Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Yitro 5767/ February 10, 2007

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,



‘ANH – ‘to help’?


Yonah Bar-Maoz


Department of Bible and Ha-Keter Mikraot Gedolot Project


Exodus 19:19 describes the form of a dialogue that took place between Moses and G-d:   “The blare of the horns grew louder and louder.  As Moses spoke (yedabber), G-d answered him in thunder.”  The grammatical form of the Hebrew verb in this verse, without the biblical vav which inverts the tense, making the future into the past (va-yedabber), indicates that this was a habitual pattern which repeated itself: Moses would speak, and God would answer him.  

The Problem

Nevertheless, the verse presents two difficulties.  The first is that in all G-d’s conversations with Moses in Chapter 19, G-d is the one who initiates the conversation, Moses only answering the divine call; in this verse, however, the dialogue is presented as being initiated by Moses.   Second, the way this verse is situated, it is unclear whether the description of the dialogue here pertains to the conversation that Moses had up to verse 19, or whether it pertains to the conversation that follows.  The first possibility does not stand to reason, since the horns did not blare until the morning of the third day (verse 16) and since the horns are also mentioned in our verse, nothing before that is being described.   On the other hand, the second possibility also appears far-fetched: in the subsequent conversation between G-d and Moses, Moses was called by G-d to ascend to the mountain’s summit, and the first to speak in the conversation that took place there was G-d, not Moses. Therefore, v. 19 which makes Moses the initiator, does not seem to be describing the later conversation either. [1]

Another reason why the description in this verse cannot be associated with the dialogues before it or after it is the clear reliance of verse 19 on verse 9, [2] which reads, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.’”  This refers to a future conversation to which the people would be party, as listeners; yet the two conversations discussed thus far do not match this definition, despite the fact that several commentators have tried to show that indeed the people overheard the conversation. [3]

The Solution

An answer to the questions posed can be found in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Yitro, Tractate de-ba-Hodesh, ch. 4):

As Moses spoke, G-d answered him in thunder – Rabbi Eliezer says:   Whence do you say that the Holy One, blessed be He, did not speak until after Moses spoke to Him, saying: ‘Speak, for Your children have already agreed to accept what you will say to them’? Because it says, “As Moses spoke, G-d answered him in thunder.”   Rabbi Akiva said to him:   Surely that is the case [and the words “As Moses spoke” come to teach us something else].   And what are we to learn from the words, “As Moses spoke”?  None other than that the Holy One gave might and strength to Moses, and the Holy One, blessed be He, would help him with His voice; thus in the tone that Moses heard the Lord, in the same tone he gave it over to the Israelites; hence it says, “As Moses spoke, G-d answered him in thunder [alt. rendition:   “aloud”].”

This means that both Rabbis, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, think that verse 19 pertains to the Ten Commandments and how they were said (ch. 20), and not to the conversations in ch. 19; however Rabbi Eliezer is of the opinion that it refers to a one-time utterance by Moses, in the wake of which G-d answered him and gave the Ten Commandments, whereas Rabbi Akiva describes a more lengthy process in which the cooperation between G-d and Moses includes Moses speaking and G-d amplifying his words.


Ya’anennu – to help, assist

Let us now focus on the interpretation give by Rabbi Akiva, which is explained in further detail by Rashi:

As Moses spoke:  As Moses spoke and delivered the Decalogue to Israel – for they heard no more than “I the Lord…” and “You shall have no other…” (the first two commandments, see Makkot 24a) from the Almighty – the Holy One, blessed be He, assisted him, giving him strength so that his voice was amplified and could be heard.

Rashi comments further, on Exodus 20:1:

all these words, saying – this indicates to us that the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke the Decalogue in a single utterance – something that a human being is not capable of doing;  that being so, what does Scripture teach us by saying, “I the Lord…” and “You shall have no other …” (Ex. 20:2-3)?  That he went back and spelled out each and every commandment of the Decalogue individually. [4]

According to both comments of Rashi based on the Midrash, at Mount Sinai the people were not capable of understanding the Lord’s words, or at most they heard only the initial two commandments, so Moses had to act as intermediary and, after each commandment, pronounce its words to them.   So that Moses’ voice would reach the audience of millions at the foot of Mount Sinai, he needed divine assistance, and this is the meaning of the words, “G-d answered him (ya’anennu) in thunder”--he assisted him in voice.

Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation gives an unusual reading of the verb, ’a-n-h (to answer), ostensibly interpreting it contrary to its common meaning; however, this is not actually the case.  Quite the opposite, it turns out that Rabbi Akiva was rescuing a little-known meaning of the root ‘a-n-h from oblivion – a meaning denoting helping, rescuing, or delivering.  Parallels to this root exist in Phoenician [5] and Arabic, [6] and in the time of the Mishnah it was apparently still in use.  

Living testimony to the use of the root ‘a-n-h in the sense of “to help” is provided from the Talmud’s interpretation (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6b) of Elijah’s prayer in I Kings 18:37:  When it was time to present the meal offering, the prophet Elijah came forward and said, … ‘Help me [Heb. aneni], O Lord, help me [Heb. aneni]’ – help me by making fire come down from heaven, and help me so that they not say this was an act of magic.” [7]   The first “help me” could be viewed in the more common sense of “answer me,” i.e., a divine answer to Elijah’s request, an answer expressed in fire, not words.   This, however, could not be said of the second aneni.  Here clearly the meaning is:  Help me, that my actions not be interpreted incorrectly; this divine assistance can in no way be understood as answering.

The Theme ‘anh

Appreciating that the root ‘a-n-h can mean “help” also gives us greater understanding of Psalm 20:

May the Lord answer [ya’ankha --help] you in time of trouble,

            the name of Jacob’s G-d keep you safe.

