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
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Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Yitro 5762/ February 2, 2002
Revelation on Sinai -Aristocracy or
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
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
This verse presents a puzzling picture:
on one hand "
face to face the Lord spoke to
yet on the other, "
stood between the Lord and you ... to convey the
s words to you."
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
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
in the text
gave rise to two diametrically opposed approaches to the theophany at Mount
Sinai. One, the
notes that the Lord'
s words were intended for a
selected elite and not the entire people; the other, the more
approach, seeks to present the theophany at Mount Sinai as equal for
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
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
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
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
(Ex. 15:2), this is who raised me, this is my G-d
and I will enshrine Him"
). 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
1.16). The Mekhilta de
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'"
The picture painted by the Midrash of the theophany at Sinai
relates a pleasant experience, not a frightening
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
(Ex. 33:20). Further, in the description of the
theophany at Sinai we are told that the elders "
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
(Ex. 24:10-11). In contrast, it says further
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
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
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.
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.
"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
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
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
It is also said in the legends and the Talmud:
I the Lord,...'
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
e.g., the existence of G-d and His being
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]"
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
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
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
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
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
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
but not the substance of the Ten
We conclude our discussion with the following summary in the
form of a table:
What was heard
Nature of Experience
Heard entire Decalogue and saw G-d
Face to face
Only sound, without words and meaning
All ten commandments
Face to face
First two commandments
Face to face
All the commandments
Face to face
First pleasant, then terrifying
Only sound without meaning
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?
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.
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
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,
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
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, '
went down to the people,'
and immediately thereafter,
, p. 14.
The homily in Exodus
, 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
Uffenheimer hints that the
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
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.
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
s descent to Mount Sinai before the eyes of
all the people thus takes on a lower level of divine revelation, what the Rabbis
a mirror which does not give off its own
] (loc. sit.
Presumably it was this idea that troubled Maimonides and those who followed him,
as we shall show further on.
Malbim agrees with
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
(Malbim, Ex. 20:2; also see similar remarks
in Meshekh Hokhmah
, Ex. loc. sit.
The homily of R. Johanan
38.3 and Pesikta de-Rav Kahana
) 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.
Z. A. Neugerschal,
"Ma'amad Har Sinai
be-Mishnat Rambam ve-Rihal,"