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Kenneth Seeskin





What Did the People Hear at Mount Sinai?





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Kenneth Seeskin





What Did the People Hear at Mount Sinai?








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What Did the People Hear at Mount Sinai?

The answer, or lack thereof, teaches us something important about the meaning and limits of divine revelation.


What Did the People Hear at Mount Sinai?

Moses Displays the Tablets of the Law, Cesare Fantetti, after Rafaël, 1675 (colorized). Rijksmuseum

What exactly did the Israelites hear during YHWH’s revelation at Mount Sinai/Horeb? Tradition offers several answers to this question. Some suggest they heard the entire Decalogue, others that they heard virtually nothing, others still that they heard only the first two commandments. How do we account for this array of positions? As biblical texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy seem to be in conflict with each other in this point, the answer lies in how each commentator solves these tensions.

They Heard the Decalogue

The presentation of the Decalogue in Exodus begins:

שמות כ:א וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר.
Exod 20:1 God spoke all these words, saying…

This seems to imply that God spoke the entire Decalogue to all the people. The same impression is created in Deuteronomy, when Moses warns the Israelites not to forget the rules they learned from God’s revelation at Mount Horeb, and says:

דברים ד:יב וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֲלֵיכֶם מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל. ד:יג וַיַּגֵּד לָכֶם אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים...
Deut 4:12 YHWH spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice. 4:13 He declared to you the covenant He commanded you to observe, the Decalogue

This text explicitly states that the people heard YHWH’s voice reciting the entire Decalogue. R. Judah HaLevi (ca. 1075–1141), in his philosophical work, the Kuzari (1.87, Hirschfeld trans. adjusted), explains that giving the Decalogue in a mass revelation was necessary to convince the people of the truth of Moses’ prophecy:

Although the people believed in the message of Moses, they retained, even after the performance of the miracles, some doubt as to whether God really spoke to mortals, and whether the Law was not of human origin, and only later on supported by divine inspiration. They could not associate speech with a divine being, since it is something tangible. God, however, desired to remove this doubt, and commanded them to prepare themselves morally, as well as physically… to be ready to hear the words of God. The people prepared and became fitted to receive the divine inspiration, and even to hear publicly the words of God. This came to pass three days later, being introduced by overwhelming phenomena, lightning, thunder, earthquake and fire, which surrounded Mount Sinai… they distinctly heard the Ten Commandments, which represent the very essence of the Law…. The people did not receive these ten commandments from single individuals, nor from a prophet, but from God…

The Israelites Don’t Want to Hear More

That the Israelites heard the Decalogue directly from God is also made clear in the unit immediately following in Deuteronomy, which describes how the Israelites tell Moses that they don’t wish to hear from God anymore (see bold):

דברים ה:יט אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל כָּל קְהַלְכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ הֶעָנָן וְהָעֲרָפֶל קוֹל גָּדוֹל וְלֹא יָסָף וַיִּכְתְּבֵם עַל שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים וַיִּתְּנֵם אֵלָי. ה:כ וַיְהִי כְּשָׁמְעֲכֶם אֶת הַקּוֹל מִתּוֹךְ הַחֹשֶׁךְ וְהָהָר בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי כָּל רָאשֵׁי שִׁבְטֵיכֶם וְזִקְנֵיכֶם. ה:כא וַתֹּאמְרוּ הֵן הֶרְאָנוּ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶת כְּבֹדוֹ וְאֶת גָּדְלוֹ וְאֶת קֹלוֹ שָׁמַעְנוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה רָאִינוּ כִּי יְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם וָחָי. ה:כב וְעַתָּה לָמָּה נָמוּת כִּי תֹאכְלֵנוּ הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת אִם יֹסְפִים אֲנַחְנוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת קוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ עוֹד וָמָתְנוּ. ה:כג כִּי מִי כָל בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע קוֹל אֱלֹהִים חַיִּים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ כָּמֹנוּ וַיֶּחִי.
Deut 5:19 YHWH spoke those words to your whole congregation at the mountain, out of the fire and the dense clouds, with a mighty voice—and no more. He inscribed them on two tablets of stone, which He gave to me. 5:20 When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, you came up to me, all your tribal heads and elders, 5:21 and said, “YHWH our God has just shown us His majestic Presence, and we have heard His voice out of the fire; we have seen this day that man may live though God has spoken to him. 5:22 Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us; if we continue to hear the voice of YHWH our God any longer, we shall die. 5:23 For what mortal ever heard the voice of the living God speak out of the fire, as we did, and lived?”

