[I, 97] What did Moses promise to bring down from Mount Sinai?

Cuzari [I, 97] contains Hallevi’s spirited defense of the Israelites in the episode of the golden calf. A similar, though far less detailed explanation, was presented by Abraham Ibn Ezra, to whom Hallevi was related by marriage. In my opinion, Ibn Ezra is a perfect exponent of the type of “philosophy” which is targeted by the Cuzari. However, none of this bears on the issue I am about to raise.

A critical element in Hallevi’s defense is his remark that the Israelites were “promised” something by Moses before he ascended Mount Sinai. At first, Hallevi indicates only that this something was a visible object that can be pointed to, gestured to, even bowed to—the way Jews then and now point, gesture, even bow to objects such as the ark in the synagogue, the pillars of cloud and fire, even the heavens above. These motions are considered perfectly legitimate. Hallevi smoothly segues into the story of the epiphany at Sinai in a way that makes it clear that the Israelites were expecting the two tablets in which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. Then, the defense continues, when Moses delayed his return, the Israelites decided to construct an object of their own for the same legitimate purpose. The sin consisted in doing it on human initiative. The proof that this was not such a terrible violation consists in (1) the relatively small number of violators who were punished, 3000 out of 600,000 and (2) the fact that tokens of divine pleasure, such as widespread prophecy, the cloud and the pillar of fire, all continued as before.

But did Moses promise to bring down anything of the sort? I find no indication at all, not even a hint, in the narrative displayed in Exodus 19-20.  Surprisingly, this did not pique any of the commentators, medieval or modern, whose works I have seen. The only one moved to make a remark at all is Ḥesheq Shlomo (ed. Dov Schwartz, p. 93), who cites Exodus 24:14. There, however, Moses promises only that he and Aaron will return, but not that he or they will bring anything. Moreover, throughout the epiphany the Israelites can see things: the cloud, the sounds, the lightning.

Hallevi does it again. Consummate litterateur that he is, he hypnotizes his audience to stream along with him in his story; no one bothers to stop and say: but that is not what the Torah tells us! This long passage has stimulated a great deal of interest, especially of late in academic circles, where not a few are spellbound by Hallevi’s talk of rūḥāniyyāt. That’s fine with me, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of a simple comparison of Hallevi’s version of the story with that given in the Bible.

Another correction to Michael Schwarz:

In the glossary, page 366, bottom, it is mistakenly stated that ta‘aqqul is the seventh form or conjugation of the root ‘/q/l; it is, of course, the maṣdar of the fifth form (and, of course, listed as such in Blau’s dictionary, to which Schwarz refers). As far as I know, that root has no seventh form. Michael Schwarz justly earned a reputation as one of the strongest Arabists in Israel, and such an elementary slip should not be allowed to remain in his book.


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