Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Yitro 5762/ February 2, 2002

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.
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Parashat Yitro 5762/ February 2, 2002

Revelation on Sinai -Aristocracy or Democracy?
Dr. Raphael Yarhi

Did the nation at Sinai hear the voice of the Lord addressing them directly? The texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy which describe the theophany of Matan Torah do not give a clear and unequivocal picture. The relevant verses in Parashat Yitro (Ex. 19:3-9) read as follows:

(3)...and Moses went up to G-d. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus shall you say... (6)...these are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel." (7) Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. (8) All the people answered as one, saying, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do!" And Moses brought back the people's words to the Lord. (9) 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." Then Moses reported the people's words to the Lord.

Further on, Scripture describes how the Commandments were given (Ex. 20:15-18):

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. "You speak to us," they said to Moses, "and we will obey; but let not G-d speak to us, lest we die." Moses answered the people, "Be not afraid; for G-d has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray." (18) So the people remained at a distance...

Looking carefully at the above citations, it is clear that the people did not hear the word of the Lord directly, but rather through Moses' mediation: "These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel (19:6)". In carrying out this command, Moses presented the words to the elders of Israel, through whom perhaps the words were delivered to the people. The people's answer, "We will do and obey," was in response to the words brought to them by Moses. According to verse 9, the people heard the Lord speaking with Moses, but did not hear the Lord speaking directly to them, for the verse concludes with Moses reporting the people's response to the Lord.
In Deuteronomy, as well, in Moses' reconstruction of what occurred at Mount Sinai, he confirms that the people requested him to serve as intermediary between the Lord and them: "You go closer and hear all that the Lord our G-d says, and then you tell us everything that the Lord our G-d tells you, and we will willingly do it" (Deut. 5:24). The obvious conclusion from all these passages is that the people did not hear G-d speaking to them directly.

Nevertheless, things are not so clear. In Deuteronomy (5:4-5) Moses attests, "Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire-I stood between the Lord and you at that time to convey the Lord's words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain." This verse presents a puzzling picture: on one hand "face to face the Lord spoke to you," yet on the other, "I stood between the Lord and you ... to convey the Lord's words to you." It could be said that the verse does not depict two contradictory situations, but rather a successive development of events. First the Lord spoke to the people; but this terrified them, so they asked Moses to shield them from having to continue hearing the Lord face to face. This scenario emerges from Moses' account in Deuteronomy, in the fortieth year, but it does not follow from the description of events at Mount Sinai in the first year after the exodus, when the theophany actually took place.[1]

These tensions[2] in the text gave rise to two diametrically opposed approaches to the theophany at Mount Sinai. One, the "aristocratic" approach, notes that the Lord's words were intended for a selected elite and not the entire people; the other, the more "democratic" and popular approach, seeks to present the theophany at Mount Sinai as equal for all.[3]

There is also an intermediate approach, describing a two-stage process, "popular" out the outset but "aristocratic" in the end. This is the standard approach found in tractate Makkot (24a): "The words 'I the Lord, ...' and 'You shall have no other...' were heard from the Almighty." This means that the first two utterances were heard by all, but not the remainder.

Midrash, however, has a strong tendency towards the "popular" extreme. Exodus Rabbah (ch. 41.3) says:

When the Israelites stood on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they wished to hear the commandments directly from the Lord. Rabbi Pinehas ha-Cohen ben Hama said, "The Israelites requested two things of the Lord: to see His likeness and to hear the Decalogue from His mouth, as it is written, 'Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth' (Song 1:2)."

Similarly, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate ba-Hodesh, ch. 2) has the children of Israel saying, "We would like to hear directly from our king, for there is no comparison between hearing from behind a screen and hearing directly from a king." Such an expression of the will to see and hear the Lord attests to an agreeable atmosphere and experience, not consonant with the verses of Scripture describing an atmosphere of frightful terror that seized the people, on account of which they said to Moses, "You speak to us and we will obey; but let not G-d speak to us, lest we die" (Ex. 20:16).

The popular approach presented in the Midrash draws not only on the possibility of hearing the Lord directly, but also on the possibility of "seeing" Him. The notion of being able to see the Lord in these two sources aligns with the idea of a "popular" revelation, as the following discussion will show. According to Exodus Rabbah (1.12) and Sotah 11b, during the bondage even infants saw the Holy One, blessed be He, when they were living out in the fields without their mothers and the Holy One, blessed be He, fed them, as it is said, "He fed them honey from the crag" (Deut. 32:13). The homily continues, "How did they recognize their fathers so they could go to them? The Holy One, blessed be He, came and showed each one to his father's house" (Exodus Rabbah 23.8).

