Shemot 18:1-20:23 [Hebcal] [על-התורה] שמות יח א-כ כג
Haftarah: Yeshayahu 6:1-7:1, 9:5-6 (Ashkenazi and Teimani) | Yeshayahu 6:1-13 (Sefardi)
[על-התורה] הפטרה: ישעיהו ו א-ז ו, ט ה-ו (אשכנזים ותימנים) | ישעיהו ו א-יג (ספרדים)
- Yitro Reunites Moshe’s Family
- Yitro’s Advice to Moshe
- Arriving at Sinai
- Preparations for Revelation
- Maamad Har Sinai
- Aseret ha-Dibrot (The Ten Commandments)
- Haftarah Summary – בשנת מות המלך עזיהו
Named for Moshe’s wise, loving, and pious father-in-law, this is the parsha in which Bnei Yisrael witness the revelation at Har Sinai and hear the Aseret ha-Dibrot (“Ten Commandments”).
Yitro Reunites Moshe’s Family
We last saw Yitro, who is Moshe’s father-in-law, in Parashat Shemot, when he showed kindness to Moshe after Moshe fled Egypt in the aftermath of his killing the Egyptian taskmaster. Moshe ends up marrying Yitro’s daughter, Tzippora, and they have two sons in Midian, Gershom and Eliezer.1 Now we are told that Yitro, having heard the news of Bnei Yisrael’s escape from Egyptian enslavement, takes Tzippora and the children and sets out to meet Moshe at Sinai.2
When they arrive, Moshe recounts all that has happened. Yitro, a priest, rejoices at Hashem’s benevolence and recognizes Hashem “greater than all gods” (גָדוֹל ה’ מִכָּל הָאֱלֹהִים). Yitro even brings a burnt-offering (olah – עֹלָה) and sacrifices (zevachim – זְבָחִים) before Hashem, and Aharon and all the elders eat of the latter together.
Yitro’s Advice to Moshe
Yitro notices Moshe acting as magistrate and being swamped with requests for counsel by the people.3 Yitro questions Moshe about why he is going it alone, and Moshe explains that the people are seeking Hashem’s responses and judgements. Yitro advises Moshe to seek out trustworthy, G-d-fearing individuals to act as chief magistrates for the people. These elders4 will then bring difficult disputes to Moshe to adjudicate. Moshe takes Yitro’s sage advise, appointing elders to work with him, and bids Yitro farewell.
Arriving at Sinai
In the third month after Yetziyat Mitzrayim (the exodus), meaning the month of Sivan, Bnei Yisrael enter the Sinai Desert (or wilderness of Sinai) after leaving Refidim. They encamp in the desert, in front of the mountain, i.e., Har Sinai. Moshe “goes up to Hashem” (עָלָה אֶל הָאֱלֹקים) and Hashem calls to him from the mountain, saying:
כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי: וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ: וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
Thus shall you say to the house of Yaakov and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.Shemot 19:3-6
The assembled people reply unanimously (וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל הָעָם יַחְדָּו), “All that Hashem has spoken we will do!” (כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה). When Moshe reports this to Hashem, Hashem tells Moshe that He will appear as a cloud such that all the people can hear His voice and trust in Moshe.
Preparations for Revelation
Hashem instructs that the people must remain sanctified (וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם) today and tomorrow, so that they will be in a state of purity on the third day, when Hashem will come down on Har Sinai in view of all the people.
Hashem also sets a boundary around Har Sinai which may be transgressed on pain of death, either by humans or animals. Only at the long sounding of a horn (yovel – יֹּבֵל) may the people approach.
Moshe relays this to the people, explaining that they must stay pure, wash their clothes, and men and women should be separated.
Maamad Har Sinai
The revelation of the third day of preparations5 is known as Maamad Har Sinai, “the standing at Mount Sinai,” because all the Jewish people stand at the foot of Har Sinai to witness the events.
וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה: וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר: וְהַר סִינַי עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ מִפְּנֵי אֲשֶׁר יָרַד עָלָיו ה’ בָּאֵשׁ וַיַּעַל עֲשָׁנוֹ כְּעֶשֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁן וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָהָר מְאֹד: וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשּׁוֹפָר הוֹלֵךְ וְחָזֵק מְאֹד מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל: וַיֵּרֶד ה’ עַל הַר סִינַי אֶל רֹאשׁ הָהָר וַיִּקְרָא :ה’ לְמֹשֶׁה אֶל רֹאשׁ הָהָר וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה
On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for יהוה had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. יהוה came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and יהוה called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up.Shemot 19:16-20
Moshe warns the people not to gaze directly at Hashem, lest they die. Kohanim (priests) are ordered to remain sanctified. Moshe reminds Hashem that no one can cross the mountain’s boundary, and Hashem tells him to come only with Aharon.
Aseret ha-Dibrot (The Ten Commandments)
Though known in English as the Ten Commandments, in Hebrew, significantly, they are called the Ten Utterances (עשרת הדיברות), and they are indeed utterances of Hashem Himself:6
- “I Hashem am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים)ת”
- You shall have no other gods. No sculpted images of what is in the heavens above or the earth below, and no bowing down to idols (known as avoda zara – עבודה זרה, “foreign worship”).
- No swearing falsely by G-d’s Name.
- “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy” (זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ).7.
- Honor your father and mother.8
- You shall not murder (לֹא תִרְצָח).
- You shall not commit adultery (לֹא תִנְאָף).
- You shall not steal (לֹא תִגְנֹב).
- You shall not bear false witness (עֵד שָׁקֶר) against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet (לֹא תַחְמֹד) your neighbor’s wife or anything that is your neighbor’s.
It is emphasized that all the people saw “the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking” (הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן). Awed, they ask that Moshe convey Hashem’s word, lest they die when exposed directly to it.9
Hashem then gives instructions for how to build altars to him: either of earth or of unhewed stone, and without steps. Hashem also says, “In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you” (בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת שְׁמִי אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ)
Haftarah Summary – בשנת מות המלך עזיהו
In the year of King Uzziah (of Yehuda)’s death, Yeshayahu has a (hugely significant) mystical vision of the Divine Chariot (ma’aseh merkava), in which he experiences fire, smoke, and great awe reminiscent of the revelation at Sinai. This forms the key thematic link to Parashat Yitro. Yeshayahu is tasked with warning the kingdom of Yehuda of their impending doom in the wake of their refusal to listen to G-d’s word; only a small portion of the people will remain. In the Ashkenazi and Teimani traditions, the haftarah concludes by skipping ahead to chapter 9:5-6, verses of consolation.
Image: Karl Bryullov, The Road to Sinai After the Storm, 1835.
- Previously, only Gershom was mentioned by name; here, Eliezer’s name and its explanation (“G-d has helped me”) is given.
- Rashi on Shemot 18:2 explains, following the Mechilta 18:2, that initially, Moshe’s families had set out for Egypt with him, as reads the peshat of Shemot 4:19-20. However, when Aharon came out to meet Moshe, he advised him that he was bringing his family into a difficult environment, and Moshe decided to send them back to Midian.
- Rashi on Shemot 18:13 says that this event is told out of order in the Torah and actually occurred months later, on the day after the first Yom Kippur (the 10th of Tishrei), at a time when Bnei Yisrael had received the laws.
- They are termed below ziknei ha-am – זִקְנֵי הָעָם, elders of the nation.
- There is much debate about the exact day on which this event occurs. Working backwards from other dating known from the Torah and tradition, it is agreed that Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) occurred on either 6 or 7 Sivan, depending on whether Sivan had 29 or 30 days; see Shabbat 86b.
- Rashi on Shemot 20:1, following Mechilta 20:1, explains that the aseret ha-dibrot were spoken simultaneously as one utterance, in a manner unavailable to human beings.
- The next pesukim (Shemot 20:8-11) are recited as part of kiddush on Shabbat night.
- There is extensive rabbinic debate and specific halachic parameters for what this entails.
- On Shabbat 88b it is explained that the people only directly heard the first and second commandments, and after that Moshe conveyed the rest to them.