Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Did it rain during Matan Torah?

As we are nearing Zman Matan Toraseinu it is time to turn our attention to Ma’amad Har Sinai, so I will try to post a little on that topic.

The Torah describes the event with a lot of emphasis on fire, clouds, smoke, mist and darkness – Esh, Anan, Ashan, Choshech and Arafel. The visual image is of a mountain surrounded by dark swirling clouds with thunder and lightning coming out of them. The imagery is fascinating and I can see a great De Mille epic, but this will not impress a thinking person.

Rambam in Moreh 2:30, as he usually does, in an offhand remark in a chapter dealing with creation, points out an incongruity. Devarim 5:19 reads:

יט וַיְהִי, כְּשָׁמְעֲכֶם אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִתּוֹךְ הַחֹשֶׁךְ, וְהָהָר, בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ; וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי, כָּל-רָאשֵׁי שִׁבְטֵיכֶם וְזִקְנֵיכֶם.

19 And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain did burn with fire, that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders;

While Devarim 4:36 reads:

לו מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמִיעֲךָ אֶת-קֹלוֹ, לְיַסְּרֶךָּ; וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ, הֶרְאֲךָ אֶת-אִשּׁוֹ הַגְּדוֹלָה, וּדְבָרָיו שָׁמַעְתָּ, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.

36 Out of heaven He made thee to hear His voice, that He might instruct thee; and upon earth He made thee to see His great fire; and thou didst hear His words out of the midst of the fire

Where did God’s voice come out of the fire or the darkness? Obviously both fire and darkness are metaphors. They represent an almost non-physical entity. In other words it parallels that other verse in Devarim 4:12:

יב וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ: קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים, וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל.

12 And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only a voice.

The voice they heard was disembodied just as fire and darkness have no substance. So what were those clouds?

Rabbeinu Avraham the son of Rambam in his Pirush on Chumash explains that Moshe Rabbeinu taught the people the basics of theology. He explained how one seeks God and the processes that we have to go through to prove to ourselves that God exists, that He is unique and that He is transcendental. Rambam understands the saying of the Rabbis that the people heard the first two commandments, Anochi and Lo Y'iyeh Lecha, the existence of God and the prohibition to believe in other gods, MiPi Hagevurah, from their own strong intellect. Traditionally all Rishonim understood that to mean that they heard the first two commandments from God and then asked that it stop for fear of dying, Gevurah being a synonym for HKBH. Rambam sees it as a synonym of Sechel, human intellect. In fact Rambam says that though they did not hear any words at all, they were however convinced that Moshe was repeating to them God’s words. See Rambam Moreh 2:33:

“In order that the people hear when I speak with thee" (Exod. xix. 9), shows that God spoke to Moses, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words…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 Moses, and not through Moses. 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.”

As part of that process of learning about the God of Israel, people have to understand the limits of how far they can go. It is one of the most important concepts that have to be assimilated so as to not follow one’s imagination. Rambam in Moreh 3:9 explains that very cogently:

“THE corporeal element in man is a large screen and partition that prevents him from perfectly perceiving abstract ideas…However great the exertion of our mind may be to comprehend the Divine Being or any of the ideals, we find a screen and partition between Him and ourselves. Thus the prophets frequently hint at the existence of a partition between God and us. They say He is concealed from us in vapors, in darkness, in mist, or in a thick cloud: they use similar figures to express that on account of our bodies we are unable to comprehend His essence. This is the meaning of the words," Clouds and darkness are round about Him" (Ps. xcvii. 2). The prophets tell us that the difficulty consists in the grossness of our substance: they do not imply, as might be gathered from the literal meaning of their words, that God is corporeal, and is invisible because He is surrounded by thick clouds, vapors, darkness, or mist…The objectif of God revealing Himself in thick clouds, darkness, vapors, and mist (at Sinai) was to teach this lesson; for everything that is apprehended in a prophetic vision contains some lesson by means of allegory. Though that great assembly (at Sinai) was greater than any vision of prophecy and beyond any analogy (in other words it was an abnormal prophetic experience) it also indicated a notion: I mean His revelation in a thick cloud. It was intended to indicate that we cannot comprehend Him on account of the dark body that surrounds us and not Him, because He is incorporeal. A tradition is current among our people that the day of the revelation on Mount Sinai was misty, cloudy, and a little rainy. "

DG: The Hebrew word for rain is Geshem, which also stands for physical – in other words there were very little physical phenomena at Sinai – rather abstract thinking with the recognition that God is unfathomable – He is surrounded by clouds mist and smoke

Edit: Jewishskeptic in comments brought to my attention that the use of Geshem for physicality is a medieval one and not biblical. He is correct and in fact Tibon translates the arabic word Matar instead of Geshem as R. Kafieh did. Mea Culpa.

