What Moses Really Learned on Mt Sinai: God's Surprising Last Words | Aleph Beta

God's Surprising Last Words At Sinai

What Moses Learned About The Sabbath On Mount Sinai

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The very last words God tells to Moses as he's ready to leave Mount Sinai are about the Sabbath. Why? Moses has already heard about Shabbat – he's gotten and given those laws. And its not even like God is giving him a long detailed diatribe on the Sabbath either – there are six verses, and that's it. God has just spent the last forty days on Sinai talking about the tabernacle and THOSE laws... Why was it so important that the Sabbath be the last thing He spoke about to Moses?

The rabbis pick up on this question, and give their explanation in the introduction to the Sabbath morning prayers. But looking at the rabbis' explanation, we are left with more questions! Join Rabbi Fohrman as he dives deep into this prayer, and understands the rabbis' answer to God's surprising last words to Moses on Mount Sinai.


Hey everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman; welcome to Parshat Ki Tisa. You are watching Aleph Beta. 

I want to do something a little different with you today. I want to use a piece of text in our Parsha, as a way of decoding the meaning of a different piece of text – the text of a mysterious prayer.

The prayer I’m talking about may be familiar to some of you. It is a section of the Amidah prayer for Sabbath Morning. Now, this is a prayer-text that I personally have said for years, every week – and y’know, frankly, even though, after all these years of saying it, I know the words by heart, I can’t say I’ve ever really understood it.

And, I don’t mean to say I didn’t understand how to translate the Hebrew words. I did. The Hebrew is poetic, but not terribly difficult to render into English. What I mean is: I never understood what the point of the words were. The words seemed pretty, but they also seemed random, rambly, and almost disconnected from each other.

Rube Goldberg Comes to Shabbos Morning

Let me start by explaining how the rabbis, long ago, built the text of the Sabbath Amidah prayers. They organized them around various passages from the Torah that had to do with the Sabbath. So on Friday night, for example, they took the excerpt from Genesis that describes God’s original rest after the Six Days of Creation, and they composed their own words of introduction to that text – and, there you go, Friday night prayers.

As for Sabbath Morning, the rabbis chose for the centerpiece of these prayers a piece from Exodus – that just happens to appear in this week’s Parsha:

ושמרו בני־ישראל את־השבת,

and the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath…

לעשות את-השבת לדרתם, ברית עולם

to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.

And then the text continues. And the Biblical text is very fine. But it is the rabbis’ introduction that they composed to that section of text that is vexing me.

Because, look, if you were the rabbis, y’know, and you were going to write a little introduction to this section of Biblical text, it would seem like you could be pretty straightforward about it. Maybe you’d say: God gave Israel this wonderful day called the Sabbath, and asked them to observe it – as its written in the Torah… and then you’d just quote the text from this weeks parsha. Game over, right? And yet, the rabbis don’t do that. Not even close. Instead, they talk about a whole bunch of things that, honestly, seem only tangentially related to these verses they are about to cite. Let me read this introduction to you, and I think you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about:

ישמח משה במתנת חלקו

Moses would rejoice with the gift of his particular portion...

The Rabbis say:

.כי עבד נאמן קראת לו

Because You (I.e. God), called him a faithful servant.

כליל תפארת בראשו נתת לו

A crown of glory upon his head You placed,

בעמדו לפניך על הר סיני.

when he was standing before You on Mt. Sinai.

ושני לחות אבנים הוריד בידו.

And he brought down in his hands two tablets of stone.

וכתוב בהם שמירת שבת.

And on these was engraved the observance of the Sabbath.

וכן כתוב בתורתך

So it is written in your Torah:

ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת.

The children of Israel must keep the Sabbath,

לעשׂות את־השּׁבת לדרתם ברית עולם

observing the Sabbath in every generation as an everlasting covenant.

And it keeps on going.

How Do We Make Sense of This?

I think you see what I’m talking about here... Right?

