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What is the significance of the ascent onto Har Sinai and its prohibition? Why is the prohibition introduced in Exodus (19:12) not with the more traditional expression of "don't" but with the less common expression of "hishamru"; guard yourselves? Does this imply that there was some great urge to ascend? Is this related to Exodus (19:21) which speaks of of the possibility of the Jews "breaking forth to see"?

  1. Why the prohibition to ascend in the first place?
  2. Why the usage of "hishamru"?
  • If the mountain, at least during matan Torah, was akin to the mikdash then it would stand to reason that there were concentric zones of k'dusha, just as in the mikdash. Those zones were realized by means of stratified access for different types of people. Perhaps the use of "hishamer" for that type of prohibition is [meant to clue us into] this parallel, as the act of sh'mira appears in many places with respect to maintaining the boundaries of the mikdash. Or maybe the distribution of sh-m-r doesn't justify that connection. . . – WAF Sep 16 '16 at 16:31
  • @WAF I was asking the reason for the prohibition, and its wording. Those two are perhaps related (which is why I asked them together). A possible answer to the latter would be that there was an intense desire to ascend, which would beg the question: why? This would perhaps be answered with the same answer as the first question, which is why God did not want them to ascend. – mevaqesh Sep 16 '16 at 18:49
  • Re hagbala Rav Hirsch says Hashem wanted to place a gulf between himself and the people at that moment to ensure it was clear that the Torah came from him and not them. This was to show that unlike other religions, whose beliefs are generated by the quiddities of the society to which they apply, Torah law was from the top down. I'm not sure if he means to address the wording specifically, but I found it interesting. – WAF Sep 20 '16 at 11:19
  • @WAF interesting. – mevaqesh Sep 20 '16 at 23:14
  • Re: 2 - Netziv לאמר השמרו לכם – אזהרה יתירה בלאו ועונש מיתה — הוא לכולם בשוה, שלא יעלו בהר. אבל גם במרחקם מן ההר אע״ג שלא נזהרו בלאו, מ״מ היו גבולות לעם. ועיין להלן פסוקים כ״א וכ״ב. Also Chizkuni assumes that this was their wording in warning one another. – רבות מחשבות Jan 3 '18 at 16:03
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R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Exodus 19:10-13, interprets the prohibition of ascending Har Sinai as a tangible symbol of the fact that the Torah is God's law and not the product of limited human minds. It's essential to the Torah's status that it is objective and originating outside humanity, not subject to "the contemporary convictions of human beings." Therefore, the place where the Torah first enters the world has to be a space that is completely outside the human realm, devoid of even people's animals.

R' Hirsch doesn't directly address the use of the term "hishameru" here. I would speculate that perhaps the intent was for the symbolic message of the prohibition of ascent to spread to all of the assembled, even those who didn't approach the fence. Instead of just putting up a fence, Moshe had to make sure the word got around to take care not to cross it.

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