Yisro 5777

RABBI SHMUEL LIEBERMAN

ויוצא משה את העם לקראת האלקים מן המחנה ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר (שמות יט:יז)

And Moshe brought the nation toward Hashem and they stood under the mountain (Shemos 19:17)

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) quotes Rav Avdimi, who points out that the words “בתחתית ההר” imply that Klal Yisrael did not stand “at the foot” of the mountain; rather, they stood “under” the mountain. Rav Avdimi explains,”כפה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים את התורה מוטב, ואם לאו, שם תהא קבורתכם”, Hashem overturned Har Sinai like a barrel and held it over them, threatening that if they did not accept the Torah, they would be buried.
Regarding this statement, Rav Acha bar Yaakov remarks, “מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא”, From here one can excuse himself from keeping the Torah, as he can claim that he was forced to accept it and is therefore not liable for transgressing its Mitzvos.
However, Rava then points out that “הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש”, Klal Yisrael willingly reaccepted the Torah in the days of Achashveirosh. Rashi explains that this was due to the אהבת הנס, the love of the miracle performed for them at that time.
Rav Schwab asks how the Gemara could say that Klal Yisrael was forced to accept the Torah. Hadn’t they already said עשה ונשמע (שמות כד:ז)? Second, if indeed Bnei Yisrael were justified in claiming that they had only accepted the Torah under duress, as Rav Acha says, why is it that many times later in Tanach, the Jews were rebuked and even punished for their laxity in observing the Torah? Finally, what was so special about the Neis of Purim in particular that convinced Klal Yisrael to willingly accept the Torah? Hadn’t they previously experienced many other miracles?
Perhaps, answers Rav Schwab, Klal Yisrael became accustomed to seeing Divine Providence many times during the enslavement in Mitzrayim and subsequently at Krias Yam Suf. Therefore, the Gemara means that although Bnei Yisrael certainly accepted the Torah willingly, it was nevertheless contingent on Hashem’s continuing to act with them על פי דרך נס, with a prevalence of miracles. When Hashgacha Pratis, Divine Providence, is clearly visible to the point that one is “forced” to be a believer, submitting to Hashem’s will requires little or no effort. However, were Klal Yisrael to be dealt with על פי דרך הטבע, according to the laws of nature, the Yad Hashem would become much harder to discern, and overcoming the Nisyanos prescribed to them would be too difficult a challenge.
According to Rav Schwab’s explanation, Rav Avdimi’s statement “אם אתם מקבלים את התורה מוטב, ואם לאו, שם תהא קבורתכם” means that Hashem responded to Klal Yisrael’s compromised Kabbolas HaTorah by saying that such terms are unacceptable. Were they to receive the Torah only if Hashem’s guiding hand was obvious, how would Klal Yisrael survive the inevitable Galus? The words “שם תהא קבורתכם”, “there shall be your burial place,” hint to a future era, when the very existence of Klal Yisrael might be challenged. Rav Acha therefore points out that Klal Yisrael was forced into accepting the Torah under all circumstances, both טבע and נס.
During the period of time between Kabbolas HaTorah and Purim, Hashem performed many Nissim for Klal Yisrael, and Nevuah was a commonplace occurrence. When, in spite of these supernatural events, Klal Yisrael still faltered in their Avodas Hashem, Hashem sent Nevi’im to chastise them. After all, they hadn’t kept to their own terms of Kabbolas HaTorah. But when they were exiled to Bavel and Hashem seemingly “hid” His face from them, they claimed that they had only accepted the Torah with the stipulation that there be no הסתר פנים, “hiding of His face.” However, after experiencing the Nissim in the days of Achashveirosh, the Yad Hashem became obvious, despite the seemingly natural chain of events. Klal Yisrael then came to the realization that Hashem is indeed looking out for them even in the darkest of times. It was this אהבת הנס which led them to accept the Torah once again, this time without strings attached.