However I believe that my interpretation of Rambam is correct. He refers to the word Natfu in the verse which suggests drops of rain rather that a stream as expected from a sky covered by heavy clouds and dense mist..

As we read “Lord, when thou went forth from Seir, when thou marched out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped water" (judges v. 4). ( Rambam notes the words "heaven dropped water" as meaning little rain - the word being 'Notfu") The same idea is expressed by the words" darkness, clouds, and thick darkness" (Deut. iv. 11). The phrase does not denote that darkness surrounds God, for with Him there is no darkness, but the great, strong, and permanent light, which, emanating from Him, illuminates all darkness, as is expressed by the prophetic simile," And the earth shined with His glory" (Ezek. xliii. 2).”

This just gives us a little glimpse of how Rambam understood revelation at Sinai. It was a prophecy that is understood by Rambam to mean that man searches and tries to understand his surroundings and in the process sees God’s actions and infers things about God. However in the process man tries to visualize God and relate Him to his own experience. Although man "hears" a voice, he is to remind himself that the source of that voice, is fire, darkness, clouds and mist. In other words incomprehensible. Any other understanding is idolatry.

The assembly of all the people and Moshe teaching them brought them to such high levels of apprehension that they believed Moshe as God’s messenger. Unfortunately, they were not able to completely assimilate the lessons of their vision of clouds, darkness and mist. They could not completely assimilate a transcendental God and that led to the mistakes of Nadav Avihu and the elders. More tragically it brought about the Egel, the Golden Calf barely forty days after the event.

14 comments:

  1. jewishskeptic5/23/2006 1:01 PM

    >"A tradition is current among our people that the day of the revelation on Mount Sinai was misty, cloudy, and a little rainy. "

    DG: The Hebrew word for rain is Geshem, which also stands for physical – in other words there were very little physical phenomena at Sinai – rather abstract thinking with the recognition that God is unfathomable – He is surrounded by clouds mist and smoke"


    I don't think that the biblical word גשם has the meaning of corporal.
    This meaning was given to it by the medieval Jewish translators(probably the Ibn Tibbons)on the basis of a similarity to the Arabic.
    I therefore don't see much point in your דרשה .

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  2. jewishskeptic5/23/2006 1:01 PM

    >"A tradition is current among our people that the day of the revelation on Mount Sinai was misty, cloudy, and a little rainy. "

    DG: The Hebrew word for rain is Geshem, which also stands for physical – in other words there were very little physical phenomena at Sinai – rather abstract thinking with the recognition that God is unfathomable – He is surrounded by clouds mist and smoke"


    I don't think that the biblical word גשם has the meaning of corporal.
    This meaning was given to it by the medieval Jewish translators(probably the Ibn Tibbons)on the basis of a similarity to the Arabic.
    I therefore don't see much point in your דרשה .

    ReplyDelete
  3. jewishskeptic5/23/2006 1:06 PM

    I am sorry about the double comment.Technical mistake.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't think that the biblical word גשם has the meaning of corporal.

    You are right. The passuk that Rambam brings as prooftext does not have the word Geshem in it either. Tibon translates the word Geshem that R. Kafieh uses, as Matar. However I believe Rambam's understanding was a lack of physicality as either word stands for that metaphorically. Asher Crescas explains it as lack of people who apprehend it, referring to rain as inspiration. I am not sure how that works in context.

    But ultimately you are right and I should have checked it out more carefully. The play on the words is incorrect but the idea of the piece I believe is correct.( I thought of the play on words as I was writing - I should have known better).

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  5. Putting aside the etymological guffaw, good post. I'm posting some thoughts on conversion, in particular the Rambam's approach vs. the Talmud's, and you're quotes from the Moreh saved me some time. Thanks!

    On a related note, I once posted a conjecture that what was heard at Matan Torah was the sound of the shofar.

