Photo by Erich Lessing

ON THE COVER: A fearsome radiance emanates from Moses as he descends Mount Sinai with the Tablets of the Law (Exodus 34:30), as depicted in this triptych, dating to about 1900. Frightened, the Bible tells us, the Israelites kept their distance. Or did they? The answer depends, Baruch Schwartz explains, on which part of the Bible you read. To find out why the biblical version of what happened at Mount Sinai is so complex, see “What Really Happened at Mount Sinai?”.

The first few words of each commandment are written on the side panels of the triptych, which likely hung on a synagogue wall. At the top of the center panel appears the Hebrew word Mizrach, or East, indicating the direction one should face while praying. The tradition of facing Jerusalem during prayer derives from Solomon’s request that God listen when people “pray to the Lord in the direction of the city which you have chosen, and of the House which I have built” (1 Kings 8:44).