Shavuot Table Topics

Revelation: A "Face to Face" Encounter?

Though many people assume that the entire nation heard all ten of the Aseret HaDibberot directly from Hashem, many commentators suggest that Moshe might have acted as an intermediary for at least part of, if not the entire, experience.  Which verses might provide support for each position?

  • RambamMoreh Nevukhim 2:33About R. Moshe b. Maimon, in contrast, assumes that Hashem spoke directly only to Moshe. The people listened in on their conversation, but heard merely a Divine voice without being able to decipher His words.  Rambam is likely motivated by his belief that indiscriminate prophecy is impossible.  Do you agree that prophecy is only possible with proper training and preparation, or can anyone reach prophetic levels if Hashem chooses to speak to them?  Attempt to bolster your position from other cases in Tanakh.
  • What ramifications does this dispute have for understanding the main purpose of the Sinaitic revelation? 

For elaboration, see The Decalogue: Direct From Hashem or Via Moshe?

Were the Avot "Jewish"?

Shavuot celebrates the Children of Israel's receipt of the Torah and their becoming a religion in addition to a nation. What does this imply about the status of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs who lived centuries before Sinai?  Did they keep the mitzvot? On the one hand, many of the Torah's laws were designed for a nation and would be meaningless to the Patriarchs. On the other hand, it seems paradoxical to conceive of the founders of a religion not observing even its most basic commandments.

  • What other factors might lead one to suggest that the Avot did in fact observe at least some of the commandments?
  • What evidence can be brought from the Torah to support each position?
  • With which side of the debate do you agree and why? See Avot and Mitzvot – Was Avraham the First Jew?

Decalogue Differences

There are many differences, both larger and smaller, between the formulations of the Decalogue found in Shemot and in Devarim.  How should these variations be understood?  Were they introduced by Hashem, Moshe, or both?  If the latter, what gave Moshe the authority to do so?  Do both versions of the Decalogue have equal status, or does one represent the ideal (and which)? 

  • R. D"Z HoffmannDevarim 5:13Devarim 5:17About R. David Zvi Hoffmann suggests that Moshe initiated the changes in the fortieth year and that they related to the nation's imminent arrival in the Land of Israel.  In contrast, MalbimShemot 20:7-10About R. Meir Leibush Weiser asserts that Hashem Himself made the changes in the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf.  Due to sin, the people no longer merited a miraculous existence, and the Decalogue was amended to fit a nation now governed by laws of nature. How would each position explain all of the differences between the two versions?  Can each account for all of the variations?  Which approach do you find more compelling?
  • In contrast to the above exegetes, Ibn EzraShemot Second Commentary 20:1About R. Avraham ibn Ezra maintains that the Decalogue in Devarim is simply Moshe's paraphrase of Hashem's words.  Though some words are different, there is no fundamental difference in meaning. He explains, "המלות הם כגופות, והטעמים כנשמות" and thus a change in wording is insignificant.  Do you agree?  Is word choice meaningful?  How might Ibn Ezra account for the seemingly very different reasons given for the commandment of Shabbat?  See Decalogue Differences for elaboration.

The Luchot in Art

What did the Luchot look like?  Compare various depictions of the Tablets (see Moshe and the Luchot in Art)1 and discuss the following:

  • How were the commandments distributed between the tablets?  According to R. Chanina ben Gamliel in the Mekhilta, there were five on each tablet, with each commandment in some way relating to its partner on the second tablet. The Sages there, in contrast, suggest that there were ten on each tablet. Yet a third opinion maintains that the three commandments between man and God were on one tablet and the seven commandments between man and man were on the other.2  What might be motivating each position?
  • Were the two tablets attached or separate?  How big were they?  What evidence might be brought from the verses?  What is unknown?  What leads artists to depict the Tablets in the ways that they do?