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The "Great Fire" at the Giving of the Torah

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





The "Great Fire" at the Giving of the Torah

Summarized by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



The Gemara (Shabbat 88b) teaches:


R. Yehoshua ben Levi also said: What is meant by, "His cheeks are as a bed of spices" (Shir Ha-shirim 5:13)? With every single word that went forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, the whole world was filled with fragrance. But since it was filled [with fragrance] from the first word, whither did the [fragrance of the] second word go? The Holy One, blessed be He, brought forth the ruach (wind or spirit) from His store-chambers and caused each [fragrance] to pass on [thereby making room for the next].


The problem that the Gemara describes is a real one: at the time of the giving of the Torah, Bnei Yisrael heard the Commandments from God, and perceived the profundity and significance of each one.  The commandments are indeed so profound and so comprehensive that one single commandment – when a person truly plumbs its depths – is sufficient to fill him up completely.  Thus, after Bnei Yisrael understood the full significance of "I am the Lord your God," uttered by the Holy One Himself, and were filled to the brim, as it were, with the positive energy of that commandment, how did they have the capacity to absorb any more? God granted them "spirit" from His treasury – i.e., a special Divine influence – in order that they would be able to receive and absorb the rest, too.


Following the intensity of Shavuot, how can we approach Shabbat? With all the uniqueness and importance of Shabbat, how can we speak about Shabbat and understand it when we are still bursting with the experience of receiving the Torah on Shavuot? This being our situation this year, let us talk about Shavuot.


We know that at Sinai, Bnei Yisrael committed themselves with the words, "We shall do and we shall hear."  Opinions are divided as to when exactly they said this: according to Ramban, it was after God's revelation at Sinai and after receiving the Book of the Covenant, which was what they referred to in their declaration.  According to Rashi, on the other hand, their declaration preceded the revelation and the giving of the Torah. 


Tosafot (Shabbat 88b) question why God had to coerce the nation by holding the mountain over them like a cask, when they had already declared, "We shall do and we shall hear."  The answer given there is that "Even though they had already declared 'We shall do' before 'We shall hear,' [God held the mountain over them] lest they retract their commitment when they see the great fire." According to the Ramban's view, the question is irrelevant, since Bnei Yisrael made their declaration only after they had already seen the great fire.  But we need to examine this answer in light of Rashi's interpretation.


What lies behind Tosafot's answer is a great and important principle.  Bnei Yisrael were obligated, prior to the giving of the Torah, to observe only the seven Noachide laws.  Despite the difficulties that these laws may sometimes create and the exertion that they may require, the demands that they make are not too great.  The concern was that Bnei Yisrael, after promising "We shall do and we shall hear," would see the great fire and become afraid: "If the Torah that we are about to receive is so great and so powerful – perhaps it is better not to receive it." Perhaps, after the awesome experience of Revelation, Bnei Yisrael would have second thoughts when they realized the extent of the commitment that they were about to take upon themselves.  For this reason, after they declared their initial readiness to accept the Torah, God had to hold the mountain over them as a threat, so that they would not backtrack when they perceived the power of the Torah.


Often, people want to learn Torah and live a religious life, but they don't want to do it with full commitment.  People fear that getting into Torah too deeply will change them into something that they want to stay away from.  However, we learn from Tosafot that there can be no observance of commandments without real engagement and in-depth commitment and study.  If a person will backtrack when seeing the "great fire," then he cannot receive the Torah.  A person who wants to receive Torah needs not only the aspect of "We shall do and we shall hear," but also the ability to confront and connect with the great fire that accompanies the acceptance.


The Magen Avraham questions why we celebrate Shavuot on the fiftieth day of the Omer, while in fact the Torah was given on Shabbat – which was the 51st day.  The Maharal answers that what we are in fact celebrating is God's desire to give us the Torah, and to obligate us to receive it, even though perhaps Bnei Yisrael may have hesitated and faltered a little when they saw the great fire. When Bnei Yisrael were exposed to the great power of the Torah, it frightened them and caused them to have second thoughts about their commitment.  Yet God nevertheless desired to give them the Torah, and even to force it upon them.  It is God's readiness to give, and not Bnei Yisrael's readiness to receive, that we celebrate on Shavuot.


(This sicha was delivered on motzaei Shavuot / leil Shabbat, 5762 [2002].)