The Covenant of Sinai

And Moshe came and told the people all the words of Hashem, and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said: All the words which the L-rd has spoken will we do. (Sefer Shemot 24:3)

1. The prototypical conversion
Conversion to Judaism requires that a candidate for conversion commit oneself to the observance of the Torah’s commandments. This is the most fundamental element of conversion. However, three other steps are potentially required. All conversions require immersion in a mikveh – a body of water that meets specific standards. During the Temple periods, a specified sacrifice was required. Males must undergo circumcision. The Talmud explains that the elements of the conversion process are derived from the Torah. All of these elements were included in the prototype for all conversions. This prototypical conversion was the transformation of the descendants of the patriarchs into the Nation of Israel.[1] Much of the Torah’s description of this process is included in Parshat Mishpatim.

The conversion or transformation of the descendants of the people redeemed from Egypt into the Nation of Israel is referred to in the parasha as the creation of a covenant. Through the creation of this covenant between the people and Hashem, the transformation occurred. Subsequent converts enter into the nation through accepting upon themselves the terms of the covenant.

2. When did the people enter into the Sinai covenant?
The commentators disagree over when the events described in the parasha occurred. Rashi asserts that the people entered into the covenant prior to Revelation. Only after the execution of the covenant did the newly emerged Nation of Israel experience Revelation and hear the pronouncement of the Decalogue.[2]

Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi. He contends that the covenant was enacted after the initial stage of Revelation – after the pronouncement of the Decalogue. According to his opinion, after the nation heard Hashem pronounce the Decalogue, Hashem instructed Moshe to invite the nation into the covenant and thereby, become the Nation of Israel.[3]

Each of these opinions presents a difficulty. According to Nachmanides, the process of Revelation was initiated with Hashem’s pronouncement of the Decalogue. Then, it was interrupted and did not proceed until the people entered into the covenant. Why was the execution of the covenant inserted into the midst of Revelation?

Rashi contends that the covenant was executed prior to Revelation. Superficially, this seems to be a more reasonable position. According to Rashi, the acceptance of the terms of the covenant was a prerequisite for receiving the Torah. Revelation could not begin until the people entered into the covenant with Hashem. However, on more technical grounds Rashi’s position is troublesome.

As explained above, the very essence of the conversion process is the candidate’s commitment to observance of the Torah’s mitzvot. Presumably, this was also the fundamental element of this prototype conversion of the people into the Nation of Israel. However, the Torah came into existence through Revelation. Prior to Revelation the Torah did not exist as a halachic entity. How could the people commit themselves to observance of the Torah’s mitzvot before these even existed in a halachic sense?

I am Hashem your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Sefer Shemot 20:2)

3. Acceptance of Hashem is a prerequisite for acceptance of His commandments
Although Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi over the sequence of events at Revelation, he does provide an important insight that helps explain Rashi’s position.

The passage above is the first statement of the Decalogue. According to Maimonides, this statement is the source of one of the Torah’s 613 commandments. The mitzvah in this passage is acceptance of the existence of the Creator – One who created and who at every moment sustains the universe. Others disagree with Maimonides. They acknowledge that acceptance of Hashem’s existence is fundamental to the Torah. However, they argue that this acceptance does not qualify to be counted as one of the Torah’s commandments.

Nachmanides explains the reasoning of Maimonides’ opponents. He explains that before a ruler can effectively legislate laws for his subjects, he must be accepted by his subjects as their ruler. This submission to the authority of the ruler is a prerequisite to his legislation of laws. Therefore, this acceptance of the ruler’s authority should not, itself, be regarded as a commandment. Instead, it is introductory to the legislation of commandments. Similarly, Hashem first required the people to accept Him as their ruler and to submit to His authority to legislate mitzvot. Once this was accomplished, He then revealed His mitzvot. In short, acceptance of Hashem is a necessary prerequisite to commandments but not itself a mitzvah.[4]

Rashi seems to maintain that before the people could receive the Torah through Revelation they were required to enter into a covenant. The fundamental element of this covenant was acceptance of Hashem and submission to His authority. Once this covenant was enacted and the people submitted themselves to Hashem’s authority revelation of the commandments proceeded. In other words, in this prototypical conversion, the people were not required to accept the commandments. These did not yet exist. They were required to acknowledge Hashem’s authority to legislate for the nation. This was accomplished through the covenant.

The contemporary candidate for conversion is also required to accept Hashem and acknowledge His authority to legislate commandments. However, this contemporary conversion is taking place post-Revelation. Therefore, the candidate for conversion expresses his acceptance of Hashem and his submission to His authority through his commitment to observe His commandments.