The third century C.E. midrash, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Bachodesh 9) explains:

מַגִּיד שֶׁלֹּא הָיָה בָהֶם כֹּחַ לְקַבֵּל יוֹתֵר מֵעֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת,
This means they did not have the strength to receive [directly from God] more than the Decalogue.

According to these sources, the Israelites heard the entire Decalogue and then told Moses they were too afraid to hear more, and wanted him to be the go-between God and them from then on. But another version of this story appears in Exodus, and there, the Israelites say something rather different.

The Israelites Don’t Want to Hear God’s Voice at All

Immediately following the presentation of the Decalogue in Exodus, the text continues:

שמות כ:יד וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק. כ:טו וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה וְאַל יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹהִים פֶּן נָמוּת.
Exod 20:14 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. 20:15 “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.

Here we learn that the people saw/heard thunder, lightning, and the blare of a horn, but were too afraid to hear God’s voice, believing that such an experience would kill them. Consequently, Moses agrees to go up to the mountain himself and hear what God has to say (vv. 16–18).

This suggests that they did not hear God speak at all,[1] which appears to contradict the verse which introduces the Decalogue. In light of this, Benjamin Sommer, Professor of Bible at JTS, points out that when read together with the previous verse, the introductory verse could yield a different meaning:

שמות יט:כה וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם. כ:א וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר.
Exod 19:25 Moses went down to the people and said to them. 20:1 “God spoke all these words, saying...”

In Sommer’s reading, the introduction to the Decalogue is reported speech, i.e., Moses is telling the Israelites what God said.[2]

The Israelites Heard Virtually Nothing

This alternative understanding of the text may undergird the Chasidic idea first suggested by R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov (1745–1815), that the Israelites heard only the unvocalized gluttal stop, aleph, which is the first letter in the Decalogue. The idea is found in the work of his student R. Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropshitz (1760–1827) called Zera Kodesh (2.40), which the latter presents as a mystical interpretation of a verse in Psalms:

תהלים סב:יב אַחַת דִּבֶּר אֱלֹהִים שְׁתַּיִם זוּ שָׁמָעְתִּי כִּי עֹז לֵאלֹהִים.
Ps 62:12 One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard: that might belongs to God.

Focusing on the word אחת, “one,” R. Horowitz writes that it means one letter only:

ששמעתי מן פי אדמו”ר מרימנאב מהר”מ ז”ל על פסוק אחת דיבר אלקים וכו’ שאפשר שלא שמענו מפי הקב”ה רק אות א’ דאנכי
I heard from the mouth of the Master from Rimanov, our teacher Rabbi Mendel, regarding the verse (Ps 62:12) “one thing God has spoken, etc.” that it is possible that we heard from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, only the letter aleph from the word anochi [“I,” the opening word of the Decalogue].[3]

This interpretation works for Exodus but contradicts Deuteronomy.

A Passage that Contradicts Itself

Not only do the accounts in Exodus and Deuteronomy seem to be in tension about whether the Israelites heard God’s voice or not, but at least one passage in Deuteronomy appears to say both things at once:

דברים ה:ד פָּנִים בְּפָנִים דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ. ה:ה אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין יְ־הוָה וּבֵינֵיכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִוא לְהַגִּיד לָכֶם אֶת דְּבַר יְ־הוָה כִּי יְרֵאתֶם מִפְּנֵי הָאֵשׁ וְלֹא עֲלִיתֶם בָּהָר לֵאמֹר.  
Deut 5:4 Face to face YHWH spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire—I stood between the YHWH and you at the time to convey the YHWH’s words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain—saying...

The description here seems self-contradictory. Face-to-face speech means direct communication, yet Moses states that he stood between them, implying that they heard from him and not from YHWH.[4] It is no wonder that traditional commentators seem confused.[5]

They Heard the First Two Commandments

The Babylonian Talmud takes a third, non-binary approach to the problem: they heard only some of the commandments. This suggestion is based on a close reading of the Decalogue itself, especially in how YHWH refers to himself. In the first two commandments,[6] YHWH refers to himself in the first person:

שמות כ:ב אָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי...
Exod 20:2 I YHWH am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides Me…

But then, beginning in the third commandment, references to YHWH are in the third person:

שמות כ:ז לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה יְ־הוָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא אֶת שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא.
Exod 20:7 You shall not swear falsely by the name of YHWH your God; for YHWH will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.

