Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Revelation at Sinai - White Sapphire.

This week's Parsha continues with the decription of Ma'amad Har Sinai after listing the first set of laws dealing mostly with societal issues. To allow for proper metaphysical speculation one needs a peaceful and well-ordered society. Only then, after having written down these laws, Moshe returns to the mountain. When describing that event we find two cryptic verses (24:9-10) that say a lot in few words and help us understand more about prophecy and what occurred at Sinai. So important are these psukim that it is one of the rare ones where Rambam comments on almost every word. Verse 9 reads”Vaya'al Moshe veaharon nodov veavihu veshivi'im miziknei Yisroel” which refers back to the first verse in this chapter (24:1). Rambam Moreh 2:32 explains that Vaya'al does not mean going up physically but is a metaphor for elevating oneself by metaphysical speculation about God. Thus Moshe, Aharon et al. each had a different understanding of God, each according to his level. This is based on a Chazal in Mechilta Shemos 19:24. So here we have the top elite of Klal Yisroel meditating and they all arrive at an apprehension of God – mind you each to his level . Now let us translate the words with Rambam exegesis:
Vayru’u es Elokei Yisroel – and they saw the God of Israel – in Moreh 1:4 “ every mention of seeing when referring to God has this figurative meaning – he brings proof texts including our words – all this refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eyes seeing, as the eyes can only apprehend a body…”. (Pines translation with minor modifications).
Vetachas Raglov – and under his feet – the word Regel in the context of this verse has the distinction of a whole chapter 1:28 in Moreh dedicated to it. After discussing Onkelos translation and explaining that he focuses only on making sure that we don’t anthropomorphize leaving the explanation to us, Rambam explains that it means :He being the cause and because of Him.
So far we have, putting it into our own words: They apprehended in their meditation the God of Israel as the Cause of -
Kemaaseh Livnas Hasapir - As it were a work of the whiteness of sapphire stone – In Aristotelian thought everything consists of matter and form. Matter changes consistency depending on the form that attaches itself to it. Translating this into contemporary terms this would be the basic elements that compose matter. They were contemplating the transition from transcendence to physicality, that moment in time where HKBH created the world out of nothing. That first element is so ethereal that it is like a transparent colorless sapphire – the whiteness of the sapphire. This concept makes it easier for us humans to visualize that transition.
Uke’etzem hashomayim lotohar – and like the essence of the heavens in purity - Rambam lets us figure this out for ourselves and in context it is a clarification so that we understand that the perception was of something totally invisible that is only perceptible by deduction.

Here we get a glimpse of what was happening at Sinai. It was a day where the Jewish people were all together, shown by example by their leaders, how to meditate and speculate about the universe , its Creation and consequently its Creator, keeping in mind his transcendence as opposed to the physicality of His creations. This meditation took them to a level of understanding that made them believe in Moshe’s prophecy, and Moshe, having advanced so much further then they on the same path, reached a level of prophecy that was termed Peh el Peh and Ponim el Ponim. That level of apprehension allowed Moshe to give us the Torah.

In our next post we will address the next verse and its ramifications.


  1. They were criticized in the Moreh for having a physical understanding of G-d. Also, you should read Russell regarding the logical fallacies of Aristotilian philosophy.

  2. JF

    That is next post on the next verse.

    Thanks for the pointer re Russel. I don't question that Aristoteleian philosophy is passe but I do believe that the same method used to understand Torah in light of that system applies to our current way of understanding. That is the purpose of my posts.

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