Lesson 3 –- The Significance of Receiving the Torah – Shabbat 88a-89a

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein
The Conservative Yeshiva

In the selections which we will study in this lesson, we will find a variety of different vignettes concerning the event known as ‘matan Torah’ – the giving of the Torah, each painting a different picture of the event with different messages. At the outset, I want to note that these different sometimes contradictory pictures are juxtaposed with one and another. The Sages seemingly had no problem with this phenomenon since they apparently were not searching for definitive theological answers with regard to this special event but rather saw insight in each varying message. This is a valuable lesson regarding the Sages. The value of the varying interpretations outweighed their need for a definitive record of the events and a definite portrait of its significance.


View the English text for Shabbat 88a-89a

View the Hebrew text for Shabbat 88a-89a

Guide Questions and Issues

Section 1

This section starts out with a drasha on a verse describing where the people stood as they prepared for ‘matan Torah’. The verse describes them as standing “b’tachtit hahar” – what we would describe as “at the foot of the mountain”. This phrase, however, when taken super literally might mean “underneath the mountain”. Rav Avdimi adopted this understanding of the phrase and takes it as an indication that the children of Israel were coerced into receiving the Torah.

3. Rav Aha takes this understanding one step further. He asserts that this is a “modaah” – a pronouncement that Israel could use to indicate that they were under no obligation to observe the Torah, since their adherence had been coerced.

4. Rava does not leave this situation in limbo. He interprets a verse from the book of Esther, which ostensibly deals with the people’s acceptance of the observance of the rite of Purim to also refer to the adherence to the laws of the Torah.

What words in this verse are the impetuses for this interpretation?

Why does Rava feel compelled to make this interpretation?

5-7. Hizkiah brings another drasha on this subject.

What issue in the verse from Psalms prompts him to his interpretation?

What role does Israel’s acceptance of the Torah have here – see the opinion of Reish Kakish?

How is this related to the discussion in this sugya?

Selection 2

  1. This selection is a take-off of the familiar drasha that Israel accepted the Torah “naaseh v’nishma”, namely, they obligated themselves to do and then understand. This is the starting point for our drasha and a point for which God rewarded the children of Israel.

But with this “high point” came a low point. How is this low point learned out from the verse in Exodus 33:6?

  1. How does Rabbi Yochanan learn from the following verse (7) that Moses was not punished?
  2. How does Reish Lakish learn from the verse in Isaiah 35:10 that in the future the ideal condition will be restored?

Selection 3

1. How does Rabbi Elazar learn from the verse from Psalms that “naaseh v’nishma is the angel’s secret?

What might be the sages’ message in saying that “naaseh v’nishma” is the angel’s secret?

  1. What is gained by learning the principle of “naaseh v’nishma” in different ways?
  2. What does this anecdote add to the discussion?

Selection 4

Read through this episode carefully.

  1. What assumption does this story make about the nature of the Torah at the beginning of the story?
  2. What is Moses’ role in this story?
  3. How is it different from what you already assumed about Moses’ role?
  4. After Moses has answered the angels, do you you the same assumptions aobut the nature of the Torah?
  5. What is different about Moses after his “great debate”?

Selection 5

Read this story through carefully.

  1. How does it differ from the previous story?
  2. Where is the discussion happening here?
  3. What is the nature of the Torah in this story?
  4. What is Satan’s interest in the Torah?
  5. What does Moses answer Satan the way he does?
  6. What bothers God about Moses’ answer?
  7. What about Moses answer satisfies God?
  8. Compare and contrast Moses’ role in the story to that of Satan.

Go to Next Class – Is the Resurrection of the Dead From the Torah?