In the previous letter, we discussed how the giving of the Torah posed a threat to the established world order which was based on the worship of power, physical pleasure, and wealth. This caused hatred to be directed against Israel, the People of the Torah. At a later stage of our history, our failure to be fully committed to the Torah caused us to begin our present exile; however, we managed to preserve our collective identity through maintaining our bond with the Torah. As we shall begin to discuss in this letter, our loyalty to the Torah posed a threat to two new religions that we encountered during this exile: Christianity and Islam.
Both Christianity and Islam were influenced, to some degree, by our Torah; thus, it was both an embarrassment and a threat to the followers of these two religions when we, the people that received the Torah and its interpretations, resisted their attempts to “convert” us.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of why our loyalty to the Torah which we received at Mount Sinai posed a threat to these two religions, we will review certain passages in the Torah which stress the importance and the power of our collective experience at Mount Sinai. We will begin with the verse where Hashem, the Compassionate One, told Moshe (Moses):
“This is what you shall say to the Children of Israel: ‘You have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven’ ” (Exodus 20:19).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the above verse, writes:
“They saw plainly that God spoke directly to all of them, to each and every one of them.”
Another example is where Moshe said to the people, “Face to face Hashem spoke with you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 5:4). And Moshe also said, “These words Hashem spoke to your entire congregation at the mountain” (ibid 5:19).
Perhaps the most powerful example is the following prophetic passage which refers to our future suffering in exile and how this suffering will lead to our spiritual renewal at the end of days. In this passage, Moshe urged the future generations of Israel to remember that our entire people heard the Divine Voice at Sinai:
“When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you, at the end of days, you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice. For Hashem, your God, is a compassionate God; He will not abandon you nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them. For inquire now regarding the early days that preceded you, from the day when Hashem created the human being on earth, and from one end of heaven to the other end of heaven: Has there ever been anything like this great thing or has anything like it been heard? Has a people ever heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire as you have heard, and survived? (Ibid 4:30-33)
Unlike Christianity and Islam, our faith is not based on the claims of individuals that God spoke privately to them. On the contrary, our entire people experienced the Divine Revelation, and the memory of this experience was passed down to future generations. In fact, both Christianity and Islam recognize that we experienced the Divine Revelation at Sinai.
When a false messiah arose among the Jews of Yemen, Maimonides wrote a moving letter to strengthen their faith in the future coming of the true Messiah, who as the prophets state, will inaugurate the messianic age of enlightenment and shalom, as well as gather the exiles of Israel. Maimonides therefore cited verses from chapter 11 in the Book of Isaiah which describe what the true Messiah will accomplish when he arrives. He also encouraged the Jews of Yemen to resist the attempts of the Yemenite government to forcibly convert them to Islam. Maimonides expressed his pain over the ways in which Christians and Muslims persecute our people, because of our loyalty to the Torah that we received at Sinai; moreover, he expressed his pain over the ways in which Christianity and Islam have distorted the Torah.
In this letter, Maimonides reminded the Jews of Yemen that our entire nation stood at Mount Sinai and experienced the Revelation, and he emphasized, “a whole nation heard the words of the Holy One, Blessed be He.” In addition, Maimonides reminded them of the following Divine mandate:
“Only take heed and guard yourself carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they stray from your heart all the days of your life. And you are to make them known to your children and to your children’s children – the day you stood before Hashem your God, at Sinai” (Deuteronomy 4:9,10)
Maimonides added: “From this lasting memory, we must draw our power to strengthen our faith even in a period of persecution and affliction, such as the present one.” He also comforted the Jews of Yemen by reminding them of the following Divine promise: “My spirit which is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth will not be withdrawn from your mouth nor from the mouth of your offspring nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring, from this moment and forever” (Isaiah 59:21).
History records that this letter of Maimonides was successful in strengthening the faith of Yemenite Jewry, and to this day, Yemenite Jews feel a special bond with Maimonides.
Although Christianity and Islam were influenced to some degree by the Torah, each claimed that their faith was the new truth that superseded the Torah. Rabbi Yehudah Zev Segal was a leading Torah sage who lived in England during the 20th century, and he told the following story which addresses this claim:
“I was once on a train when a gentile sitting next to me asked me why the Jewish people do not want to accept Christianity. Basing my response on the preface to Sefer HaChinuch, I told him that the Torah relates how the commandments were given at Sinai before the entire Jewish people, all of whom heard the word of the living G-d. The purpose of this Revelation, say the commentators, was to demonstrate to everyone the Divine origin of Torah. How, then, can one possibly believe that generations later, G-d informed an individual that He was now retracting His previous teachings in favor of something new? Would it be proper to reveal in secret that something which had been transmitted directly to an entire nation of men, women, and children was no longer applicable, Heaven forbid?” (Cited in the Art Scroll biography, “The Manchester Rosh Yeshiva” by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman with Rabbi Yosef Weiss)
As our series continues, we will begin to explore the mystery of the following paradox:
Although our bond with the Torah provokes the hatred and disdain of the nations, our complete fulfillment of the Torah will eventually cause us to gain their friendship and respect.
This will take place in the messianic age, when there will no longer be a claim that a new religion has superseded the Torah, for in this new age, says the prophet, “Torah will go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:3).
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. Our people had the courage to resist Christian and Muslim attempts to “convert” us. Much of our inspiration and strength came from the many verses within our Sacred Scriptures that call upon us to always remain loyal to the Torah, our Covenant with Hashem. For example, when we renewed our commitment to the Covenant before we entered the Promised Land, Moshe reminded us that the Covenant is also for the future generations:
“Not with you alone do I seal this Covenant and this oath, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before Hashem, our God, and with whoever is not here today.” (Deuteronomy 29:13,14)
And he added: “The hidden matters belong to Hashem, our God, but what is revealed to us and our children forever is to fulfill all the words of this Torah” (Ibid 29:28).
Another example can be found in a passage from the Book of Malachi, the last of the biblical prophets. In the concluding words of his prophecy, he reminds our people that we will merit to be redeemed from our exile through remaining loyal to the Torah and its path of mitzvos – Divine mandates:
“Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant, which I commanded him at Horeb (Mount Sinai) for all of Israel – its statutes and its social laws. Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of Hashem.” (Malachi 3:22,23
2. For information on the moving and uplifting ArtScroll biography, “The Manchester Rosh Yeshiva” by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman with Rabbi Yosef Weiss, visit the following website: