How Much Is Torah Worth?

 

This week’s reading includes the famous account of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The people of Israel stood at the foot of the mountain as the Ten Commandments were solemnly proclaimed. Of course, the Ten Commandments were only the beginning of the great revelation of divine law. Ultimately, the Torah was found to contain a total of 613 commandments, and these were intended to guide Israel throughout their generations.

 

A later verse highlights this theme of continuity: “Moses commanded us [the laws of] the Torah, to be passed on to Jacob’s descendants” (Deut 33:4). The more that ancient interpreters considered this verse, however, the more puzzling it seemed. Surely God had commanded the Jewish people to keep the laws of the Torah; Moses was just an intermediary, the one who transmitted the Torah to Israel.

 

At a certain point, however, rabbinic sages considered the word “torah” itself. As is well known, every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has, by tradition, a numerical value (since the so-called Arabic numerals, 1, 2, 3, and so forth, were not yet in use to designate numbers). The first letter of torah, the letter tav, has the numerical value of 400. The next letter, vav, designates the number 6; resh, the third letter, stands for 200, and hei, the last letter, equals five. Altogether this makes for a total of 611.Too bad! If only it had come to 613, that would have matched exactly the number of commandments in the Torah.

 

But perhaps this was the whole point. People long ago had noticed something interesting about the Ten Commandments. In the first two commandments, God speaks in the first person, using the words “I” and “Me”: “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt…” “You shall have no other gods before Me…” and so forth. But after that second commandment, God is spoken of in the third person—not “I” or “Me,” but “the Lord your God,”  “He” and “His.”

 

Thus, the third commandment reads: “You shall not take in vain the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not find guiltless…” etc. The fourth commandment, to keep the sabbath, says, “The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God…”—once again, in the third person. And so the text continues to speak of God in the third person throughout the remaining commandments.

 

Why the switch?

 

As the Torah relates, after God had begun speaking at Sinai, the people “trembled and stood at a distance” (Exod 20:15). They went to Moses and demanded, “You be the one to speak to us, but don’t let God speak to us, or else we will die.” Moses tried to reassure them, but they wouldn’t listen: “So the people stood off at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud, where God was” (Exod 20:16-18).

 

If so, then the verse “Moses commanded us torah, to be passed on to Jacob’s descendants” suddenly made sense: The word torah was being used to hint at the word’s numerical value of 611: God gave the first two commandments to Israel directly, speaking to all the people gathered at Mount Sinai. But because the people were afraid, He thereafter spoke only to Moses, and it was thus Moses who “commanded us the remaining torah [611] commandments, to be passed on to Jacob’s descendants.”

 

Incidentally, the mention in Exod 20:15 that the people “trembled and stood at a distance,” has been evoked to explain two different postures of prayer in Judaism. Some Jews today deliberately shake and gyrate when they recite the Amidah (also called the Shemoneh Esreh) while others stand still. Which is proper? Apparently, both are all right, since at Mount Sinai some people “trembled,” while others “stood.”

 

Shabbat shalom!

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