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Rambam’s Baffling Position Concerning What We Heard at Sinai

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May 11, 2013
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Shavuot celebrates matan Torah. Accordingly, it behooves us to attempt to decipher what exactly we heard at that momentous occasion. Before proceeding, however, let us remember Rambam’s warning:


Moreh Nevuchim 2:33: “Know this and remember it, that it is impossible for any person to expound the revelation on Mount Sinai more fully than our Sages have done, since it is one of the secrets of the Torah. It is very difficult to have a true conception of the revelation and what occurred in it, for there has never been before, nor will there ever be again, anything like it. Know this.”


Rambam informs us that the journey upon which weare about to embark is perilous; we must tread carefully. Indeed, Rambam writes in The Guide (1:5) that the verse concerning Matan Torah (Shemot 19:24) that states, “V’hakohanim v’ha’am al yehersu la’alot el Hashem” serves as a general warning against attempting to understand concepts that are beyond us. Moshe merited his magnificent understanding because he initially showed trepidation about investigating that which was beyond him, as the verse states (Shemot 3:6): “Vaysteir Moshe panav ki yarei mei’habit el ha’Elokim.”


With this qualification in mind, let us consider a startling interpretation of the Rambam. The Gemara (Makkot 24a) states that the first two of the Ten Commandments were heard directly by the Jewish people, as opposed to the subsequent commandments, which Hashem told Moshe and Moshe in turn related to the Jewish people. Rambam, however, understands that this cannot be taken literally, as it is inconceivable that the Jewish people could hear the direct word of Hashem, since they were not on the level of prophets.1 Rather, this means that the truth of the first two commandments, namely, the existence of Hashem and His unity, can be derived independently using logic. Since there is no need for prophesy to arrive at these principles, our knowledge of them is direct, and in that sense identical to that of Moshe’s. This is in contrast to the rest of the Torah, which we know only through Moshe. What then did the Jewish people hear at Sinai? An undifferentiated “kol,” or sound. Moshe the prophet deciphered this kol and transmitted it to the Jewish people. Rambam writes:


Moreh Nevuchim 2:33: “It is clear to me that what Moshe experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites, for Moshe alone was addressed by God, and for this reason the second person singular is used in the Ten Commandments; Moshe then went down to the foot of the mount and told his fellowmen what he had heard. Comp., “I stood between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord “(Dent. v. 5). Again, Moshe spoke, and God answered him with a loud voice “(Exod. xix. 19). In the Mechilta our Sages say distinctly that he brought to them every word as he had heard it. Furthermore, the words, “In order that the people hear when I speak with thee “(Exod. xix. 9), show that God spoke to Moshe, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words. It is to the perception of this mighty sound that Scripture refers in the passage, “When ye hear the sound “(Dent. v. 20); again it is stated, “You heard a sound of words “(ibid. iv. 12), and it is not said “You heard words”; and even where the hearing of the words is mentioned, only the perception of the sound is meant. It was only Moshe that heard the words, and he reported them to the people. This is apparent from Scripture, and from the utterances of our Sages in general.


There is, however, an opinion of our Sages frequently expressed in the Midrashim, and found also in the Talmud, to this effect: The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moshe, and not through Moshe. For these two principles, the existence of God and His Unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone. Comp., “Thou hast been shown to know that,” etc. (Deut. iv. 34). But the rest of the commandments are of an ethical and authoritative character, and do not contain [truths] perceived by the intellect.”


This revolutionary explanation seems to contradict a fundamental principle of faith that Rambam explicates elsewhere. Rambam writes that that the basis of our faith in Moshe and his Torah is not the miracles that the Jews witnessed in the desert, since miracles may leave a person with a twinge of doubt (as they may be magic). Rather, the experience at Sinai, where we heard Hashem directly communicate to man, forms the basis of our faith in Torah, since the experience of prophesy is unmistakable.


He writes:


Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 8: “1) The Children of Israel did not believe in Moshe [solely] because of the signs he presented, for someone who believes [in a prophet solely] because of the signs he presents is tainted, for it could be that his signs are performed by means of spells and witchcraft. All the signs that Moshe performed in the wilderness were done so according to the needs of the moment, and not to bring proof to his prophecies. There was a need to sink the Egyptians, so Moshe split the sea and drowned them in it; the Children of Israel needed food, so Moshe brought down the manna for them; they needed water, so Moshe split the rock for them; Korach and his followers rebelled, so Moshe opened up the ground and they were swallowed up. The same principle applies with all the other signs. It was the assembly at Mount Sinai that made them believe in Moshe, when our eyes, and no-one else’s, saw, and our ears, and no-one else’s, heard, and Moshe drew near to the darkness, and the voice spoke to him, and we heard it saying to Moshe, “Moshe, Moshe, go tell them such-and-such.” In connection with this it is written, “The Lord talked with you face to face,” and it is also written, “The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us.” From where is it known that the assembly at Mount Sinai was the proof that the prophecy of Moshe was true and that he was not speaking basely? It is derived from the verse, “Lo, I come to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever.” From this we see that prior to the assembly at Mount Sinai their belief in Moshe was not one that would have lasted for ever, but it was a belief that left room for discussion and thought.”


Here, Rambam writes that the entire Jewish people heard Hashem’s voice, in contrast with his comments in The Guide where Rambam states that we only heard the undifferentiated “kol.”


The answer to this riddle lies in recognizing what the Rambam in Mishneh Torah says we heard. He writes that the Jewish people heard, “Moshe, Moshe, go tell them such-and-such.” Rambam does not say that we heard, “I am the Lord your God…” In that sense, he is totally consistent with his comments in The Guide. In fact, the words “Moshe, Moshe, go tell them such-and-such” do not appear in any verse in the Torah. How does Rambam know that the Jews heard these words? Perhaps Rambam means to say that when they heard the “kol,” they perceived, “Moshe, Moshe, go tell them such-and-such.” While they could not understand the specific words that made up the “kol,” they understood that these were words directed towards Moshe with the intention that he relate them to the rest of the people. This experience was unmistakable; unlike miracles, which may be attributed to magic, the Jews heard the voice of Hashem and understood the unambiguous message: “Moshe, Moshe, go tell them such-and-such.”


Conceivably, we can go even further and suggest that the Jews heard the actual words “Moshe, Moshe, go tell them such-and-such” from Hashem. This does not contradict Rambam’s axiom that unworthy people cannot receive prophesy, because prophesy is defined by the transmission of content and not instructions. Support for this possibility can be gleaned from the introduction to The Guide.


Let us conclude by once again remembering Rambam’s warning: “It is impossible for any person to expound the revelation on Mount Sinai… since it is one of the secrets of the Law.” Nevertheless, to the extent that we can, we must attempt to understand it, for it is the basis of our faith.


1 Discussion of the meaning of man being created in the “image of G-d” is beyond the scope of this brief article. See Sefer Hachinuch 39 and Shach Y.D. 141:21 in this context.

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