Lecture 62: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina ֠The Assembly at Shekhem ֠A Renewal of the Sinaitic Experience

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy




This week of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion is being sponsored by Ronni & Nachum Katlowitz in honor of Ronni's mother's birthday - Happy Birthday Mrs. Lucia Pasternak!



Lecture 62: The History of the resting of the Shekhina –

THe ASsembly at Shekhem –

A renewal of the Sinaitic experience

Rav Yitzchak Levi



            Following the ceremony of the blessings and curses at Mount Eival, when Yehoshua was already drawing near the end of his life, he gathers all of the tribes of Israel to Shekhem:


And Yehoshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shekhem, and called for the elders of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers, and they presented themselves before God. (Yehoshua 24:1)


            In his talk, Yehoshua surveys the history of the people of Israel down to his day, and asks the people to remove the strange gods from among them and to worship the God of Israel. The people accept upon themselves this commitment and choose to serve God:


So Yehoshua made a covenant with the people that day, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shekhem. And Yehoshua wrote these words in the book of the Torah of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. And Yehoshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness to us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us. It shall be therefore a witness to you, lest you deny your God.” (Yehoshua 24:25-27)


            According to Scripture, the people of Israel assemble here before God and participate in quasi re-giving of the Torah. A covenant is made and a statute and ordinance are set.


            In this lecture, we will try to understand the nature of this assembly, the meaning of the covenant, the comparison between this assembly and the Sinaitic revelation, and why it was specifically Shekhem that was chosen for this event.




            There is a clear parallel between the assembly in Shekhem and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai:


·        All of the tribes of Israel participate – the heads of the people, their judges, and their officers.


·        The people assemble before God.


·        The people are asked to remove the strange Gods from among them and to worship the God of Israel.


·        Yehoshua brings the people to the explicit and conscious choice to serve God, at the conclusion of which they say (v. 24), " The Lord our God will we serve, and His voice will we obey," which, in its essence and in its style, parallels Israel's words at the foot of Mount Sinai, "We shall do and we shall obey."


·        As at Mount Sinai, at Shekhem a covenant is made and a statute and ordinance are set.


·        The verses note that a sanctuary is found in Shekhem.[1] This parallels the understanding of various early authorities according to which the Sinaitic experience constituted the first expression of a Mishkan. (This comparison stems from several elements of the Sinaitic experience, for example, the division between the site of the resting of the Shekhina and the site of service, the building of an altar, the various types of sacrifices, and others.)


·        In the verses cited above, Yehoshua says to the people that the stone that was set up there should serve as a witness. This testimony brings to mind the tablets of testimony at the original Sinaitic experience. This is the way it is understood by Targum Yonatan ben Uziel:


This stone shall be for us like the two stone tablets, because we made it to serve as a witness, because what is written upon it is like the words that God spoke to us.


            What we have here, then, is a clear parallel to the giving of the Torah, as well as a parallel between the words that were written and those that were said orally.


            Why was a new Sinaitic experience necessary when Israel entered into the Land? Furthermore, why does it take place in Shekhem and not at the site of the Mishkan in Shilo?




            Despite the great similarity between the two events, there is an essential difference between the original Sinaitic experience and the assembly at Shekhem. At Mount Sinai, there was a manifest Divine revelation – "an awakening from above" - an absolutely miraculous appearance of God, with God speaking directly to the people in the midst of thunder and lightning, a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the voice of a shofar sounding louder and louder.


            In anticipation of this great revelation, the people were told to purify and sanctify themselves, wash their clothes and take care not to ascend the mountain. Chazal say that God "arched the mountain over them like a tank;" in other words, the revelation was so powerful that it contained an element of coercion. At the assembly at Shekhem, on the other hand, there does not appear to have been any Divine revelation.


            In this context, Yehoshua's words to the people in verse 27 are very interesting. He says to them that the stone heard all the words of God that He spoke to them. Surprisingly, there is no reference in the verses themselves to the fact that God spoke to the people. The commentators grapple with this difficulty, and explain the verses in various ways.


