“The whole nation trembled… and they stood under the mountain. And Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire… and the whole mountain trembled exceedingly” (Exodus 19:16-18).
It sounds scary. Yet the kabbalistic interpretation of this verse transforms a moment of fear and trembling into a sacred marriage of love and commitment.
When the Bible reports that the “whole nation… stood under the mountain,” Rashi comments, “The Almighty held the mountain over them like a canopy,” threatening them with death if they would not accept the Commandments. The Zohar, however, interprets that the mountain was not held over them as a canopy of coercion, but rather as a canopy of commitment, a chupah of love and marriage.
This idea even affects how we pray our different Amidot on Shabbat. The evening Amidah evokes the Shabbat of Creation, citing the Biblical verses, “And the heavens and the earth and all of their hosts were completed.”
It’s the woman-bride who is endowed with the major spark of the Divine creativity, since she nurtures the fetus in her womb and actually gives birth to the child. The Kabbalat Shabbat Friday evening prayer features the Shchinah, the feminine aspect of the Divine. The Eshet Chayil (literally, Woman of Valor) Shabbat evening song actually refers to the Shchinah, and in the Lecha Dodi chant, we go out to greet the Shabbat bride.
Moreover, in the Shabbat evening Amidah, we ask that “All of Israel who sanctify Your Name shall rest in Her [vah],” using a feminine pronoun, and the leader of the Sabbath table first slices the bottom challah (of two challot), which likewise symbolizes the woman. No wonder the betrothal ceremony opens with the bride representing God and encompassing the groom!
The morning Amidah evokes the Sabbath of Revelation, describing the glory of Moses as he descended from Mount Sinai. In the act of Revelation, it was the masculine aspect of God that was dominant, the God groom who chose His bride Israel and gave her His contract of marriage. Therefore, in the Sabbath morning Amidah, we ask that “all of Israel who sanctify Your Name shall rest in Him [vo],” using the male pronoun. Accordingly, the upper challah symbolizing the male is sliced first. And so it’s traditionally the male who gives the ring – as well as the marriage contract – to his bride.
The concluding Sabbath afternoon Amidah pictures the Sabbath of Redemption, when “You [God] are one and Your Name is one. This can only come about when the masculine and feminine aspects of the Divine, when God and His bride Israel, act in concert together to bring about the perfection of the world. In this Amidah, we ask that “all of Israel who sanctify your Name shall rest in them [vam],” using a plural pronoun, and the leader of the third meal slices both challot together.
The parallel to the wedding celebration is the yihud (marital home), where bride and groom live together as one in harmony and equality, with neither dominating the other.
So, a passage of fear is really a song of love.
Rabbi Mark Fishman is assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Montreal.