At Mount Sinai

Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai is a formative event in Jewish tradition and
culture. This resource discusses this event and considers in what ways its memory
has been meaningful for Jews throughout the generations and down to our own

Resource Ages: 9-11, 12-14


On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. The sound of the shofar grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered him in a voice.

(Exodus 19:16-19)

וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר,

וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר, וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד.

וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה.

וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱ-לֹהִים מִן הַמַּחֲנֶה, וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר.

וְהַר סִינַי עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ מִפְּנֵי אֲשֶׁר יָרַד עָלָיו ה’ בָּאֵשׁ.

וַיַּעַל עֲשָׁנוֹ כְּעֶשֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁן, וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָהָר מְאֹד.

וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר הוֹלֵךְ וְחָזֵק מְאֹד. מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱ-לֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do Jewish customers reflect Jewish values?
  • Why is it important for people and cultures to spin narratives around their experiences or histories?
  • What do we learn from previous generations?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How does the narrative describing the formation of a particular group reflect that group’s values and identity?
  • How does collective Jewish memory influence who I am as a Jew?
  • How does collective memory develop over the generations?
  • How does collective memory contribute to shaping national identity?
  • How may a formative story change and develop over the generations?

Background for Teacher

After having left Egypt, the Children of Israel were given the Torah at Mount Sinai, as described in the book of Exodus (Chapter 19). According to tradition, this event occurred in the month of Sivan, and is marked on the festival of Shavuot, which...

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After having left Egypt, the Children of Israel were given the Torah at Mount Sinai, as described in the book of Exodus (Chapter 19). According to tradition, this event occurred in the month of Sivan, and is marked on the festival of Shavuot, which is also known as Chag Matan Torah – the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. On this occasion, the Children of Israel heard the Ten Commandments declared by God. The commandments were later written on stone tablets, which God gave to Moses and Moses handed on to the people. This is naturally an extremely important event in Jewish history. In the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 29), Moses renews the covenant made at Mt. Sinai between the Children of Israel and God, and reminds them that the covenant was not made with them alone, but all the future generations of the Jewish people. Midrash Tanchuma (Nitzavim, 29, C) explains that the future generations were actually present in person at Mt. Sinai. This explanation highlights the personal connection between each Jew and the events at Mount Sinai, and encourages us to ask how this event relates to our own lives.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt and The Receiving of the Torah are formative myths that describe the emergence of the Jewish people and present a set of unique values and beliefs for this people. A formative myth is a folk story that tells of a significant event for a particular culture. The myth is manifested in the perceptions and behavioral codes that characterize this group.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • If the students have already studied the story of the Receiving of the Torah, ask them to write the story for themselves as they remember it. Then they can compare their version with their friends’ and with the text in the Torah. Bring the class together and discuss the way we remember formative stories. What details catch our attention? What is the essence of the story of the Receiving the Torah that can be identified in the versions most of us remembered? Were there any details you didn’t remember, and that probably have not been as well preserved in the collective memory of most of us?
  • You could show the children Barbara Fisher’s work “Mount Sinai,” and ask them what details we can learn about the event from the painting. What story does the painting itself tell? Then compare this to the story in the Torah.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. What makes the story of the Giving of the Torah such an important one in Jewish tradition?
  2. How do the features of this event as described in the Torah (lightning, pillar of fire, etc.) teach us about its importance? Give some examples.
  3. What stories do we tell about significant events in our own lives? Think about an important event that happened to you. What means could you use to explain to someone else why it was so important?
  4. What is special about the Giving of the Torah is that it is a significant event that happened to our people. It happened a long time ago, but we still talk about it. Why is something that happened so long ago still important to us today? How has it been remembered for over 3,000 years? What other important historical events (from recent or distant history) do we still talk about now, and do we hope people will talk about in generations to come?

 For older students:

  1. Do you think it is important to determine to what extent the story of Receiving the Torah represents an actual historical event? What impact could the story have even if it did not actually happen?
  2. What do you think would have happened if the story had been different? For example – what if only Moses had been present, and not the entire people? Or what if instead of receiving a book of laws, we had received some general rules about how to live a good life? What influence could that have had on Judaism, on Jewish identity and Jewish life over the generations?
  3. The story of Receiving the Torah is an essential part of the collective memory of the Jewish people. Jewish people around the world, in all periods, have been familiar with this story as a formative event in the Jewish past. What other collective memories do you share with Jews around the world? What collective memories do you share with humankind as a whole? Why are shared memories important?
  • In order to discuss the developments and changes in the story of Receiving the Torah, present several stages in the interpretation of the story over the course of history. Suggested texts:
  1. The story in the Book of Exodus (Chapter 19, from verse 16).
  2. The story as told by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 29).
  3. Legends and Midrashim about Standing at Sinai. For example:
    Abbahu said in the name of R. Yochanan: When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, none of the Ophanim stirred a wing, the Seraphim did not say “Holy,” the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak. Rather, the whole world was hushed into breathless silence and the voice went forth: “I am Adonai your God.”

             (Midrash Exodus Rabbah, 29:9)

    Discuss: In what ways does this Midrash differ from the story in Exodus? Which version do you find more powerful: the sound of trumpets and thunder – or the sound of silence?

  1. Visual images in art and cinema, such as an excerpt from the cartoon Ten Commandments (from 1:09), which offers its own interpretation and adaptation of the story.-  For older students, you could discuss: how do you feel about the way that people in different periods took the basis of the biblical story and interpreted it in a different way, and even sometimes presented it in a very different way to the original? What does that encourage or add? In what ways might it be problematic?
    – As a further stage in the tradition of interpretation, the students can create their own interpretation of the story of the Receiving the Torah. They can use different genres such as poems, comics, poetry slam, making a short video, etc. You could display their works in various ways – in class, to the whole school, or at a Shavuot program for the students and their parents.
  • Following on from the question about the possibility that one of the details of the story could have been different: Ask the students to write the story of the Receiving of the Torah but to change one of the details (there wasn’t Mount Sinai; Moses and Aaron went up the mountain together, etc.) Ask them to consider how this change in the narrative could have influenced Jewish values and identity.
  • Study the Ten Commandments.
  • Teach the following passage:
    On Shabbat, first thing in the morning, I went up to the mountains looking onto Kfar Giladi. A wonderful place. And in the wonderful morning freshness I could understand why Moses received the Torah on the Mountain. Only in the mountains can one receive an order from above, when you see how small man is and yet feel the security of being close to God. The horizon expands on the mountain in every sense and we can understand world order. In the mountains we can believe and we must believe. In the mountains the question is raised: whom shall I send? Send me! To serve the good and the beautiful – will I succeed?
            (Diary of Hannah Szenes, July 25, 1940)

Why, according to Hannah Szenes, was the Torah given on a mountain? Do you agree with her? Explain. Suggest another reason why it was fitting that the Torah be given on a