            Rashi explains:


… It can also be explained in its literal sense, because it heard the words that I spoke to you as God's agent.


            After bringing the words of the Targum cited above, the Radak explains:


According to the plain sense, "which he spoke to us" means: That which I spoke to you and the covenant that I made with you – I did not make up. For they are the words of the Lord which He spoke to us at Mount Sinai. And "for it has heard" is like: "And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth" (Devarim 32:1).


            The Abravanel offers a similar explanation:


"Behold, this stone shall be a witness to us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord," and it is a witness - "And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth" (Devarim 32:1).  That is, before it were said the words that the blessed God commanded to say. And this is [the meaning of] "which He spoke to us."


            The Malbim (ad loc.) explains:


"And Yehoshua said [to all the people], ‘Behold, this stone,’" that is to say, together with the book within it, "shall be a witness to us." As Moshe Rabbenu, of blessed memory, said: "Take this book of the Torah, and put it on the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you." And similarly [Yehoshua] called upon his book that rested in the stone to be a witness with respect to two things: 1) "to us," including himself among them, "because it heard all the words of the Lord," that is to say, for there we find all that the Lord has spoken to us, i.e., the words of God that are found throughout this book, and also that which Yehoshua said to them now beginning with the words, "Thus says the Lord." 2) "It shall therefore be a witness to you, lest you deny" - like someone who summons a witness so that he not be able to deny in front of him. Since they were then in Shekhem, it was there that he made the hollow stone and placed his book inside, and from there they brought it to the sanctuary in Shilo and set it up. The oak was certainly outside the sanctuary, for it is forbidden to plant a tree in a sanctuary, and he showed that the status of his book was not like that of a Torah scroll for all purposes…


            We see, then, that the stone's “hearing the words of the Lord” can be understood in several ways:


  • According to Rashi, Yehoshua spoke as God's agent, and therefore it was as if the stone heard the words of God.


  • According to the Radak, Yehoshua brought the words of God. Speaking to the stone is understood in the same way that we understand, "And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth."


  • The Malbim connects this to the book that Yehoshua wrote, and the stone is close to the book in which are found the words of the Lord. The written testimony is like hearing the words of the Lord.


In any event, in contrast to the Sinaitic experience, here there is no Divine revelation.




            Another aspect of this same point is that the renewal of the covenant initiated by Yehoshua brings the people to freely choose – "an awakening from below." This choice is made several times over the course of Yehoshua's oration.


            First, Yehoshua sets before the people the choice between fearing God and serving Him in sincerity and in truth, on the one hand, and worshipping strange gods. The people say that they want to serve God who took them and their fathers out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage, performed great signs, and preserved them throughout their journeys (vv. 14-18).


            Yehoshua does not content himself with this declaration, and once again admonishes the people that they will not be able "to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God; He is a jealous God; He will not tolerate your transgressions nor your sins." If they sin, He will consume them. Once again, the people answer that they will serve God (vv. 19-21).


            Then Yehoshua says to them, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord for yourselves, to serve Him." He turns to them and asks them to remove the strange gods from among them. And they answer, "The Lord our God will we serve, and His voice will we obey" (vv. 22-24).


            In other words, three times and in three stages Yehoshua sets before the people the responsibility and the ramifications of their choice and he tries to ascertain that the people are aware of the ramifications of their actions.


            It is possible that when the people of Israel entered Eretz Yisrael and became involved in the mundane dimensions of life, without direct providence and manifest miracles, it was necessary for them to receive the Torah anew. Now, when they were beginning to live in down-to-earth reality, without Divine coercion and guidance, they had to accept the Torah once again, honestly examining whether they were prepared to serve God in sincerity and in truth and to utterly forsake idolatry, when they know that God is a jealous God Who will punish those who stray from His path.


            In this context as well it is significant that the new covenant is made specifically in Shekhem, the place where the patriarchs naturally and by their own free choice began their lives in Eretz Yisrael.