The introduction to those biblical words, just meanders. They begin with Moses and his happiness. I mean, I’m all very glad to hear about how overjoyed Moses was. He had a hard life; he deserves to have a bit of joy, I think we can all agree on that. And it’s all very fine that he’s called a trusted servant. It sure was lucky of him to get that crown on Mt. Sinai. And those were some very fine tablets he brought down from Sinai. No argument there. And it is true that the Sabbath was one of ten things on those tablets. But still, what does any of that really have to do with the text the rabbis are supposed to be introducing – Exodus 31. Exodus 31 isn’t the Ten Commandments! It is a text that occurs dozens of chapters after the Ten Commandments, where we hear Sabbath being talked about again. How does any of what the rabbis said really introduce that text? It is just… bizarre.

What’s going on?

Something Was Bothering the Rabbis About Veshamru

So I want to suggest an answer here.

The rabbis weren’t just rambling. Instead, what we actually have in their words is a carefully constructed commentary on this Veshamru passage. I think there was something about that biblical passage that bothered the rabbis – and in the words they write for the Sabbath prayers, they were trying to address that. They were trying to give you their take on what the Torah really means to say with Veshamru.

What difficulty did the rabbis have with these Veshamru verses? It is maybe the most basic difficulty you could raise about any text. What in the world is this doing here?

You see, you and me, we often encounter the Veshamru text in our prayers on Sabbath morning, or when we recite the Kiddush on Sabbath morning as well – but the rabbis were thinking about how a reader of the Torah encounters this text, when they suddenly arrive at Exodus chapter 31. Because, if you’re reading the Torah, and you’re plodding along, and you get up to this three or four verse Veshamru passage – it really does seem terribly out of place. Until this point in Parshat Ki Tisa, y’know, for dozens of chapters, the Torah has pretty much been talking about one thing, and one thing only: The construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. And so, right after all that – when bang, out of nowhere, we get these little few verses about the Sabbath – you gotta ask: What are they doing here? It’s so strange.

And, truth to be told: It’s not just that the verses seem out of place; they’re also kind of redundant. Because, y’know, you’ve heard about the Sabbath earlier. You’ve heard about it back in Exodus 16 when Israel got the manna, and was told not to collect it on the Sabbath. We heard about the Sabbath again, a few chapters later, when the Sabbath shows up as one of the Ten Commandments. And so, when a dozen chapters later – after loads of Tabernacle-related architectural instructions – you hear about the Sabbath again, you kind of think to yourself: why, all of a sudden, do I need to hear about it now?

And that question, I think, was something the rabbis were trying to address in their poetic introduction to Veshamru that we have in our Sabbath morning prayers. And the answer they came up with wasn’t just a dry, or technical answer, having to do with minutia or some painstaking structural issues. The answer they came up with transforms the meaning of the Veshamru passage into something sublime. Into something they couldn’t resist sharing with you. Into something they wanted to incorporate into our weekly prayers.

Where Is “Here”?

Let me try to reconstruct what I think the Rabbi’s answer was, and how they got to it.

The first step the rabbis took, I think, was that they noticed something curious about what comes right after the Biblical Veshamru text. Right after the Torah states those three or four Veshamru verses, the very next thing the Torah tells us is this:

וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ֙ לְדַבֵּ֤ר אִתּוֹ֙ בְּהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י שְׁנֵ֖י לֻחֹ֣ת הָעֵדֻ֑ת לֻחֹ֣ת אֶ֔בֶן

And God gave to Moses, upon finishing to speak to him on Mt. Sinai, two tablets, made of stone

כְּתֻבִ֖ים בְּאֶצְבַּ֥ע אֱלֹהִֽים׃

engraved with words by God Himself

Now, the rabbis found that noteworthy. Is it mere coincidence that – after dozens of chapters of other laws – suddenly, the Torah pivots to discuss the Sabbath for a few verses in Veshamru, and the next thing we hear about, in the Torah, is Moses getting ready to come down the mountain? The rabbis decided it wasn’t a coincidence. Somehow, those two things, the Sabbath and Moses coming down the mountain, had to be meaningfully connected. But how?

