Parshat Yitro

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Parshat Yitro brings us to Mount Sinai and to the giving of the Ten Commandments. Bnei Yisrael are told to prepare themselves seemingly both physically and mentally for the event and that there was thunder and lightning with cloud covering the mountain, accompanied by the powerful sound of the shofar, and the people trembled in awe.

Bnei Yisrael are then warned in Ch19 v13, that both they, and the animals should not touch the mountain, on fear of death, until when the shofar blows a long or extended sound (in Hebrew “b’mshoch hayovel,”) and then they may ascend. This creates an interesting concept of limitation of holiness in both the place and time.

In terms of the place, the Talmud in Ta’anit 21b tells us “R Yossi says – it is not the place that honours the person, it is the person that honours the place, as all the time that the holy presence was at Sinai, nothing could come near.” This is a powerful concept and the Mesech Chochma explains that it was the divine presence that made Sinai holy for that time only, and that is why the Torah mentions that even the animals could wander there once the divine presence was lifted.

The idea of a time limit for holiness, comes from the fact that we are told here that the holiness will end when the extended shofar sound is heard. This is an interesting concept in the sense that a place or object that is pronounced holy can have a time limit and the holiness can be removed with the appropriate announcement. However, it is interesting to note that the Talmud Betza learns from here that “anything that was pronounced by a quorum, need a quorum to cancel it,” based on the fact that the Shofar was sounded to announce the end the holiness. This has led to a great amount of Rabbinical discussion over the ages whether Rabbinical ordinances can be removed, but that it too long a discussion for here. Rav B H Epstein notes here that is probably the source of our custom on Rosh Hashana, to have a long blow of the shofar to signal the end of each group. He adds that really it should not be called “tekiya gedola” which implies a louder sound but “tekiya meshucha,” implying a lengthened sound.

The shofar sound at Sinai is also a point of interest. Rashi explains that this was not the divine shofar sounds from above with the thunder and lightening which announced the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but the word “yovel” indicates a ram’s horn shofar, Ibn Ezra adding that it was actually blown by Moshe. Rashbam, as often disagrees with his grandfather, taking the view that the holiness ended when the divine shofar sound from above ceased, simply from the use of the term “b’mshoch,” which mean to stretch.

A interesting more Chassidic approach to this comes from the Sfat Emet who sees this as indication of the future. Moshe Rabenu was on a spiritual level that enabled him to ascend the mountain and receive the Torah. For us simple folk it will take a stretch of more than a jubilee of time of studying the Torah for us to even come near to be able to ascend the heights of the Torah from Mount Sinai.

The idea of a timing and signalling the end to holiness should take a more prominent part in prayers and I find the lack of a clear indication of the end of the Shabbat morning service in many shools, we don’t need to blow the shofar but ending with Adon olam or similar before men taking off talisim and moving about would be welcome.  More generally setting time boundaries is often needed. I can remember years ago taking over the management of a group of computer maintenance workers who used to work many hours of overtime into the night. We agreed on a maximum of an 8 hour a day, plus maximum of 2 hours overtime and this not only improved quality of life but the stability of the computer systems.

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