            It is important to emphasize that as opposed to the ceremony involving the blessings and the curses that took place at Mount Eival at the explicit command of God, the assembly at Shekhem seems to have been Yehoshua's own initiative. Scripture does not even allude to a Divine command or to a prophecy or revelation. Based on the chapter's location in the book, it stands to reason that this assembly took place toward the end of Yehoshua's life, when he saw it as his obligation to ascertain that the people would continue with their unmediated connection to the Torah, in its broad and encompassing sense. It is very possible that this is the fulfillment of God's words to Yehoshua when he first donned the mantle of leadership:


Only be strong and very courageous and observe to do according to all the Torah, which Moshe My servant commanded you. Turn not from it to the right hand nor to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth; but you shall meditate therein day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it, for then you shall make your way prosperous and then you shall have good success. (Yehoshua 1:7-8)


            This is, indeed, a Divine command, but it does not specify the manner in which it is to be carried out. Yehoshua chooses to execute it in the manner described in chapter 24, based on his own judgment and choice.


            The two assemblies – the blessings and curses on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival and the great assembly in Shekhem – are two ways in which Yehoshua strengthened the people's commitment to observe the Torah after having entered Eretz Yisrael. The statute and ordinance mentioned at the end of the assembly parallel the relationship between the giving of the Torah in Parashat Yitro and the judgments in Parashat Mishpatim (there, too, we find a book of the covenant that is read before the people).


            It is possible to suggest that Yehoshua's statute and ordinance are connected to the laws governing the relationships between man and his fellow, and deal with legislation stemming from Israel's having entered the land. Thus, for example, it is possible that it was here that Yehoshua enacted his ten enactments for those who entered Eretz Yisrael (Bava Kama 80b), which, for the most part related to social issues that accompanied the settlement of the land.[2]




            R. Yoel Bin-Nun[3] has proposed a different understanding of the assembly at Shekhem. He argues that the assembly at Shekhem was a conversion ceremony, in which participated, on the one hand, representatives of the tribes of Israel, and on the other hand, representatives of the people living in the Shekhem area who wished to join the people of Israel.


R. Bin-Nun's basic argument is that the house of Avraham includes not only Avraham's children and direct descendants, but also "those born in his own house" (mentioned in Bereishit 14:14: "…He led forth his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen"). These people are not slaves, but rather families that joined the original house of Avraham. The number 318 which appears in the verse refers only to the warriors; if we include their wives and families the number reached into the thousands.


The Rambam in Hilkhot Avoda Zara describes Avraham's activity after having recognized his Maker:


When the people flocked to him and questioned him regarding his assertions, he would instruct each one according to his capacity till he had brought him to the way of truth, and thus thousands and tens of thousands joined him. These were the persons referred to in the phrase, "men of the house of Avraham." (Hilkhot Avoda Zara 1:3)


            The Rambam relates to the house of Avraham, which included thousands and tens of thousands. We seem to be dealing with a large company of unnamed people who attached themselves to the house of Avraham. Thus, for example, the story of Shimon and Levi's conquest of Shekhem mentions only them, but it is reasonable to assume that many others who are not explicitly mentioned joined them in the conquest.


            On the other hand, when the people of Israel went down to Egypt, the Torah states: "All the souls of the house of Yaakov who came into Egypt were seventy" (Bereishit 46:27). If only seventy members of Yaakov's family, all of whom are specified by name, went down to Egypt, what happened to the rest of the house of Avraham when Yaakov went down to Egypt?


            It is reasonable to assume that part of the house of Avraham settled in Shekhem after the city had been conquered. If we accept this assumption, it turns out that a large portion of the population in the Shekhem area were not Chivi or Canaanite, and it stands to reason that they were descendants of those who came from "beyond the river."


            In addition, during this period, Eretz Yisrael was under the patronage and rule of Egypt. There were various governors in Eretz Yisrael who were responsible for different areas, and the governor of Shekhem was Egyptian. During this period, the territory of Shekhem stretched from the Jezre'el valley in the north to just north of Jerusalem in the south.


