seem to be out of order), he told Bnei Yisrael all the laws and wrote them down, and they made an altar, a monument and sacrifices.  The critical point is where the Torah invokes the Brit again: “And he (Moshe) took the Sefer HaBrit and he read it to the ears of the nation…And Moshe took the blood and tossed it on the nation and said ‘This is the blood of the Brit that Hashem has made (karat) with you about all these things’” (24:7-8).  From the wording of the Torah, it seems very clear that all of the things Hashem told Moshe, namely, the laws and warnings in Parashat Mishpatim, were the Brit that Hashem made with Bnei Yisrael.

After Bnei Yisrael received the Brit, Hashem told Moshe to go up to Him again and receive the “Luchot of stone,” the “Torah”, and the “Mitzvot that I have written to teach them” (24:12).  When Moshe ascends for forty days and forty nights, Hashem instructs him how to build the Mishkan, the vessels, and the priestly garments, as well as the laws of Shabbat (Ch. 25-31).  Fast forward to after the sin of the golden calf, when Hashem forgives Bnei Yisrael and says, “behold I am making (koret) a Brit…” (33:10) and proceeds to teach seemingly random laws to Moshe.  Hashem then tells Moshe, “ Write these things, because according to these things, I made (karati) a Brit with you and with Yisrael” (34:27).  Moshe then ascends to Hashem a final time for another series of forty days and forty nights, during which time he receives the second pair of Luchot on which he wrote “the words of the Brit, the ten things” (34:28).  Finally, Moshe descends for the last time, tells Bnei Yisrael about Shabbat (35:1-3), and builds the Mishkan with them based upon what he learned on Har Sinai.

From what we have read it appears that the events took place in this order: 1 - Bnei Yisrael received the Ten Commandments; 2 - Moshe received the Brit and wrote it down for Bnei Yisrael; 3 - Moshe received the laws of the Mishkan; 4 - Bnei Yisrael did Cheit HaEigel and Moshe asked for forgiveness; 5 - Hashem made another Brit with Bnei Yisrael; 6 - Moshe goes up to receive the “ten things” for another forty days and forty nights; 7 - Moshe built the Mishkan with Bnei Yisrael

There are a few questions which beg to be asked.  Firstly, why did Hashem seemingly give Moshe two Britot?  Furthermore, we have already mentioned that the word Brit appears in conjunction with the Ten Commandments, which seems to be saying that the Ten Commandments were a Brit in their own right.  Also, when Moshe went up the second time for forty days and forty nights, it seems to be that Moshe received the Ten Commandments, which were referred to as a Brit (34:28).  How could Moshe have spent forty days and forty nights receiving just the Ten Commandments?  How many Britot were there?

It is possible that the Brit of the Luchot is the same Brit as Parashat Mishpatim, which completes the Brit which was merely outlined in the Ten Commandments.  Take, for example, the first two commandments - “I am Hashem your God” and “There may not be for you other gods on my face,” – and compare them with the first commandments after the Luchot - “Don’t make for me silver gods and golden gods – don’t make them for yourselves” (20:19).  Similarly, we find throughout Parashat Mishpatim laws of thievery and damage (21:16, 21:37, 22:1-3, 22:6-9 etc.), rape (22:15-17), murder (21:12-15, 21:18-26 etc.), false testifying (23:1-2), swearing in God’s name (23:1), Shabbat and holidays (23:10-18), respecting elders (21:15, 22:27, 23:21 etc.), and even coveting, which can be found in the laws of damage, murder, rape etc.  All of the Mitzvot in Parashat Mishpatim have their roots in the Ten Commandments.  This explains why both Parashat Mishpatim and the Ten Commandments are called Brit.

After Bnei Yisrael performed the Cheit HaEigel, Hashem wanted to nullify the Brit. As is clear in other places in the Torah, if we don’t fulfill our side of the Brit, Hashem will not fulfill His.  Ergo, when Hashem forgives Bnei Yisrael, another Brit is made, which is almost identical to the first Brit, containing such commandments as those to destroy the idol worship we will encounter in Eretz Yisrael, which is found in both Britot (33:34 and 34:13).  Also, in both Britot we find the commandment not to make a Brit with the nations of Eretz Yisrael (not a coincidence that this comes up as a commandment), the positive commandment of the Shalosh Regalim, and the prohibition of cooking meat and milk together.  Although this is an abbreviated version of the first Brit, the Torah nonetheless is telling us that the content of both Britot is identical. A proof to this assertion is that the Shalosh Regalim and the prohibition of milk in meat are the last two commandments of the first Brit.  Hashem presented the end of the first Brit to show that the exact same material is found in both Britot.

Only after the second Brit does Moshe come and teach Bnei Yisrael about the Mishkan and Shabbat as Hashem told him to do.  The remainder of Sefer VaYikra consists of Hashem speaking to Moshe from the Ohel Moeid (40:34-38), and the rest of the Torah was given to Moshe at different points in the desert.

There is a debate in the Gemara (Gittin 60a) as to whether the Torah was given in different sections (Megillah Megillah Nitna) or as a whole (Chatuma Chatuma Nitna).  The former opinion would fit perfectly with the text in the Torah,as outlined above..  Furthermore, Tosafot (ibid. s.v Torah Chatuma Nitna) understand the latter opinion to mean that Bnei Yisrael received each part at its proper time in the desert but that Moshe wrote blocks of it down at different times to account for “Ein Mukdam UMeuchar BaTorah,” “The verses of the Torah are not [necessarily] arranged in chronological order,” as opposed to Rashi who believes that Moshe wrote down the entire Torah at once at the end of the forty years. Notice, however, that neither Rashi nor Tosafot believe that Moshe received the entire Torah on Har Sinai itself.

This year, as we begin the Torah reading cycle once again, we hopefully can appreciate an even greater depth of the beauty of the Torah.

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