Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Ha’alotekha 5766/ June 10, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Face to Face


Dr. Shimon Eliezer Ha-levi (Schubert) Spero


Center for Basic Jewish Studies


Maimonides interprets the expressions, “With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles” (Num. 12:8) and “the Lord would speak to Moses face to face” (Ex. 33:11), as characterizing the unique level of prophetic revelation which Moses reached, who would prophesy “not through an angel, nor through riddles or parables, but by beholding the thing perfectly and completely” (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7:6). [1]

Two proof-texts provide support for Maimonides’ interpretation of “face to face.”  The first comes from the end of the verse in Exodus:  “As one man speaks to another.”  In other words, G-d’s communication with Moses was direct and clear, like a conversation between two people facing each other.  The second verse comes from Deuteronomy 34:10:  “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out, face to face [Heb. panim el panim].”  Here it says explicitly that Moses alone experienced the word of G-d in what is called “face to face.” [2]

It is clear also from this week’s reading that the expression “mouth to mouth” indicates Moses’ unique standing as a prophet:  “Not so with My servant Moses; ... With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles” (Numbers 12:8).  This, however, poses some difficulty as we find a third verse, Deuteronomy 5:4, that says:  “Face to face [Heb. panim be-panim] the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire,” where “you” refers to the entire people of Israel.  True, the revelation to Israel at Mount Sinai was exceptional and unique. Nevertheless we must ask whether it is conceivable that the entire people attained, be it only in a one-time occurrence, the prophetic level of Moses?

Perhaps we must distinguish between the expressions panim be-panim and panim el panim.  Indeed, Maimonides himself quotes the above-cited verse from Deuteronomy in another context, giving it a completely different significance (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, ch. 8.1):

Moses did not win the trust of the Israelites because of the signs that he performed ... for the signs could have been done through magic and sorcery ... so why did they believe in him?  Because of the revelation at Mount Sinai, which we witnessed – fire, thunder and lightning – with our own eyes and not another’s, and which we heard with our own ears and not another’s ... and we heard [the Lord saying], “Moses, Moses – go tell them such and such,” and thus it is written, “Face to face [Heb. panim be-panim] the Lord spoke to you.”

This implies that “face to face” [panim be-panim] does not indicate a level of prophecy whatsoever, but rather natural participation – the people of Israel “witnessed with their own eyes and heard with their own ears” how the Lord spoke with a third party, Moses.  According to Maimonides’ interpretation, this experience, which is described as having been panim be-panim, is what convinced them of the truth of Moses’ prophecy.  But how was the experience of “face to face” different from the signs that Moses performed, all of which Maimonides claims could have been done by magic?  Why was the “voice of G-d” at Mount Sinai, accompanied by lightning and thunder, more trustworthy than the splitting of the Red Sea?  Were not all of these based on perception of the senses, and perhaps our senses can deceive us?  Perhaps it was all done by magic?

Therefore I would like to propose that the expression panim be-panim touches on an epistemological issue, as I shall explain.  In philosophy there is a concept called the problem of “knowledge of other minds.”  Can I prove that the person standing before me, with whom I am conversing, is a real living human being like myself and not a sophisticated robot or mannequin created to think and speak just like a human?

The usual answer to this question is based on analogy.  To wit, since the next person is like me in so many diverse ways, and since it is clear to me beyond any doubt, from my inner knowledge that I have cognition and senses, it would be correct to suppose that the other person is like me in this regard, as well.  But it is agreed that this argument cannot provide absolute certainty, rather it always leaves a shadow of doubt.

Others maintain that intuitive knowledge operates here, that exists only in the patterns of relations among creatures with intelligence and soul.  For example, after years of shared experiences between a couple, or between parents and children, whose lives and souls are bound up one with the other, it is inconceivable that one of the parties think the personality of the other is not true.  It seems there is a mysterious way in which the human spirit can bond with another person directly and confirm the reality of that person’s existence as a living human being.  Perhaps this is what was meant by panim be-panim, as one person talks with another, face to face, and is sure that he is relating to another person like him, a person with intelligence and will, not simply an illusion.  In like manner, when the Israelites went through the experience of “face to face” at Mount Sinai they were convinced, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the awesome, frightening power addressing them was a being that possessed cognition and will, and that when G-d continued to address Moses the people realized that Moses was a true emissary of G-d. [3]

This explanation helps us understand Maimonides’ point that it was precisely the experience at Mount Sinai that made the Israelites believe in Moses.

[1] The “clear sight” [aspaklaria meira] of the Sages, (Yevamot 49b).  Cf. Ofir Cohen, “Panim el panim, ish el re’ehu,”  Weekly Torah Studies (Heb.), Ki-Tissa (no. 539).

[2] The expression “face to face” also appears in Ezekiel’s prophecy (20:35):  “and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face” (Rashi:  I will argue with them to inform them of their sinful ways).  The context makes the meaning clear:  direct confrontation, face to face.

[3] The saying, “As face answers to face in water, so does one man’s heart to another” (Prov. 27:19) hints at a certain dynamic in personal encounter between human beings that includes components of imitation and cognition.