The Rabbi's Study

What’s Said on the Mountain Does Not Stay on the Mountain

We say it all the time, every word – every letter even – in the Torah is essential and never superfluous. So if similar, or even identical, phrases appear it is because each occurrence teaches us something unique.

The final Torah portion of the Book of Leviticus, Parashat B’hukotai, is distinct from the rest of the book in a certain way. Other than the laws of personal assessment in vowing a contribution to the Mikdash, Parashat B’hukotai is a prosaic testament of divine reward and punishment. Just preceding the laws of personal assessment in vowing a contribution to the Mikdash, the Torah says:

These are the statutes and the laws and the teachings that Hashem has given, between God and between the children of Yisrael; on Mount Sinai by the hand of Moshe. (Lev. 26:46)

Why is this especially interesting? Remember, this Torah portion is different than the rest of the book, and the Book of Leviticus begins:

God called to Moshe; Hashem spoke to him, from the ohel mo’ed, saying. (Lev. 1:1)

As soon as the Mishkan was constructed and consecrated, Moshe no longer ascended Mount Sinai. In fact, Mount Sinai is only mentioned four times in the Book of Leviticus:

This is the teaching for the olah-offering, for the minhah-offering, for the hattat-offering, and for the asham-offering; for the ordination-offerings, and for the sacrifice of sh’lamim. Which Hashem commanded Moshe at Mount Sinai; on the day of God’s commanding the Children of Yirsael to bring-near their offerings for Hashem in the wilderness of Sinai. (Lev. 7:37-38)

Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai saying. (Lev. 25:1)

These are the statutes and the laws and the teachings that Hashem has given, between God and between the children of Yisrael; on Mount Sinai by the hand of Moshe. (Lev. 26:46)

These are the commandments which Hashem commanded with Moshe to the Children of Yisrael at Mount Sinai. (Lev. 27:34)

What is the significance of these four verses? First of all, it places the emergence of those laws in their relative chronological context. The first occurrence of Mount Sinai in the Book of Leviticus comes from Parashat Tzav, and it immediately precedes the beginning of the anointing and ordination rituals. The next occurrence, from Parashat Bahar, introduces the laws of shmitah, the seven-year cycle of agricultural and economic remission, and the laws of yovel, the forty-nine-year cycle of full agricultural and economic release. As I mentioned above, the first occurrence in this Torah portion precedes the laws of personal assessment for vowing contributions to the Mikdash. The final occurrence is the final verse of the Book of Leviticus.

I want to trace one commentator through these verses, R’ Avraham ibn Ezra.

On 7:38 he writes:

“to bring-near their offerings for Hashem in the wilderness of Sinai,” because they did not make offerings until they came to Mount Sinai, and I have already shown you (Ex. 17:15) that the altar which Moshe built during the struggle with Amalek was situated at Horev, which is Mount Sinai, and the Jewish people stayed there for one year less ten days, and so it is written. In the wilderness they did not bring olah-offerings, as the prophet said, “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years?” (Amos 5:25). The House of Yisrael also did not make a pesah-offering, except for in Mitzrayim and a second time at Mount Sinai, because in the wilderness they did not have flock. After they journeyed from Mount Sinai they did not circumcise on the road, notice that most of them were foreskinned, and in order to eat the pesah-offering Yehoshua circumcised them.

On 25:1 he writes:

“at Mount Sinai,” There is no before or after in the Torah. This parshah precedes Parashat Va’yikra and all of the portions that follow it, because the speech at Mount Sinai concludes the cutting of the covenant written in Parashat Mishpatim. The mention in this instance connects it to the condition of inhabiting the land -when laws of sexual immorality are explained it mentions the land vomiting them out, and it says the same in Parashat B’hukotai regarding the shmitah– and yovel-cycles, and that is mentioned first in that section.

On 26:46 he writes:

“These are the statutes and the laws…” those written in Parashat Yitro, Parashat Mishpatim, and Parashat Bahar

“between God and between the children of Yisrael,” This alludes to the covenant at Mount Sinai because after they made the Mishkan, the divine glory was in the ohel mo’ed and Moshe did not ascend Mount Sinai, so it is mentioned in the section of personal assessment on account of it having been stated on Mount Sinai, and the verse concludes the section. Notice the beginning of the Book of Numbers, “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai in the ohel mo’ed…” and the beginning of the Book of Leviticus.

On 27:34 he writes:

“at Mount Sinai,” I explained this regarding this parsha, and someone who has a heart to understand the mystery of the universe will then know the mystery of the firstborn and of tithes. Notice that Avraham gave tithe, so did Yaakov Avinu, may peace be upon him. Further, I will reveal of little of the mystery I when I comment on the second tithe, if I am helped by the One for whom there is no second.

Ok, let’s work backwards. Ibn Ezra is telling us that the final mention of Mount Sinai teaches us a deep mystery that only those who already perceive the deepest mysteries will understand, and that it has to do with the giving of first-born animals to Hashem and tithing. Presumably, when he references having already “explained this regarding this parsha,” he is referring to his comment on 26:46. On that verse he is reinforcing that we are to read these laws in distinction from a substantial majority of the Book of Leviticus and all of the Book of Numbers, therefore all of Parashat Bahar and this small section of Parashat B’hukotai need to be read as corresponding to Parashat Yitro and Parashat Mishpatim. That when we do read Parashat Bahar in light of Parashat Yitro and Parashat Mishpatim we see there is a link in the condition of inhabiting the land. The first instance in the Book of Leviticus that Mount Sinai is mentioned, according to Ibn Ezra, confirms that nearly all of the laws given in the book were not given at Mount Sinai. So… What is the deal with the first-born and the tithes? Well, Ibn Ezra said he would explain it when he commented on the second tithe, so let’s go look.

The Torah says:

Tithe, you must tithe, all of the produce of your seed; that comes out of the field year after year. (Deut. 14:22)

And here is what Ibn Ezra has to say:

Our Sages of Blessed Memory said that this refers to second tithe. Know that if you count from above there is One, and if you count from below then it is the tenth. This is the mystery of the first-born and the tithe. Know that One cannot be enumerated, also the tenth because it corresponds to the One, it is the beginning of multiples of ten and the end of units – all aspects of enumeration are reliant upon it, both before it and after it. Because one and ten are fundamental numbers and the midway numbers between them – five and six – are referred to as “wheels.” Therefore the letters and equal them correspond to these four, and they make up the letters of the glorious and awesome Name. (alephheyvavyud).

Ibn Ezra is telling us that the “mystery of the first-born and the tithe” has little to do with first-born animals and tithed produce. He’s telling us that there is a mathematical mystery at play, that the Torah is giving us insight into the mysteries of creation when certain laws are explicitly made in reference to Mount Sinai, most especially when the chronology is out of order.

Partially because of time, and partially because I am not one who perceives the deepest mysteries, we are not going to go into depth into what the significance of these particular letters are, how they relate to the numbers he mentions, and how the performative rituals of tithing animals and produce is related to the mysteries of creation. What I will mention is this:

Sinai is a concept that proposes that the human and the divine and communicate directly and beyond physical boundaries of duality, it is a concept that one needs no intermediary in connecting to source, and that when such a connection is established even the physical can perceive the mysteries of the divine. Ibn Ezra is pushing us to look beyond the surface of the text to understand why Sinai – the concept, not the place – is essential to understanding the deeper mysteries of our collective revelation, our experience of which is expressed in the written Torah.

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