God's Revelation to Moses at Mount Sinai

So, the rabbis came to the conclusion, I think, that, evidently, the last thing Moses needed to hear about at Mount Sinai, as he prepared to descend back to the people – was the idea of the Sabbath.

And if you just sort of skim, quickly, through the last dozen or so chapters of the Torah leading up to these Veshamru verses, you kind of see that this is true. Because, y’know, back in chapter 19 of Exodus, Moses went up to Mount Sinai, and really, he hasn’t left since. Everything that’s happened in the next 12 or 13 chapters, or so, is really, more or less, what Moses is being told there, at the top of the mountain. He's being told about the ten commandments, he’s being told about the laws of Mishpatim, he’s being told about the laws of the Tabernacle – and finally, he’s being told these three or four Veshamru verses. And then, that’s it: Then the Almighty finishes talking to him – and gives him two tablets of stone, in preparation for his descent back to the people.

The point is: The Sabbath is what Moses heard about, as the Almighty was finishing talking to him in the words of the verse. Somehow, the last thing Moses needed to hear on Sinai, before he was able to come down that mountain, was something about the Sabbath. And, to be a little bit more precise, not just anything about the Sabbath. He didn’t need to hear, for example, the fourth commandment from the tablets he was holding, recited out loud to him or something – that command that gives the law of the Sabbath. No. He needed to hear something else. He needed to hear Veshamru Benei Yisrael et Hashabat. That Israel would keep the Sabbath. Ledorotam. He needed to know the people would keep it forever, for all their generations. Brit Olam. He needed to know that the Sabbath would serve as some kind of eternal sign; that it would be evidence of a special, unbreakable, bond between a People and their God.

Why did Moshe need to hear all this just before he descended the mountain? Why was this the last thing God would tell him at Mount Sinai? And why did he need to hear all this after hearing all those instructions about the Tabernacle?

Those are very good questions. And the answer, the rabbis came up with, actually has to do with: Joy.

Moshe's Side of the Story on Mount Sinai

The rabbis, in the prayer they composed, are asking us to imagine, I think, what it was like to be Moses, at the top of that mountain. What was it like?

.It was an ecstatic experience, they say. An experience of pure joy – יִשמַח משֶׁה

How so? Moses was rejoicing, the rabbis suggest, בְּמַתְּנַת חֶלְקו, over his unique lot in life!

And what was Moshe’s unique lot in life? What made him so very different than everyone else ? So here is where the rabbis seem, at first glance, to throw us for a bit of a loop. They say: Ki eved ne’eman karata lo; it was the fact that God called him ‘a trusted servant’; that’s what was so special about him.

And, of course, that’s kind of puzzling because... it’s not really the first thing that would come to mind. If you or me would have been asked: what made Moses so very special, so very different from everyone else? We would have said: He taught us the entire Torah; he carried out the Ten Plagues in Egypt. We wouldn’t have said, well, God called him ‘a trusted servant’. It is all nice to be trusted and everything – but why is that the mark of Moses’ uniqueness?

But the rabbis tell us that it was. If you want to really understand Moses, and you want to really understand his joy standing there at Sinai – you have got to understand that he was called a trusted servant by God.

Understanding the Joy of Moses' Sinai Encounter

So… let’s just examine what they might mean by that, a little bit. And let’s ask: Where in the Torah did it actually happen that God call Moses his ‘trusted servant’? And: What, exactly, did God mean when He said that about Moses?

Turns out, the episode in which God calls Moses ‘His trusted servant’ occurs later, in the Book of Numbers. It happens at a moment when Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, speak somewhat disparagingly about him. They wonder, according to Rashi, why Moses needed to act so differently from them. After all, הֲרַ֤ק אַךְ־בְּמֹשֶׁה֙ דִּבֶּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה, has God spoken only to Moses? הֲלֹ֖א גַּם־בָּ֣נוּ דִבֵּ֑ר, didn’t God speak with us too?