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  6. "Rabbeinu Avraham the son of Rambam in his Pirush on Chumash explains that Moshe Rabbeinu taught the people the basics of theology. He explained how one seeks God and the processes that we have to go through to prove to ourselves that God exists, that He is unique and that He is transcendental. Rambam understands the saying of the Rabbis that the people heard the first two commandments, Anochi and Lo Y'iyeh Lecha, the existence of God and the prohibition to believe in other gods, MiPi Hagevurah, from their own strong intellect. Traditionally all Rishonim understood that to mean that they heard the first two commandments from God and then asked that it stop for fear of dying, Gevurah being a synonym for HKBH. Rambam sees it as a synonym of Sechel, human intellect. "

    Do you have a mareh mokom for this (esp the part on mipi hagevurah)

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  7. It is the understanding of Rambam in 2:33 that I quoted by Efudi. Also see Tshuvas Harashba 4:234 where he understands Rambam this way although he disagrees partially. The term "Gevuras hasechel" I got from one of the meforshei Harambam possibly abravanel in chumash or another earlier rishon but it escapes me at the moment.

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  8. "רוצה לומר: ועם ההשׂתכלות הוא מבואר שאינו סותר למה שהנחנו, כי הם רוצים בזה המאמר שמציאותו יתעלה והיותו אחד אמנם יושׂג מופתם [=הוכחתם] לפי העיון האנושי מבלתי שיהיה האדם נביא וזה אומרם 'מפי הגבורה', רוצה לומר מפי השׂכל האנושי הושׂג במופת [=בהוכחה] מציאות השם יתברך ואחדותו... אמנם שאר הדברות... לא הושׂגו להם מצד שׂכלם, רק הושׂגו למשה מצד נבואתו"

    Here is the Efudi.(from the notes on M.Schwartz edition here http://press.tau.ac.il/perplexed/toc.asp

    which is a great thing)

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  9. I don't see that as the equvilanet of saying mpi hagevura = sechel haenoshi, or "rambam sees it as a synonym of Sechel, human intellect" The rambam says that when we say "mipi hagevura shamanu" it's not contradicting the principle that only moshe heard the dibur and bnei yisrael only heard the kol w/o the dibur, but that the combination of the kol and the fact that this is muskoles was able to implant the idea in the people. Not that mipi hagevura means sechel enoshis, but that mipi hagevura means mipi hagevura,i.e. God - that they heard the kol - but given that this was without the dibur, there is also sechel enoshis allowing them to understand. Otherwise, if there is no distinction other than the conceptual that is miskules, there is no reason for the people to be afraid to hear more.

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  10. >there is no reason for the people to be afraid to hear more.

    The way I understand it is that the Kol itself caused their fear. Rambam in Yad says "Vhem Shome'im Moshs Moshe lech emor Lohem" Hearing here is apprehending, not words and that is the result of the Kol. The whole episode accordingly was more intelectual than anything physical. See Rambam on Umoshe Oloh etc...

    Re the fisrst two dibros Abrcvanel tries to see it your way, but as you know he has an agenda in general on this subject. I think Efudi, shem Tov and Rashba understood Rambam correctly. Proof is that Moshe and others had the same level of understanding. If nevuah would have been involved it would have been different.

    If I am unclear let me know I will elaborate maybe in a post. It is in the middle of the night and i have insomnia.

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  11. >Not that mipi hagevura means sechel enoshis, but that mipi hagevura means mipi hagevura,i.e. God - that they heard the kol - but given that this was without the dibur, there is also sechel enoshis allowing them to understand.

    This is exactly where we differ.
    If you think about it Rashba asks how could people arrive to nevuah without proper preparation and it not being a ness? It was not a regular nevuah but a unique natural anomaly like every ness. That is the meaning of the last two sentences in 2:33 which ends (in Kafieh) lefi shelo kadam comohu velo yhyeh acahrov velochen de'ehu.

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  12. "he way I understand it is that the Kol itself caused their fear."

    that's my understanding also.

    I'm not sure if we are talking past each other. I am arguing narrowly on the translation of mpi hagevura, that gevura is a symbol for sechel enoshis. I think that gevurah means god, that part is the kol, and that rambam is only saying that chazal mean that they heard the kol mipi hagevura, but then goes on to distinguish between what the people understood and what moshe understood. IOW we have an identical view of the process, we disagree as to the translation of the word "hagevura". I see how you could read oys 5 in efodi as you do but he says in oys lamed clearly that they heard the kol and it was mashrish the emuna sichli in their minds and so what justification is there to change the meaning of m'pi hagevureh?

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  13. I will look over shabbos for the source of "Gevuras Hasechel. It made an impact, i have seen it repeatedly but I cannot place where.

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  14. see Meshech Chochma Shemos 20:3 on Lo yhyeh lecha in Yisro. He uses "Gevuras Hamofess" (logical proof). P.Yeshayahu Leibowitz paraphrases it as Gevuras hasechel in his Sichot le shemona perakim.

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