May He send you help from the sanctuary,

            and sustain you from Zion.

May He receive the tokens of all your meal offerings,

            and approve your burnt offerings.

May He grant you your desire,

            And fulfill your every plan.

May we shout for joy in your victory,

            Arrayed by standards in the name of our G-d.

May the Lord fulfill your every wish.


Now I know that the Lord will give victory to His anointed,

            will answer him [ya’anehu--help him] from His heavenly sanctuary

            with the mighty victories of His right arm.

They [call] on chariots, they [call] on horses,

            but we call on the name of the Lord our G-d.

They collapse and lie fallen,

            but we rally and gather strength,

O Lord, grant victory!

May the King answer [ya’aneinu--help] us when we call.

Psalm 20 is marked by its emphasis on trusting the Lord to help, an idea that recurs throughout the psalm in several forms; also, the verb ‘a-n-h appears in a parallel construction with s-g-v and y-sh-‘ – roots denoting rescue and deliverance.  From the outset it does not say that the person who wished deliverance turned to G-d with any request whatsoever, therefore what is rendered as the first “answer” in the psalm would be better read as wishing for help and deliverance, as becomes evident again and again from the verses that follow.   One should pay attention especially to the central verse, which expresses the assurance of deliverance – “Now I know that the Lord will give victory to His anointed/ will answer him [help him] from His heavenly sanctuary/ with the mighty victories of His right arm” – in which, parallel to “answer/help,” the word “victory” appears twice and “mighty” once.  Even in the last verse, which does mention calling on G-d – “O Lord, grant victory!/   May the King answer [help] us when we call” – it is still markedly clear that the parallel to the call for “answering/helping” is deliverance by the hand of the Lord.   The last verse makes subtle use of two similar verb roots that meld together to form powerful meaning:   the Lord indeed answers those who call on Him, and the way he does so is by helping them in confronting their enemies.  Psalm 20 is illustrative of other places in Psalms and Prophets that mention G-d answering in the context of delivering from hardship, thus His answer becomes one of many meanings.

Also what Moses said when he descended Mount Sinai, after the sin of the golden calf, now becomes clear.  When Joshua heard loud sounds coming from the camp, he believed them to be the sounds of battle, but Moses answered him:   “It is not the sound of the tune [‘anot] of triumph, or the sound of the tune [‘anot] of defeat; it is the sound of song [‘annot] that I hear!” (Ex. 32:18).   The first possibility that Moses raised was that he heard the sound of heroes who could help to bring about victory; the second possibility was the shout of the oppressed, perhaps those who were defeated in battle; the third, the sound of singing, as in Isaiah 27:2:   “In that day they shall sing [Heb. ‘annu] of it:  ‘Vineyard of Delight.’” [8]

One of the exegetes who deserves special mention is Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri, who applied these insights into the meaning of ‘a-n-h  to other texts. In his introduction to Psalms he wrote as follows: [9]

It is said, “I have conferred power [Heb. ‘ezer] upon a warrior” (Ps. 89:20) – as in “And G-d answered [ya`anenu] him in thunder [or:   assisted him in his voice]” (Ex. 19:19), as in the expression, “And the earth shall respond [ta`aneh = shall help] with new grain and wine” (Hos. 2:24); or “money answers [ya`aneh = helps out] everything” (Eccles. 10:19).

We leave further insights related to this verb for the reader to discover.

[1] Many commentators hold that the sound of the horns did not disrupt the conversation which took place between Moses and G-d; however, there is no sense in mentioning the blaring sound of the horn if this depiction relates to the conversation which took place after verse 19.   Even if one says that Moses heard    G-d’s words as a tangible physical voice, the proximity of the two parties in the dialogue would make it possible to converse easily.

[2] The connection between the two verses is so close that scholars relying on the different names of G-d to analyze the narrative according to its sources have been perplexed:  verse 9 mentions the tetragrammaton, whereas verse 19 uses Elohim; nevertheless, clearly both verses belong to the same account.

[3] So, for example, Rabbi Joseph Bekhor-Shor, who interpreted verse 19 as follows:  As Moses spoke – as he was speaking, for example, saying, ‘the people cannot come up to Mount Sinai…’ (v. 23, below), G-d answered him aloud – to the point that the Israelites heard that the Holy One, blessed be He, was speaking with him, as it is written, ‘in order that the people may hear when I speak with you…’ (v. 9, above).” 

[4] Nahmanides, as well, followed his lead, although he understood the Mekhilta differently:  “Let me explain the received tradition of our Rabbis:  surely all the Decalogue was heard by all of Israel from the mouth of G-d, according to the plain sense of the text; but in the first two commandments they heard the speech and understood it as Moses did; therefore He spoke with them as a master speaks to his servant, as I have mentioned (Ex.19:19).  Henceforth, with the remaining commandments, they heard the sound of speech but did not comprehend it, and Moses had to relay to them each and every commandment, so that they understood it from Moses.”  Quotes from Rashi, Nahmanides, and Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor are from Mikraot Gedolot “Ha-Keter,” Bar Ilan University Press.

[5] Cf. R.T.O. Callaghan., “The Great Phoenician Portal Inscription from Karatepe,”  Orientalia 18 (1949), pp. 173-205.  

[6] The root in Arabic is ‘ – w – n, meaning ‘to help’.

[7] Cf. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 8.1:   “The Israelites did not believe in Moses because of the omens that he displayed, for one can find fault with a person who believes because of omens since they could be done by magic and witchcraft.”

[8] The third meaning follows the fourth definition under ‘a-n-h in BDB, and Cassuto’s interpretation of this verse in his Commentary on Exodus, Jerusalem 1959.

[9] See Psalms, vol. 1, Mikraot Gedolot ha-Keter, Bar Ilan University Press, Ramat-Gan, p. 40.