At that point, God said to Miriam and Aaron: שִׁמְעוּ־נָ֣א דְבָרָ֑י, “Hear My words:  אִם־יִֽהְיֶה֙ נְבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם יְהוָ֗ה בַּמַּרְאָה֙ אֵלָ֣יו אֶתְוַדָּ֔ע בַּחֲל֖וֹם אֲדַבֶּר־בּֽוֹ׃ when an ordinary prophet of God arises among the people, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.

לֹא־כֵ֖ן עַבְדִּ֣י מֹשֶׁ֑ה – But it is not so with My servant Moses; בְּכָל־בֵּיתִ֖י נֶאֱמָ֥ן הֽוּא׃ he is trusted throughout My entire household. פֶּ֣ה אֶל־פֶּ֞ה אֲדַבֶּר־בּ֗וֹ וּמַרְאֶה֙ וְלֹ֣א בְחִידֹ֔ת, I will speak with Him face to face; directly, without riddles…

So let’s stand back and see what we have here. It seems from the text in Numbers that, when God calls Moses a ‘trusted servant’, what God meant was: Moses’ ability to connect to God through prophecy – that was utterly unique. It was different from the ability of every other prophet that would ever arise.

Because, as God tells Moses later: Lo yirani ha’adam vechai. Humans can’t see Me and live through the experience. It is as if the human soul, confronted with the direct presence of its Maker, just… won’t stay put in the human body. So, out of necessity – for most prophets – prophecy is something experienced out of the corner of the eye, as it were. It is glimpsed, not stared at. God would speak to them in riddles or in dreams; something would be clouded. But not so for Moses. בְּכָל־בֵּיתִ֖י נֶאֱמָ֥ן הֽוּא׃, he is trusted throughout My entire household. Just as a trusted servant – an eved –  has direct access to his master, no matter where he is – so did Moses. He was the one human being who could experience the Divine directly and survive the encounter.

So what was it like, then, to be Moses atop the mountain; to encounter God in that completely unique way? It was, the rabbis tell us, a wonderful experience, full of joy. Sure, on the top of the mountain, Moses received laws. Ten Commandments. The laws of Mishpatim. God spoke with Moses and delivered all that information to him. But above and beyond that, the information potential of the encounter – … Moses received the greatest gift of all: The experience of just… being there. Moses was in God’s own “house”, as it were, a trusted servant. Just being there and relating directly with God – quite apart from anything that was actually said – was... unbelievable.

Moses on Mount Sinai: God’s Own House

The top of the mountain – it really was ‘God’s own House’. When God came to reveal Himself at Sinai… suddenly, the Almighty, the Being beyond space and time, appropriated this little mountaintop on earth, and made it His own.

And there are implications that flow from that. Because... it is not everyday that a place on earth becomes otherworldly...

Ever wonder why, for example, just before the moment of revelation, God told Moses to proclaim to the people not to touch the mountain; if they touch it, God says, they’ll die.

The answer is: It wasn’t that God was being capricious. It’s that the mountaintop… wasn’t an earthly place anymore. Yeah, sure, Sinai still looked like an ordinary mountain. And it felt like a mountain. But it wasn’t really. It wasn’t part of our world anymore. It was God’s own embassy on this planet, as it were. The Eritrean embassy, right? It sure looks like it’s part of Washington D.C. right? The sidewalks are the same. The bricks are the same. But it is not really part of Washington at all. It is a little piece of Eretrea.

Same with the mountain. It was God’s space: A place, on earth, that wasn’t a place at all; a place beyond space. Which made it dangerous, and people needed to be warned about it. They needed to hear, that they had to stay away – for their own good. Because, humans exist in space. They can’t exist where space isn’t.

And... they can’t exist where time isn’t, either.

Later in the Torah, Moses himself speaks of his stay atop the mountain, and he says, for forty days and nights, Lechem lo achalti, mayim lo shatiti. I didn’t eat or drink anything. For forty days. That’s crazy, right? Ever wonder how he managed that? Well here’s a theory. Think about where he was – and suddenly, it is not so crazy. He was on the mountaintop – in God’s world. He was at the place beyond time. So, sure, relative to the people below, he was there for forty days and forty nights of their time. But for Moses? His encounter with God took place at the mountaintop. The place beyond time. So the whole encounter happened in an instant. Barely time to get hungry for breakfast, and he’s down again.