With the settlement of the people of Israel in Eretz Yisrael, Yehoshua was concerned about the possible idolatrous influence of this population, and since they did not belong to the seven Canaanite nations, Israel could not fight against them. On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that this population cooperated with the people of Israel when they entered Eretz Yisrael. Only in this way can we account for the fact that no war is waged against the king of Shekhem; the city of Shekhem is not conquered, and upon entering the land the people of Israel safely reach Mount Eival and build an altar there.


In order to deal with his fears, Yehoshua proposes that this entire population in Shekhem join the people of Israel and convert. Already in the days of Shimon and Levi, the people of Shekhem expressed a readiness to undergo circumcision, something that may allude to what would happen in the future.


According to this understanding, two different groups took part in the assembly at Shekhem: representatives of the people of Israel and representatives of the "people of Shekhem," descendants of the house of Avraham who had remained in the Shekhem region. This reenactment of the Sinaitic experience was meant to bring the population that had remained in Shekhem under the wings of the Shekhina.


This reading of the chapter explains why mention is made of the "other side of the river" and of Egypt, and why Yehoshua asks the people to chose whether or not they truly wish to serve God. This reenactment of the Sinaitic experience helped Israel deal with the local population.


Now we can understand why a new covenant is made and why a "statute and ordinance" were given in Shekhem. Moreover, according to this explanation, it may be suggested that the "sanctuary of the Lord" mentioned in the passage refers to a sanctuary to the God of Israel built on the site of an older temple found in the city after the idols were removed, and it was rebuilt on an east-west axis, similar to the Mishkan and Mikdash which were directed toward the west.


However, this act of conversion and re-acceptance of the Torah in Shekhem failed, as is proven by the history of Shekhem in the days of Avimelekh in the book of Shofetim:


And when all the men of the tower of Shekhem heard that, they entered the stronghold of Bet-El-Berit. And it was told to Avimelekh that all the men of the tower of Shekhem were gathered together. And Avimelekh went up to Mount Tzalmon, he and all the people that were with him; and Avimelekh took an axe in his hand, and cut down a bough from the trees, and took it, and laid it on his shoulder, and said to the people that were with him, “What you have seen me do, make haste, and do as I have done.” And all the people likewise cut down every man a bough, and followed Avimelekh, and put them to the stronghold, and set the hold on fire upon them; so that all the men of the tower of Shekhem died also, about a thousand men and women. (Shofetim 9:46-49)


            The site that had served as a temple to God in the days of Yehoshua turned into a temple to Ba'al. Its original mission failed. In place of a temple to God, there is now a temple to Ba'al, and thus the important attempt at the end of the days of Yehoshua to convert this unique population living in the region of Shekhem failed within a single generation in the days of Avimelekh.


            This interpretation allows us to understand another point. Why was it necessary that there be two assemblies reminiscent of the Sinaitic experience, first the ceremony involving the blessings and curses at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival and the writing of the Torah on the stones and then the great assembly at Shekhem?


            The assembly at Mount Eival was meant exclusively for the people of Israel, whereas the assembly at Shekhem was meant to join to the senior representatives of the people of Israel the people living in Shekhem.  It was thus meant for a different population which was to join the people of Israel on this occasion.[4]




            Why was this lofty assembly involving a renewed acceptance of the Torah and a reenactment of the Sinaitic experience conducted specifically at Shekhem? The Radak offers the following answer:


