By Avraham Y. Heschel
Rabbi Alexander Hool was raised in a small Jewish community in northwest London in the suburb of Kingsbury, where his father served as the Rav. He studied in the Gateshead Yeshivah for five years and then on to Ponevez in Bnei Brak, where he has continued learning for the last 25 years in the yeshivah and then kollel.
He authored a book titled Searching for Sinai, in which he proposes that Har Sinai is actually located in Saudi Arabia. According to this approach, what is today the western border area of Saudi Arabia is part of Midbar Sinai.
All of Rabbi Hool’s research is based on Torah sources.
Your impeccably researched book addresses a fascinating topic. Yet, neither Chazal nor the Rishonim seem to have discussed the question of the location of Har Sinai. Some have suggested that this is because, unlike the location of Har Hamoriah (the site of the Beis Hamikdash), or setting the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, there is no halachic significance to knowing where Har Sinai is. In your introduction, you refer to the Rambam and Ramban placing an emphasis on the various encampments of the Bnei Yisrael in the Midbar. But interestingly enough, neither of these Rishonim actually tells us where this is. What inspired you to try to find the location of Har Sinai when the Rishonim and Acharonim refrained from doing so?
The Rambam and Ramban explain that the value of locating the various encampments is that this will arouse awareness of the great miracles that happened in sustaining Bnei Yisrael in those areas of utter desolation.
However, for the generations of the Rambam and Ramban and Acharonim, the task of locating these places was close to impossible and the gain very limited. Without detailed mapping, they would have needed literally to search through the wilderness themselves in order to find them and even when found, who would go to these places?
However, in this generation, where detailed mapping and satellite imagery is available at the click of a button, the task becomes realizable and the number of those who can benefit from the discovery amounts to millions.
Having said that, though, I must say that I was actually initially inspired to try to locate Har Sinai from a halachic perspective. I was working on ascertaining the exact southern border of Eretz Yisrael with regard to Shemittah and was introduced to a fascinating survey of the various identifications of Har Sinai proposed by scholars and researchers by James D. Long in an appendix to his book, The Riddle of the Exodus. I took particular interest in this at the time, as the name Kadesh Barne’a in the Torah appears with respect to Har Sinai as well as the southern border of Eretz Yisrael and felt that knowledge of the exact location would surely lead to clarity in finding the Kadesh Barne’a of Eretz Yisrael.
I very quickly came to the realization that researchers have been totally oblivious to the wealth of historical and geographical detail incorporated into divrei Chazal, and that equipped with that material and guided by satellite imagery one can indeed find these places and demonstrate at the same time the veracity of our Mesorah, as well as shedding light on cryptic pesukim.
The generally accepted mesorah has long been that Mattan Torah took place in southern Sinai. This is based on the assumption that at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisrael first traveled southward along the eastern shore of the Yam Suf and the Gulf of Suez, then turned east toward Har Sinai and Chorev, and only after that, traveled northward toward Kadesh Barne’a. Why did you choose to take a different approach?
I think the main reason to assume that Bnei Yisrael traveled southward after exiting the sea is that the passuk in Bamidbar (33:10) tells us of a second encampment by the Red Sea, this time on their entry into Midbar Sin, after leaving Eilim. Based on a further assumption that Har Sinai lies in the Sinai Peninsula, it follows that Bnei Yisrael must have traveled south parallel with the length of the sea. Otherwise they would not have encountered the sea a second time before reaching Har Sinai.
However, if so, Har Sinai must accordingly have been in the south of the Sinai Peninsula, and this is in contradiction with the straightforward implication of the first passuk in Beshalach that the natural path from Egypt to Sinai was via the land of the Pelishtim, which we know from Sefer Bereishis lay at the southern border of Canaan, at the far north of the Sinai Peninsula.
I noticed that if Bnei Yisrael went east after exiting the sea, heading toward Saudi Arabia, they would have indeed passed by the Red Sea a second time, at Eilat on the tip of the eastern arm of the Red Sea due south of the Dead Sea. It was also intriguing to discover that around that area a number of places begin with ‘Eil’ such as Eilat, Eilot and Eil Paran, and further, that the entrance into Saudi Arabia at this point would seem to match with the entry into a different wilderness called Midbar Sin.
It is fascinating to note that if the Bnei Yisrael then went due south to our location for Har Sinai, then the path taken by Bnei Yisrael from Ramseses/Pelusium in the north of Egypt to Har Sinai going south, then east and then south again maps out the Hebrew letter lamed which means to learn — a very apt shape for the journey to receive the Torah!
