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Tabor in the Rabbinical Literature

(by Teresa Petrozzi - translated by Raphael Bonanno ofm)

The Tabor of the rabbis appears under different aspects.

In two tracts of the Talmud of Babylon, viz. Zebaim and Baba Bathra, the mountain is considered for its physical size: There once was an animal so large he could not enter into the Ark; how big was he ? He was as big as Tabor; and how big is Tabor ? Forty parasanghs (c. 240 kms).

According to another school, the mount was a holy place. The Midrash Yalkut, in reference to the "sacrifices of justice" in Dt 33: 19, holds that Tabor was the place were the Temple should have been constructed by right[...] if there had been no explicit revelation and command to erect the sanctuary on Mt Moriah[1]. The author of the tract Tehillim announces: In the future God will make the heavenly Jerusalem descend on these four mountains: Tabor, Hermon, Carmel and Sinai.

A third school presents Tabor as a symbol of pride and presumption. In the commentary on the verse of the Canticle of Deborah, "Mountains trembled in the presence of the Lord, the One of Sinai, in the presence of the Lord, the God of Israel"(Jgs 5: 5), the Targum of Jerusalem has Tabor say: Upon me descends the divine presence, it belongs to me by right. When in the beginning, in the days of Noah, the waters of the flood covered all the mountains, the waves did not reach to my head nor to my shoulders. I am therefore higher than all the mountains and it is my rightful privilege that God dwells upon me.

The Midrash on Genesis tells the story that, while the nations and the peoples refused to accept the Law, the mountains argued among themselves for the honor to be chosen as the place for the revelation. Tabor proudly claimed to be the tallest, especially since it had towered above the waters of the flood.

Hermon claimed its rights because at the moment of the Exodus it was extended between the two sides of the Red Sea, thus permitting the Israelites to pass through unharmed. Carmel, feeling quite sure of itself, kept quiet and thought: If the presence of God, the Shekinah, should rest on the sea, it will rest on me, and if it will stop on the land, it will likewise rest on me. But a voice resounded from above and declared: The divine presence will not rest on these high mountains, because they are so proud, but on Sinai, which is the smallest and most insignificant of all. The same Midrash adds that Sinai was preferred also because on it idols were never worshipped.

According to the tradition, moreover, Tabor and Carmel suddenly made an act of submission to God: they, or their guardian angels, went to Sinai when the Law was handed down. The Tehillim adds that the Lord was so moved by the good intentions of the two mountains that he declared: Because you were concerned about my honor, I will reward you both. Wait and see, in the time of Deborah I will liberate the sons of Israel on Mt Tabor, as it is said: " Go, take position at Mt Tabor" (Judg 4:6); and also I will free Elijah on Mt Carmel, as it is written: "Ahab [...] assembled the prophets at Mt Carmel" (1 Kings 18: 20). Hermon was not mentioned.

The same tale of arrogant pretensions of Tabor and Carmel was repeated in the Targum, in the Midrash on the book of Numbers and Psalm 68, and in the Pesikta Rabbati.

The Old Testament leaves no room for doubt about the fact that the Law was given on Sinai. The insistence of the Rabbis on this point and the proclamation that Tabor and Carmel were excluded due to their proud behavior and the silence regarding Hermon seem to indicate a polemical situation. The Rabbis wrote their tractates in the first centuries of our era, while Christianity was in expansion. Carmel, on which christian monks and hermits lived, and Tabor, considered holy by the Jewish-Christians, should be humiliated and should be content with a consolation prize. About Hermon it was unnecessary to mention it since it was not connected to any christian cult.

At any rate, Tabor remained impressed in the soul of the Israelites. Still today, among the prayers recited at the end of the Sabbath, they repeat a hymn, Havdalah, attributed to Isaac ibn Chayyat (1030-1089), in which it is said that the merciful justice of God is like Mt Tabor.


[1] A.P. Stanley, Sinai and Palestine in connection with their history, London 1871. On p. 351, note 3, there is the English citation of the Midrash Yalkut edited by Schwarz, p. 71.

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