It seems that the ark of God was brought there in order to make the covenant in the presence of the ark, as it is stated: "And Yehoshua wrote… in the book of the Torah of God," from which we see that the ark containing the book of the Torah was there. Yehoshua gathered [the people] to Shekhem and not to Shilo, where the ark was found, because that was where Avraham our forefather first tarried when he entered the land. As it is stated, "And Avraham passed through the land to the place of Shekhem" (Bereishit 12:6). And furthermore, because there a great miracle was performed for Yaakov our forefather and they should remember it and cleave exclusively to God. And furthermore, because Yaakov's initial inheritance of Eretz Yisrael was in Shekhem, when he bought a piece of land from the children of Chamor, Shekhem's father. And there Yehoshua said to them, "Put away the strange gods which are among you" (Yehoshua 24:23), just as Yaakov said to his children in Shekhem, "Put away the strange gods that are among you" (Bereishit 35:2). (Radak, Yehoshua 24:1, s.v. va-yitzyatzvu)


            The Abravanel adds:


Because in this place Yaakov said to his children, "Put away the strange gods that are among you," and therefore Yehoshua saw fit to say similar things in that same place.


            According to the Abravanel, there is a similarity between the actions of Yehoshua and those of Yaakov in the city of Shekhem. Just as Yaakov asked the members of his household to remove the strange gods that were among them, so too did Yehoshua. According to this approach, renewed acceptance of the Torah was conditioned on removal of all traces of idol worship, and this is what happened with Yaakov in Shekhem as well as with Yehoshua. The question still remains why our chapter makes no account of the removal of the strange gods in the aftermath of Yehoshua's command. There must be a reason that Scripture fails to describe the execution of such an important order.


            The Radak offers other explanations as well: Shekhem was Avraham's first stop after entering Eretz Yisrael, and it was also the site of a great miracle performed for Yaakov. According to this understanding, the great assembly in Shekhem was meant to express the people of Israel's connection to the patriarchs, Avraham and Yaakov. This gave expression to the fact that the people of Israel wanted to continue in the paths of their forefathers. "The actions of the fathers serve as a sign for their children" – the patriarchs set the path for their descendants who walked in their footsteps. The patriarchs entered Eretz Yisrael, crossing the Jordan River apparently in the area of the city of Adam (today's Damia bridge) and continuing westward through Wadi Tirtza (today's Wadi Par'a) until they reached Shekhem.


            It was of great spiritual and national importance that the children's entry into the land should follow the same path taken by their forefathers, thus realizing their ancestors' goal of entering Eretz Yisrael through Shekhem.




            The great assembly at Shekhem at the end of Yehoshua's life constituted a summation of Yehoshua's work and an attempt to reinforce the standing of the Torah in the nation in general. According to R. Yoel Bin-Nun's proposal, it was also an attempt to convert the local population living in the Shekhem region.


The assembly involved a renewed giving of the Torah in Eretz Yisrael and a renewed decision on the part of the people to accept the Torah and the yoke of heaven. This assembly joins with the assembly of the blessings and curses and the writing of the Torah on the stones at Mount Eival north of Shekhem, through which a covenant was made with God through the acceptance of mutual responsibility.


In the coming lectures, we will examine the status of Bet-El and Mitzpeh, important cities in the days of the Shofetim and Shemuel, and briefly consider the status of the Givonim.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] The term that is used here, "sanctuary (mikdash) of the Lord" is certainly exceptional. The Radak (ad loc.) explains that "the house in which the ark rested in Shekhem was called a 'mikdash' owing to the sanctity of the ark that was temporarily there." The Malbim explains that the reference is to Shilo, even though according to the plain sense of Scripture we are dealing with Shekhem.

However we understand this, we are dealing with an assembly in which words were written by Yehoshua in a book of the Torah of God and a stone served as a witness to the covenant that was made with God.

[2] The essence of Shekhem was dealt with by R. Yisrael Leibovitz in his booklet, Tabor Ha-Aretz, published by Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai and Garin Shekhem in Shevat 5748, and in his book, Pnei Levona (Jerusalem, 5763). There, he relates at length to the matter under discussion here.

[3] In an oral shiur.

[4] Of course, this question requires a different answer if we don't see the assembly at Shekhem as a conversion ceremony.

[5] This issue goes beyond that of the assembly in Yehoshua 24 and is connected to the character of Shekhem in general, including this assembly.