You state that the straightforward implication of the first passuk in Beshalach that the natural path from Egypt to Sinai was via the land of the Pelishtim. Yet the Daas Zekeinim of the Baalei Tosafos indicates that it was Eretz Yisrael, and the Chizkuni clearly says so.
The Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbeinu Chananel, and the Ibn Ezra (Shemos 3:12) say that the passuk refers to the path to Har Sinai. The first two explanations in Mechilta do so as well. [Another explanation in the Mechilta clearly says the path to Eretz Yisrael – AH]
The passuk only mentions a change of path, not a change of destination, and furthermore, there is no mention before of a plan to go to Eretz Yisrael. Also if the plan was to go to Eretz Yisrael, the passuk does not explain why they didn’t enter Eretz Yisrael from a different side.
In your book you reject the idea that Jebel Mussa in southern Sinai can possibly be Har Sinai. Yet the famed “Sinai Stones” — which have the imprint of branches of a bush running through them — come from this mountain. While there are similar rocks elsewhere, what is remarkable about these stones is that, when one of these stones is broken, into however many pieces, the shards all have the bush-like veins running across their surface. Harav Shem-Tov Afudi, however, writes (in his commentary to the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, ch. 66) that Har Sinai’s stones attest to its identity; so does the Arvei Nachal.
I have not managed to ascertain where exactly in the Sinai Peninsula the stones come from; however, such a phenomenon is not mentioned anywhere in Chazal. The earliest source we have is from Harav Moshe Narvoni that tells of a well-respected Yid from Barcelona who brought him such stones which he claimed came from Har Sinai, but it is not reported whether he himself went to Har Sinai or acquired them from someone else who did, nor is it mentioned how he knew where Har Sinai was.
The problem with the “Sinai Stones” is that we now know that there are other places in the world that have such stones with identical bush-like veins. Although it is true that these particular stones have the imprint penetrating into the stone itself as opposed to being just on the outer surface, however if the imprint was to signify the unique encounter of Moshe with the Burning Bush, one would not expect to find the same sign even on the outside of any other stones.
Furthermore, it now seems clear that Har Sinai could not possibly have been in the Sinai Peninsula. For example, the Torah tells us that Aharon set out from Egypt to meet Moshe at Har Sinai, and in that time Moshe went back to Midyan with his flock and returned with Tziporah and his two children. If Har Sinai were anywhere in the Sinai peninsula, the timing just does not fit, since the Yalkut Shimoni tells us that Midyan was 40 days away from Har Sinai, and therefore Aharon would have surely arrived weeks earlier.
You then place Marah to the north, at what is now known as the Bitter Lakes. The next encampment was Eilim — which you put all the way across the Sinai Peninsula, coming close to the southern border of Eretz Yisrael. Would it be accurate to say that, according to the theory you are proposing, Har Sinai is all the way to the South of Eilim, and when going to Har Sinai, the Bnei Yisrael were actually traveling in the direction that is the opposite of Eretz Yisrael?
That is correct, and this would be in accordance with the Gemara in Bava Basra (25b): “One who wishes to be enlightened should go to the south.”
Chazal teach us that Har Sinai wasn’t originally located in the desert, but actually came to the Bnei Yisrael. Wouldn’t that indicate that Har Sinai was on the way to Eretz Yisrael? Granted, even according to the view that Har Sinai is in southern Sinai, Bnei Yisrael traveled south instead of to the east. However, this at least can be explained by the fact that instead of crossing the uninhabitable desert, the standard route was along the water, to the south, and then swinging around to the northeast. But according to your theory, why wasn’t the Torah given in the Sinai desert?
Saudi Arabia might have been chosen because it is due south of Yerushalayim.
The Ramban indicates (Shemos 19:1) that Har Sinai was right at the beginning of the Midbar. Can this be reconciled with your approach?
The Ramban writes that when Moshe requested initially a three-day journey to offer korbanos, he was referring to the location of Sinai. Indeed, most researchers interpret the same and thus have limited their radius of investigation to about 120 km from Egypt. However, we know that the Bnei Yisrael could travel much further. In Devarim we are told that the path from Chorev to Kadesh Barne’a was a journey of 11 days, yet the Gemara in Taanis (29a) tells us that Bnei Yisrael traveled in three days from Chorev to Kadesh Barne’a at the southeast corner of Eretz Yisrael. Going at such miraculous speeds would allow them to have reached our location of Har Sinai in Saudi Arabia within three days.
Please briefly tell our readers about the mountain in Saudi Arabia that you feel is the real Har Sinai and why.
