January 18, 2019

Hebrew word of the week: Mt. Sinai/Har Sinay

It is amazing how a certain geographic name, whose identity remains unknown or doubtful to this day, turns into an important symbol of Judaism: The place where the Torah — the Ten Commandments — was given to the Children of Israel by God (traditionally on Shavuot).*

The name Sinai seems to be derived from the Babylonian and South Arabian Sin, “the god of the moon”; and associated with sneh, the multicolored bramble bush where God appeared to Moses (Exodus 3:2-4), and as suggested by shokni
“Dweller of Sneh” (Deuteronomy 33:16 and commentaries).

*Perhaps, paradoxically, the mount’s exact location remains vague or unknown, as does Moses’ grave, so that it will not become a worshipped sanctuary. However, its symbolic sanctity seems to be demonstrated by the many American Sinai Temples (or Temple Sinai, Mount Sinai Temple, Har Sinai Congregation, etc.) and Mount Sinai hospitals and medical centers.

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.