The rabbis connect this switch with the contradiction in the Torah about whether the Israelites heard God speak the commandments out loud or not, and suggest that the Israelites heard the first two commandments directly from God—and thus God speaks in the first person here—while the rest are from Moses, who speaks of God in the third person.[7] Centuries later, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides reimagined this midrash as a philosophical statement about the nature of revelation.[8]

A Philosophical Spin

In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explains the Talmud’s division between the first two commandments and the rest as not just grammatical but substantive (2.33). The first two commandments—belief in the existence and unity of God—state metaphysical truths which can be known by logical demonstration:

They mean that these words reached them just as they reached Moses our Master and that it was not Moses our Master who communicated them to them. For these two principles, I mean the existence of the deity and His being one, are knowable by human speculation alone. Now with regard to everything that can be known by demonstration, the status of the prophet and that of everyone else who knows it are equal; there is no superiority of one over the other. Thus these two principles are not known through prophecy alone (Guide 2.33, Pines trans).[9]

The remaining commandments, however, are different:

As for the other commandments, they belong to the class of generally accepted opinions and those adopted in virtue of tradition, not to the class of the intellects.[10]

These other commandments, Maimonides claims, were only heard by Moses who in turn transmitted them to Israel.

Does God Use Words?

Even regarding the commandments that God tells Moses, Maimonides explains earlier in the Guide that “saying” and “speaking” are only figurative terms when applied to God:

Now in all cases in which the words saying and speaking are applied to God, they are used in one of the two latter meanings. I mean to say that they are used to denote either will and volition or a notion that has been grasped by the understanding having come from God, in which case it is indifferent whether it has become known by means of a created voice or through one of the ways of prophecy, which we shall make clear. The terms in question never signify that He, may He be exalted, spoke using the sounds of letters and a voice… (Guide, 1.65)

As an incorporeal being, God does not have vocal cords and therefore does not make sounds. So when the Torah asserts “God said X,” we should understand it to mean “God willed X.” If this is true, then what Moses received from God was an emanation, which is to say a non-physical form of causation, not a voice.[11]

Maimonides has little to say about emanation other than that it consists of a spiritual or intellectual relationship between God and a prophet. Along these lines, he argues that Moses’ prophecy was unique because it was purely intellectual and did not involve the imagination or, we may assume, the senses.[12] While Moses may have been able to connect to God’s abstract message directly when he was engaged in prophecy,[13] in order to communicate it to the people at large in concrete form he must have had recourse to figurative language and the imagination.[14] In that sense, unlike Moses, the Israelites were never able to receive God’s revelation in its pure form.

Interpretation Is Inevitable

Maimonides’ philosophical reading of the midrash presents us with a truism central to Torah study: no single proposition can be completely explicit about its meaning or interpretation—no matter what its source. When Moses communicates the revelation to the Israelites, he must filter it through his own mind, introducing an inevitable subjective element. In fact, while Maimonides claims that the Israelites were able to directly perceive the meaning of the first two commandments, Maimonides himself must try to communicate their meaning to his readers in the Guide by an argument containing no less than 26 assumptions, most of which derive from Aristotle as well as a dozen pages of explanatory material.[15]

In this sense, the Sinai revelation to Israel through Moses is analogous to the transmission of the oral law. An axiom of Rabbinic Judaism, also accepted by Maimonides, is that the written Torah was transmitted to Moses together with an official interpretation, and yet anyone who reads Mishnah, Talmud, or midrash halakha will see it is full of debates about the meaning of verses or the proper construal of laws.

Revelation, Human and Divine

In short, Jewish tradition offers ample evidence that commentary also needs to be clarified, which creates the need for still more commentary. Rather than say that all commentary was given at Sinai, it would be better to say that there is no principled way to separate content which is divine from content which is human in the sense that people must provide the explanatory material. If so, then revelation makes no sense as either an exclusively human or exclusively divine activity.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the impossibility of making coherent sense of the account of revelation itself, to the point that traditional commentaries cannot decide whether Israel heard the whole Decalogue, the first two commandments, or nothing more than an incoherent voice, or the aleph glottal stop.


February 4, 2021


Last Updated

June 16, 2024


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Prof. Kenneth Seeskin is Professor of Philosophy and Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. He received his Ph.D in Philosophy from Yale University in 1972 and has been at Northwestern ever since. He specializes in the rationalist tradition in Jewish philosophy with an emphasis on Maimonides. Publications include Maimonides on the Origin of the World (CUP, 2005), Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair (CUP, 2012), and Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (JPS, 2016).