In the beginning of Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu relates that Bnei Yisrael crossed the whole wilderness from Chorev heading toward Kadesh Barne’a at the southern border of Se’ir (as explained by the Rambam) and at the same time also heading toward the Har HaEmori at the southern corner of the Dead Sea. We know from Devarim (2:8) that Kadesh Barne’a lay next to Eilat and Etzion Gover at the Gulf of Aqaba and thus it follows that Har Sinai must lie at the end of the extrapolated line starting from the southern corner of the Dead Sea passing through the northeast corner of the Gulf of Aqaba and on to the end of the Saudi Arabian Desert. Following that line takes us to a place on the edge of the Saudi Arabian Desert which in fact is actually still called today “Choreba” and nearby lies a humble little mountain called Jebel Charb. The mountain has a cave at the top, like the passuk says, and is in the form of one mountain on top of another like the Rokeach says, and the top one is precisely 500 amos high and the lower one 12 mil wide, as stipulated by Chazal. All other characteristics known about the mountain fit and mathematical measurements taken from Chazal are in synch with this location.
Does this mountain have the sneh, or thorn bushes that are described in sefarim?
From what we can discern from the satellite images, it appears that the mountain is littered with such bushes.
Have you been able to visit this location in person?
I have not visited the site personally, but satellite 3-D imagery provides for a very good improviser.
Do you know anyone who has?
When the book was first released, there was a gentile researcher who heard about the book while investigating another site in Saudi Arabia and he traveled down to the area, reaching it just before sunset. He managed to take a number of photos and graciously sent them to me, but none were from close up.
Your previous book, The Challenge of Jewish History, has a haskamah by Harav Yisrael Belsky, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Vodaath. Yet this book bears no haskamos, only a letter by a professor of mathematics at Bar Ilan University. Why did you choose not to seek a haskamah this time around?
Pursuing a haskamah is quite a time-consuming endeavor, especially for a sefer like this one, where one has to find a suitable person who will feel comfortable in all the areas of research in order to give a haskamah. Rabbi Belsky, zt”l, apart from being a distinguished Rosh Yeshivah and halachic authority, also had vast knowledge in wide-ranging subjects, and I was very privileged to obtain a haskamah on the first book through his son, my good friend Eliyahu Belsky. Bound by the limits of the publication process, I have had to suffice with referring to Rabbi Belsky’s approbation of the first book as a general haskamah for the second.
Have you discussed your novel theory with Rabbanim? What was their reaction?
I have shown and discussed the book with a number of eminent Rabbanim and talmidei chachamim and have received very warm feedback on its contents.
Any final thought for our readers?
We are instructed in Devarim (9:4-5) not to forget Maamad Har Sinai and, according to the Ramban, this is numbered as one of the taryag mitzvos. I recommend any of the readers who have more than a passing conviction that Jebel Harb is the true Mount Horeb, to obtain for themselves a satellite image of the mountain and stick it on their wall over Shavuos along with the flowers for enthralling visual effect.
As Rabbi Yisrael Pinchas Tirnauer points out in an article published two years ago in Hamodia’s Inyan Magazine, it appears that our mesorah establishes that Mattan Torah took place in southern Sinai. This is based on the assumption that the Bnei Yisrael first traveled southward along the eastern shore of the Yam Suf and the Gulf of Suez, then turned east toward Har Sinai and Chorev, and only after that traveled northward toward Kadesh Barne’a. This is detailed at great length by Harav Dan Schwartz, z”l, in his classic work Eileh Massei.
Some non-Jewish researchers claim that Jebel Helal, or one of a number of other mountains in northern Sinai, is the Biblical site, according to which the travails of the Bnei Yisrael all took place on the northern part of the Peninsula. The reasons these researchers cite why they have made this conclusion are not compatible with Chazal.
The claim that the mountain known as Jebel al-Lawz in a part of Saudi Arabia is thought to have once been Midyan is Har Sinai was proposed by a controversial American explorer named Ron Wyatt and a handful of non-Jewish scholars. As Rabbi Hool points out in his book, this location appears to be inconsistent with teachings of Chazal, which indicate that Har Sinai was not located in Midyan. In addition, the reasons they put forth to promote their theory, including a photo of a supposed “altar of the Golden Calf,” do not pass muster when examined through the prism of the truth of the Torah.
The site most commonly identified as Har Sinai is an impressive peak that rises in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, known as Jebel Mussa (Arabic for Moshe’s Mountain).