Moses' Crown and Mask from Sinai

So Moses was the one human being who could somehow ascend to God’s own house, so to speak, commune with God there – and live through the experience. And the rabbis suggest that, not only was this was intensely joyous for him – yismach Moshe – it was life-changing, too. כליל תפארת .בראשו נתת לו – there was this special crown, the rabbis speak of, that God placed atop Moses’ face, I think, is their way of suggesting that Moses’ appearance was irrevocably changed by that direct encounter with the Divine; his face would, forevermore, somehow reflect that encounter. He wasn’t the same person anymore.

Indeed, a little later on in Exodus, the Torah tells us that when Moses rejoined the nation at the foot of the mountain, his face was shining so brilliantly that people couldn’t look at him directly. Because of that, Moses had to actually make a mask for himself, the Torah says, so people could approach him. You can’t, evidently, just commune with God and return, entirely, to normal life. The brilliance of that Divine encounter somehow haunted his visage, always. It was a kind of crown for him; majestic, but awesome. It set him apart.

The Democratization of Sinai

All of this helps us understand why the Veshamru section of verses appears exactly where it does, in the Torah. It helps us understand why the last thing Moses needed to hear, after spending 40 days and nights atop Sinai, after learning all the laws of the Mishkan, was Veshamru Benei Yisrael et HaShabbat, that Israel will keep the Sabbath.

Moses needed to hear about these two things – the Tabernacle, followed by the Sabbath – because the Master of the Universe was, in effect, telling him: This close encounter that you and I are having here at Sinai? This special connection? It is so unique; so wonderful, so joyous, so life changing. Well, believe it or not, it’s not just something for you and me share. The people are going to share in it as well.

They will experience it through the Tabernacle, and they will experience it through the Sabbath.

These two institutions are going to be the ways the Sinai event shall live on in the life of the people. Sinai would be recreated, in portable form, for the people; but, in its re-creation, it turns out, Sinai – the place beyond space and time – would actually split, as it were, into two, distinct entities: One focused on space; the other, on time.

The Mishkan is a place in our world in which God can dwell. It is a place for the God who is beyond Space. And the Sabbath? It is a point in time, for us to spend with the God who is Himself beyond time. What the Mishkan is for space, the Sabbath is for time. Opportunities for us to encounter God, closely … in our world.

What Did Moses Really Receive on Mount Sinai?

As Moses left the mountain, a place beyond materiality, he descended to earth with something very material, very concrete: The stone tablets of the law. Those tablets were inscribed with laws about the Sabbath Day. But Moses also descended with something, in his mind, something that transcended just laws. He came down with an assurance ringing in his ears that he had just heard, from the Almighty Himself, about the Sabbath: Veshamru Benei Yisrael et HaShabat! The people shall indeed keep the Sabbath! You, Moses, atop the mountain, you had a chance to experience this intimacy with the Divine once. The people will have this chance… for generations, ledorotam, it is a sign of the special connection that I, and the People, will have – a brit olam, a covenant between us, forever. They will be able to partake of this closeness that you and I had – perpetually. They, like you, will have a chance to drop everything and just… be together with Me. And that experience will change them, just as it changed you. It will make them holy.

In the end, the words the rabbis crafted for us in our Sabbath morning prayers, they aren’t a randomly thrown together pile of Hebrew poetry. They convey a single, powerful idea – an idea about the nature of the Sabbath – they tell about why we, those who observe the Sabbath, should treasure it. Shabbat is our way of bringing an indescribable joy into our lives, every seven days. A joy first experienced by Moses, God’s trusted servant. It is nothing less than the the joy of being there with God; spending time with Him. Really being present with God… no distractions; nothing to get in the way. It is a time we human beings have in our lives that is a little taste of timelessness.

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