"When they came to the Red Sea and saw Him, they showed their mothers, pointing to Him and saying, 'This is my G-d and I will enshrine Him' (Ex. 15:2), this is who raised me, this is my G-d and I will enshrine Him" (ibid.). Not only infants had seen the Lord, for the homily tells us that "when the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed to them at the sea, the righteous women recognized Him first" (Exodus Rabbah 1.16). The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael says that even maidservants saw the Holy One, blessed be He, at the sea. "When they saw Him, they recognized Him and opened their mouths and said, 'This is my Lord and I will enshrine Him'" (Tractate de-Shira, ch. 3).[4]

The picture painted by the Midrash of the theophany at Sinai relates a pleasant experience, not a frightening one.[5] This stands in contrast to the portrayal of this event in the biblical verses and contradicts the statement, "for man may not see Me and live"(Ex. 33:20). Further, in the description of the theophany at Sinai we are told that the elders "saw the G-d of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity," and the Lord did not punish them: "Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld G-d, and they ate and drank" (Ex. 24:10-11). In contrast, it says further on, "But you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live... You will see My back; but My face must not be seen" (Ex. 33:20-23).

Like the Midrashim, Rabbi Judah Halevy takes a stand that is popular and experiential, but unlike the Midrash, he does not speak of infants and maidservants, rather he elevates the entire people to the level of prophets:
They sanctified themselves and brought themselves to a level where they would be found worthy of prophecy and even greater things - they heard as the Lord spoke to all of them face to face... The people heard the word of G-d explicitly in the Decalogue. (Kuzari, 1.7).[6]

Further on Judah Halevy says, "Indeed, the people were not empowered as Moses to see that great vision face to face, but from that day the people believed that Moses had received the word of G-d" (ibid.) According to Judah Halevy the people heard all Ten Commandments, and not just the first two, face to face, but in the process what began as a pleasant experience changed to a sense of awesome fright.

The "aristocratic" approach is represented by Maimonides. He distinguishes between hearing a voice and receiving the word of G-d. Hearing a voice is hearing sounds without distinguishing meaningful words and syllables. It was such a voice that the people heard, whereas Moses heard words with meaning, and it was these words that he passed on to the people. We quote Maimonides (Guide 2.33):

It seems to me that in the theophany at Mount Sinai what Moses heard was not entirely the same as what the Israelites heard. Rather, the word came to Moses alone; therefore all of the Ten Commandments are addressed in the singular, to a single individual, and he (Moses) came down the mountain to relay to human beings what he had heard. The Torah says, "I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to bring you the word of the Lord." When the Torah says, "in order that the people may hear when I speak to you" (Ex. 19.9), it is to indicate that the words were for him, whereas they [the people] heard the mighty voice without distinguishing words (i.e., sounds without syllables or words). Regarding their hearing this mighty voice it says, "when you heard the voice," ... and it does not say you heard words (speech)... So I conclude from the words of the Torah and most opinions of the Sages.

Maimonides apparently rules out the Midrashic idea of successive stages, according to which the people heard the first and second commandments from the Almighty and the remaining commandments from Moses. Maimonides says that the people did not even hear these two commandments from the Almighty in the same way that Moses heard them; rather they were understood by the intellect, because they were things that are grasped by the mind:

It is also said in the legends and the Talmud: "'I the Lord,...' and 'You shall have no other...' were heard from the Almighty," meaning that [these two commandments] came to them as they came to Moses, and that it was not Moses who conveyed these commandments to them. The significance is that these two foundations - e.g., the existence of G-d and His being One - are not conceived through prophecy but rather through human inquiry (proof by the intellect), ... as the Torah says, "You have been shown to know [that the Lord alone is G-d; there is none beside Him]" (Deut. 4:35).[7]

Further on, with respect to the voice or sound the people heard and what they responded, Maimonides says:

From Scripture and the words of the rabbis it follows that Israel heard but a single voice (a sound without words); but that voice was heard meaningfully by Moses (Moses heard the words: "I the Lord am your G-d), and all of Israel (heard it) from him, ... and after hearing that first voice came what is mentioned about their fright, "Let us not die, then, ... You go closer and hear..." Then he, who was more exalted than any person born, went closer again and received the remaining commandments, one by one, and came back down the mountain and delivered them to the people at that very time.[8]

Maimonides' remarks thus far are consistent and definitive: the people heard only a voice but no words. However in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah (8.1-2) he says something else:

In what way did they believe in Moses at Mount Sinai? Insofar as [they said] we saw with our own eyes and not another's, and we heard the fire and thunder and flames with our own ears and none other's, and he approached the thick cloud, the voice speaking to him and we hearing: "Moses, Moses, go tell them such and such," and thus the verse says, "face to face the Lord spoke to you".