However, as Rabbi Tirnauer pointed out in his article, there are numerous objections to this theory. For one thing, Jebel Mussa is the highest peak in the area. As Chazal tell us, Har Sinai was chosen because it was low and humble. Another problem is that it is in the middle of a mountain range; there is no plain nearby large enough to accommodate the millions of people who were present for Mattan Torah. Finally, it appears that the first source for this identification is Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. It is said that she was impressed by its beauty so she decided that it was fitting that Jebel Mussa play the role of Mount Sinai.
It appears that the primary reason to accept the idea that this is Har Sinai is the fact that the famed Sinai Stones (see below by Yisrael Katzover) come from this mountain.
In addition, it would appear that the objection regarding the height of the mountain in itself can be resolved.
It is clear from Chazal that the other mountains that vied with Har Sinai for this singular honor — including Har HaCarmel and Har Tibor — came from elsewhere and did not stay in the Midbar after they were rejected. So in order to judge relative heights, one needs to compare it to other mountains, not to those in its immediate vicinity. However, when judging from sea level, it appears that Jebel Mussa is much higher than Har HaCarmel.
In his sefer Maamad Hanivchar, Harav Tzvi Hirsch Weiss, shlita, quotes a Midrash Tanchuma (96:12), as stating that Har Sinai miraculously and dramatically expanded immediately before Mattan Torah. He points out that we do not find that the mountain returned to its original size. Accordingly, one cannot extrapolate anything from a mountain’s current height.
Maamad Hanivchar quotes Harav Shlomo Kluger (sefer Chochmas Hatorah, Parashas Yisro) as stating that after Mattan Torah, Har Sinai was nignaz — hidden by the Ribbono shel Olam, and a different mountain replaced it. In that case, we will have to wait until Moshiach to be able to see Har Sinai.
Sinai’s Wondrous Stones
By Yisroel Katzover
Mattan Torah at Har Sinai on 6 Sivan 2448 was accompanied by fire and smoke, as described by the passuk. The stones, which turned red from the fire, remained that color to this day and can be found on the mountain Jebel Mussa in the southern Sinai Desert.
But it is not only the color that has remained: wondrously enough, each stone on the mountain bears an imprint of the sneh, the burning bush in which Moshe first encountered Hashem. From Above, all the stones were etched with a spindly branched bush. But there’s more: Not only does the image appear on all the stones on the mountain, when you take a stone and break it, each piece will still have a sneh on it. This is a wonder that the Rishonim and Acharonim marveled about.
Several years ago, some of these stones were brought to the research laboratories at Hebrew University in Yerushalayim. They were pummeled to dust, and then put under a microscope — and the sneh appeared even on the rock dust and the tiniest pieces of stone.
Jewish visitors and hikers who visited Har Sinai over the years would bring some of these stones back to Europe with them, and traveled to different communities and Gedolei Torah to show the stones to them.
The first written testimony that we have about the Sinai stones and the sneh imprint is attributed to a member of the Barcelona community during the time of the Rishonim, from the Ben Chisdai family, who traveled to the Holy Land and visited Har Sinai. He took some of these stones back home, where he gave one to the Chacham Rabi Moshe Hanervoni. Rabi Shem Tov Efudi, who lived about 750 years ago, wrote in his commentary on the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim: “And Rabi Moshe Nervoni said: Know that it is said of Har Sinai that the stones there have a drawing of a sneh, which is why it was called ‘Sinai,’ because Hashem appeared to Moshe in the sneh… And I marveled at this and was very happy about it.”
The Megaleh Amukos, who lived about 450 years ago in Cracow, cites this, as does Harav Yaakov Emden in his sefer Migdal Oz.
Harav Dovid Shlomo Eibschutz, zt”l, the Levushei Serad, who lived in Tzfas 200 years ago, explains the secrets of this wonder in his sefer Arvei Nachal. He explains the connection between the sneh and the virtues of Har Sinai and Moshe Rabbeinu: Moshe was the humblest of all men. Likewise, Har Sinai was the lowest and humblest of the mountains, and that is why the Torah was given upon it. The sneh is the lowest of all trees — a thornbush — to teach us that the Torah is only fulfilled with one whose spirit is humble.
Harav Meir Mazuz, shlita, brings a scientific explanation for the phenomenon, citing a French geologist who explained that at Mattan Torah, the heat of the fire turned the stones to liquid. That is what the passuk means when it says, “Harim nazlu mipnei Hashem zeh Sinai.” When the stones became liquid, the sneh that grew on the mountain was swallowed by the stones and was thus imprinted there.