And Hashem said unto Moshe: Behold, I come unto you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever. And Moshe told the words of the people to Hashem. (Sefer Shemot 19:9)

4. Moshe’s unique prophetic achievement
According to Nachmanides, the covenant was enacted after Hashem spoke to the people and revealed the Decalogue. Revelation was interrupted in order to enact the covenant. Why was the covenant inserted into the midst of Revelation? In order to understand Nachmanides’ position, the above passage must be considered.

This passage precedes Revelation. In the passage Hashem tells Moshe that He will speak to him in front of the entire nation so that the nation will believe in Moshe forever. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains the meaning of the passage. Before considering his explanation some background regarding prophecy is required.

Moshe was not the first or the last of the prophets. However, Maimonides explains that Moshe’s prophecy was superior to that of all other prophets. In his prophetic experience he encountered Hashem and communicated with Him in a more intimate manner than any other prophet. Because of the unique character of Moshe’s prophetic experience, he was able to receive the Written Torah from Hashem word by word as well as the Oral Law. No other prophet achieved a level of prophecy necessary for such an elaborate and detailed communication.[5]

The validity of the Torah depends upon not only accepting the authenticity of prophecy but accepting also, that a material creature can achieve the degree of prophecy unique to Moshe.

Now, Sforno’s comments can be considered. Hashem tells Moshe that He will come to him in a thick cloud. He will experience a prophecy. Hashem will reveal to him the Decalogue. However, this prophecy will not be revealed to Moshe alone. The entire nation will participate and share the prophetic experience. All will hear the voice of Hashem declare the contents of the Decalogue word by word. This experience will prove that the degree of prophecy required for communication of the Torah is achievable by a mortal being. After this experience, the rest of the Torah will be revealed to Moshe. He will deliver it to the people and they will believe that it is the authentic word of Hashem. They will believe this because they themselves, for a few special moments, shared in that unique prophetic experience. They too heard the words of Hashem.[6]

Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them. (Sefer Shemot 21:1)

5. The laws of Parshat Mishpatim
Before Nachmanides’ opinion can be fully understood, two other aspects of his position must be noted. First, according to Nachmanides, the covenant was not enacted immediately after the revelation of the Decalogue. Moshe received the prophecy of the Decalogue. The people shared in all or a portion of this prophecy. The people’s prophetic experience then ended but Moshe’s continued. He received additional commandments and laws. These are recorded at the end of Parshat Yitro and compose the first portion of Parshat Mishpatim. After receiving this material and before receiving the balance of the Torah’s mitzvot and laws, Moshe was instructed to enact the covenant.

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: All that Hashem has spoken will we do, and obey. (Sefer Shemot 24:7)

7. Acknowledgment of the authenticity of the Torah as Hashem’s word
Second, the Torah explains that Moshe created a Sefer HaBrit – a Book of the Covenant. In enacting the covenant, he read the contents of the Sefer HaBrit to the people and they committed to obey its contents. What was recorded in the Sefer HaBrit? According to Nachmanides, the Sefer HaBrit was a record of the laws contained in the end of Parshat Yitro and the first portion Parshat Mishpatim. Why were these specific laws recorded in the Sefer HaBrit and selected as the laws over which the covenant should be executed?

According to Nachmanides, these laws were among the first revealed to Moshe alone. At least a portion of the Decalogue was revealed in a prophecy in which the entire nation shared. The authenticity of the Decalogue as the word of Hashem was beyond question. However, they would not participate in the balance of Revelation. They would not hear the words of Hashem dictated to Moshe. Therefore, the people were required to affirm their unqualified acceptance of the authenticity of Moshe’s prophecy. They were required to acknowledge that the laws that would be communicated by Moshe are the words of Hashem – even though they would not themselves participate in this prophecy. This affirmation took place through the execution of a covenant over the Sefer HaBrit.

As explained above, Nachmanides maintains that the Sefer HaBrit was composed of the laws at the end of Parshat Yitro and the first portion of Parshat Mishpatim. These were revealed to Moshe alone. The people did not hear these laws directly from Hashem. In the covenant they accepted upon themselves the responsibility of observing these laws as the word of Hashem. In so doing, they affirmed the authenticity of Moshe’s unique level of prophecy and the legitimacy of the rest of the Torah that Moshe would communicate to them as the words of Hashem.

Therefore, Revelation was interrupted. Before Hashem would dictate the balance of the Torah to Moshe, He required the people to affirm the authenticity of Moshe’s unique prophetic level and the authenticity of the Torah he would communicate as the words of Hashem.

1. Mesechet Keritot 9a.
2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 24:1.
3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 24:1.
4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Critique on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 1.
5. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah, chapters 7-8.
6. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 19:9.
7. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 24:1.