Ethics Now & Then 82 – Avot 5:8

Ten things were created on the [first] eve of Shabbat at twilight; they were:
[1] the mouth of the earth, [2] the mouth of the well, [3] the mouth of the ass,
[4] the rainbow, [5] the manna, [6] the rod, [7] the shamir, [8] the writing script,
[9] the manner of writing, [10] the tablets [of the Ten Commandments].
And some say: also the demons, the tomb of Moses, and the ram of Abraham.
And others say: also the tongs made without tongs.

Star of David ENT

Avot 5:8 

Ten things were created on the [first] eve of Shabbat at twilight;

This is a fascinating concept broached by the Sages. According to the biblical record, all things in the universe, together with our planet Earth and mankind, were created by God during the first six days of Creation.  He then instituted the seventh day – the Sabbath – upon which He rested from all His work of creation. The Sages consider that during that elusive, mysterious period of time when the sun has dipped below the horizon but the moon has not yet appeared – at twilight – the Almighty created the powerful, supernatural phenomenon that would only be made evident at the required time in History – the exact time they were needed to display His miraculous Presence. Only some that occurred after the Exodus from Egypt are listed, so, e.g., the plagues and splitting of the sea are not included.

…they were: [1] the mouth of the earth, [2] the mouth of the well, [3] the mouth of the ass…

God created by the Word of His mouth. Here, three ‘mouths’ are mentioned that evidence His mastery over the natural order of things:

1. The ‘mouth of the earth’ is the gaping hole that suddenly appeared and swallowed up Korach  and his conspirators when they rebelled and challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron in the wilderness (Numbers 16:32). There was no earthquake or natural fissure; the earth simply opened its mouth and then closed up again without a trace.

2. The ‘mouth of the well’ is recognized as ‘Miriam’s well’ (Num. 21:16). After Moses had struck the rock and water gushed forth and until the death of Miriam, a miraculous source of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness. The Sages offer that it was a ‘well’ provided by God due to the merit of Miriam and the songs of praise and dance that she led to His glory after His deliverance at the Reed Sea.

3. The ‘mouth of the ass’ refers to Balaam’s ass, or donkey, that was more discerning of the angel blocking the path than the prophet was (Num. 22:28). After Balaam beat her three times, she spoke and remonstrated with him in a human voice. Funnily enough, we read that in his anger and frustration he engaged in conversation with her. God was demonstrating that He was in control of prophetic vision and could bestow it on whom or whatever He willed.  He also controlled the power of speech, hinting that Balaam would be unable to deliver his curses against Israel.

[4] the rainbow…

The rainbow appears for the first time in history to Noah after the rains stop and the floodwaters subside. God tells Noah, “I have set my bow in the cloud…when the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember My covenant…and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:12-15).

[5] the manna…

Manna was provided as ‘bread’ from Heaven throughout the forty years of the journey through the wilderness (Exodus 16:15). Its miraculous properties were evident in that, according to God’s instructions, they were to collect enough for one day’s needs. Those who tried to store it found that it turned rancid and wormy. However, on the sixth day they were to collect enough for two days and were not to go out and look for any on the Sabbath. Sure enough, it stayed fresh and tasty for the two days.

 [6] the rod…

This is the rod, or staff, of Moses. It is first mentioned in his encounter with God at the burning bush. God asks him, “What is that in your hand?” and he says, “A staff” (Exodus 4:2). When Moses returned to Egypt on his mission from God, we read that he “took the staff of God in his hand” (Ex.4:17, 20). Somehow he knew that this was  the instrument by which God would work the miracles needed in his encounter with Pharaoh.

[7] the shamir…

According to tradition, this was a special and mighty worm that could split rocks!  God gave the instruction that when an altar was built to honor Him, and in the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, “…you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your blade [iron instruments] upon it, you profane it” (Ex.20:22). King Solomon obeyed, as we read in 1 Kings 6:7. The Sages offer that the “object” used instead was the little shamir – “…no bigger than a grain of barley. Placed on the hardest wood and stone, it would split them open as into two writing tablets. …It could be carried only wrapped in cloth or tufts of wool, in a lead container filled with barley bran.” (Tosefta, Sotah xv 1; Talmud Bavli 48b)*  This little creature vanished, apparently, when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed.

[8] the writing script…

We know that God used words to speak all into creation. The development of a written script to convey words is considered, anthropologically, a great milestone in human development. Spiritually, and specifically in connection with Hebrew, the Sages hold that the otiot, letters of the Aleph Bet, were created by God ‘in the beginning’. We can consider, in support of this, ‘And the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain…and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and commandments which I have written for their instruction” (Ex.24:12).

[9] the manner of writing…

To give Moses the tablets, God needed letters for the words and a method of writing them that they could be read. Scripture also tells us, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Ibid.). In Egypt, the civilizationthe Israelites had known, the recorded word was written in hieroglyphics; now, at Sinai, God presented them with His alphabet – the Aleph-Bet – which they could learn and use.

[10] the tablets [of the Ten Commandments].

In and of themselves, the first stone tablets were a miracle of God. The Sages imagine that they were not ordinary stone but rather made of “celestial sapphire” and “the letters were cut through completely, on both sides and yet the inner parts of the samech and the mem sofit never fell out.”**  We read in Exodus that the tablets were “…written on both sides: on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (32:15-16). We can understand that, after Moses smashed them when he saw the idolatry of the Golden Calf,  the pieces were gathered and placed in the Ark of the Covenant together with the second set of stone tablets carved by Moses.

And some say: also the demons, the tomb of Moses, and the ram of Abraham.

The reality of evil forces or ‘demons,’ the Sages consider, were also part of God’s supernatural creation. As light is separated from darkness, so goodness counterposes evil. Some commentators note that they exist to “bring retribution upon the wicked.”*** Generally, the Sages minimize the subject of demonic spirits as God’s power is mightier when called upon by the righteous.

Scripture records the death and burial of Moses very poignantly, with God overseeing the burial of His beloved servant Himself. “He [HaShem] buried him in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor, and no man knows of his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6). The location of the tomb of Moses indeed remains a secret of God.

The importance of the ram as a substitutionary sacrifice for Isaac, at the time of Abraham’s greatest testing, is so great that the Sages believe it was preordained at Creation. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa points out, “Of that ram of Abraham not one part turned out to be purposeless. …As for the two horns of the ram, the left one became the shofar heard at Mount Sinai, while the right, greater than the left, is destined to be sounded at the ingathering of the exiles” (Pirkei d’R Eliezer xxxi end).

And others say: also the tongs made without tongs.

To make tongs one needs to hold a piece of metal over fire until it become pliable and then hammer it into the required shape. You need tongs to do this, so where did the first pair come from? The Sages suggest that God made them, as with all human ‘breakthrough’ inventions, right in the beginning and has revealed them to man as the time he was ready for them.

Star of David ENTFootnotes:

* Also Talmud Yerushalmi ix 13; referenced in Ethics from Sinai Vol.3, by Irving M.Bunim

** Irving M.Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol.3, 90

*** Ibid., 91

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