In other words, Maimonides is saying that they heard words saying such and such, a view that contradicts his interpretation in Guide for the Perplexed. In an attempt to understand this contradiction, Rabbi Neugerschal[9] suggests that perhaps the Maimonides text has not come down to us accurately. He cites the same remarks of Maimonides, as they are quoted in Sefer ha-Ikkarim of Rabbi Joseph Albo (1.8):

Regarding what Maimonides wrote in Sefer ha-Mada': "In what way did they believe in Moses at Mount Sinai, insofar as none other than we saw with our own eyes and none other than we heard with our own ears ... the voice speaking to him and we hearing: Moses, Moses, "Go say to them, 'Return to your tents.' But you remain here with Me" (Deut. 5:27-28).

In other words, what the people heard was the words, "Return to your tents," but not the substance of the Ten Commandments.[10]

We conclude our discussion with the following summary in the form of a table:

What was heard
How heard
Nature of Experience
Heard entire Decalogue and saw G-d
Face to face
Only sound, without words and meaning
Through Moses
Awesome fright
Judah Halevy
All ten commandments
Face to face

First two commandments

Remaining commandments
Face to face

Through Moses
Increasing terror
Judah Halevi
All the commandments
Face to face
First pleasant, then terrifying
Only sound without meaning
Through Moses
Increasing terror

[1] Some commentators view what Moses said in Deuteronomy as his own words, not dictated to him by G-d. For example, see Or Ha-Hayyim (Deut. 1). The question arises which account, that in Exodus or what Moses relates in Deuteronomy, more accurately reflects what actually happened at Sinai?
[2] Here we cite some of the verses illustrating the contradictions in the narrative. For a more extensive discussion of other problematic verses concerning Mount Sinai, see A. Tweig, Matan Torah be-Sinai, Jerusalem 1977, pp. 16-17; 51-53.
[3] In this regard Tweig maintains that in the context of the Theophany at Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments purport in content, style, and scope to be the acme of divine revelation. However its presentation in the course of the narrative is unceremonial and unexpected. At the end of chapter 19, the Lord says to Moses (v. 24), "Go down, and come back together with Aaron; but let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them," and verse 25 continues, "And Moses went down to the people and said to them." The continuation is interrupted; we are not told what Moses said to the people, nor are we told that Moses ascended with Aaron and the elders of Israel; then suddenly we have the following description (Ex. 20:1): "G-d spoke all these words, saying," as if behind the back of Moses. While Moses was still speaking to the people and before he had had time to ascend with Aaron and the elders, the Lord "short-stopped" him and proclaimed the Ten Commandments forthwith; and the verse does not make clear whom the Lord was addressing. Exodus Rabbah (Jethro 28.3) comments on this, comparing the situation to one in which a king circumvents his minister. Applying this parable to our story, the Midrash says: "Before Moses had managed to come down, the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed, as it is said, 'And Moses went down to the people,' and immediately thereafter, 'G-d spoke." See Tweig, loc. sit., p. 14.
[4] The homily in Exodus Rabbah, ch. 5, describes a situation in which each person heard according to his or her ability-young men, elderly, pregnant women, infants, and sick-all according to their ability.
[5] Uffenheimer hints that the Midrash's popular approach to the theophany at Mount Sinai is part of a polemic against the Christians, whose bias was to deny the validity of revelation at Sinai. Cf. B. Uffenheimer, "Ma'amad Har Sinai u-Vehirat Am Yisrael be-Polmus Hazal," Molad 8 (39-40), 1980. Also see the legend referenced in the previous note, namely that the divine voice had the power to kill idolators but to give life to Israelites.
[6] Tweig maintains that the emphasis on revelation to the masses serves the more populist idea of the public participating in the revelation (loc. sit., 56). He adds further that the Lord's descent to Mount Sinai before the eyes of all the people thus takes on a lower level of divine revelation, what the Rabbis termed " a mirror which does not give off its own light" [aspaklaria she'ena meira] (loc. sit., 54). Presumably it was this idea that troubled Maimonides and those who followed him, as we shall show further on.
[7] Malbim agrees with Maimonides' exegetical approach, also maintaining that the first two commandments were not heard directly by the Israelites. He explains the phrase, "they heard the two commandments from the mouth of the Almighty (mi-pi ha-gevurah)" as "from the 'might' of intellectual analysis" (Malbim, Ex. 20:2; also see similar remarks in Meshekh Hokhmah, Ex. loc. sit.).
[8] The homily of R. Johanan (Gen. Rabbah 38.3 and Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parshat Be-Shalah) takes a similar approach, portraying the situation as one in which an angel took the words from the Holy One, blessed be He, and brought them to each and every one of the Israelites.
[9] Z. A. Neugerschal, "Ma'amad Har Sinai be-Mishnat Rambam ve-Rihal," Shma'atin 106, 1992.
[10] Ibid., p. 70.