ונתת אל הארון את העדות אשר אתן אליך (שמות כה:טז)

And you shall place into the Aron the testimony which I will give to you (Shemos 25:16)

Rashi, as understood by Maskil L’Dovid and Be’er Basadeh, comments that the word העדות, testimony, refers to the Luchos, which serve as עדות between Hashem and Klal Yisrael, attesting that Hashem has commanded Bnei Yisrael to keep the Mitzvos. This statement confirms that the Luchos were placed inside the Aron.
The Gemara (Bava Basra 14a), when calculating the measurements of the Aron’s contents, says that each Luach measured (in Tefachim) 6 by 6 by 3, i.e., square. Indeed, this view is quoted by Rabbeinu Bechaya (Shemos 31:18) and Eitz Yosef (to Ein Yaakov Shekalim 5:23).
However, the Yerushalmi (Taanis 4:5) says that the Luchos measured 6 by 3 by 3 each, i.e., rectangles (although see Tosafos to Menachos 99a, who suggest that the Bavli agrees that they were rectangles, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s peirush on Braisa D’Meleches Hamishkan 6:1, where he proposes that the Yerushalmi agrees that they were squares).
Yet a third opinion is that of the Alshich (Shemos 32:15), who maintains that the Luchos were cubes measuring 6 by 6 by 6. This also seems to be the view of the Shita Mekubetzes (Nedarim 38a, see also Maharsha there and Yerushalmi Sotah 8:3).
Although it appears clear from all the aforementioned sources that the Luchos were not at all rounded, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher (Even Yisrael 8:57) is of the novel opinion that the Luchos were entirely round, perhaps like coins. He bases this approach on a Mishna (Avos 5:6) which lists the Luchos among the ten things created during בין השמשות of the six days of Creation, and on the Yerushalmi (Shevuos 3:8, Nedarim 3:2), which seems to suggest that nothing in the world was created square. If so, reasons Rav Fisher, the Luchos could not have been squares.
It is unclear how Rav Fisher reconciles his opinion with the seemingly contradictory Gemara and Rishonim cited above, and his proof from the Yerushalmi is easily refutable: according to the Yerushalmi’s final conclusion, there were indeed no square food items in Creation, but other square things certainly were created, conceivably including the Luchos. (See also Oraysa v. 13, p. 150 for further refutations of Rav Fisher’s proof.)
Rav Fisher’s unique approach notwithstanding, all other contemporary authorities agree that the Luchos were indeed squares. With this in mind, there remains a perplexing phenomenon which presents itself in virtually every Shul across the globe, namely, that of the Luchos being depicted with rounded tops. What is the source and reason for this custom?
Some (Even Yisrael ibid., second explanation; Mishneh Halachos 15:169) say that round Luchos are a result of the prohibition to replicate the actual Luchos. The Gemara (Avoda Zara 43a) states that one should not make a likeness of the Shulchan or Menorah. According to the Minchas Chinuch (254:13), included in this prohibition are all vessels which have a specified measurement. Rav Fisher points out that the Luchos, too, had required measurements, as stated in the above Gemara in Bava Basra. Therefore, they are customarily depicted differently than their true shape. Although this resolves the issue of why they are not pictured as squares, it would still fail to explain the distinctively rounded tops commonly found in Shuls today.
An alternative explanation for the ubiquitous rounded Luchos, offered by Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim, Moadim vol. 1, p. 37, footnote 4) and Rav Moshe Shapiro (Afikei Mayim, Shavuos p. 282, footnote 197) is that since the Luchos correspond to the heart of a person, it is customary to depict them like a heart, which is rounded on top.
Yet others (Be’er Eliyahu 1:97; R’ Nosson Scherman, in a letter to this author) suggest that the source originates in Michelangelo’s sculpture of “Moses,” in which he is depicted carrying round tablets.
Is it indeed the correct practice to round the tops of the Luchos? According to the first two reasons given, perhaps this custom is well-founded. Rav Shach, on the other hand, (Michtavim Uma’amarim 3:311, cited also by Rivevos Ephraim 5:115) says that originally, he felt that because Klal Yisrael has customarily depicted the Luchos with rounded tops, one should continue this practice, as it has the status of an accepted Minhag Yisrael. However, he then observed that the Steipler instructed that the Luchos be made as squares, so Rav Shach concludes that this is indeed the correct practice.