Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Why Sinai? R. Nissim Gaon and R. Yehudah Halevi in Kuzari -

In this post I laid out some of the difficulties with the various verses presenting the events at Sinai. One of the earliest comments on the issue can be found in the Megilat Setarim by Nissim Ben Jacob (Rav Nissim Gaon, 990-1062, Hebrew: ניסים בן יעקב) (courtesy which can be found in the appendix to Kuzari, Even Shmuel edition. His idea is that until Sinai the existence of God was only a rational philosophical argument. It is only when one experiences God with his physical senses that one really believes. He takes all the Midrashim literally for example the writing of the words in the air inside the dark clouds. It is this physical experience that was the highlight of the event and proved the existence of God. The existence of prophecy was another idea that was confirmed at the event. The way he puts it, many people overtly showed that they believed in prophecy but deep in their hearts they had doubts. By God talking openly with Moshe and the people witnessing that, removed any further doubt. In another segment he discusses God’s physicality and admits that God cannot be seen and is therefore not a physical body. It seems to contradict the earlier statements. Without seeing God it is not clear how they knew God was doing all these things and not some other entity. I believe that we only have fragments of the Megilat Setarim. It is therefore impossible to fully explore Rav Nissim’s thoughts on the subject. What I find interesting is that he put such emphasis on the physical aspects of the experience.

Not much later R. Judah Halevy c.1075–1141, in his Kuzari (1:87) ignores the idea that Sinai proves the existence of God. He focuses in on Prophecy. He puts it in a very interesting way reminiscent of the Rashba I quoted in an earlier post. After all the miracles in Egypt and the Red Sea the people still doubted that God spoke to man. Is it possible that the Torah (I guess he refers to the ideas proposed by the prophecy) starts off in the prophet’s mind and only afterwards does he receive confirmation from God? The people could not accept that a non-physical entity like God could speak which is a physical attribute. After experiencing God’s speech with Moshe, where they heard Him giving the Ten Commandments, there was no doubt in their mind that prophecy is a miraculous experience from outside the self. It proved to them that the philosopher’s understanding of prophecy, an internal human ability, is incorrect. God speaks to his prophets just as he spoke to Moshe and the people experienced it with their own senses. He now has to confront the issue of god’s physicality. How does a non-physical entity talk? His answer is that it is miraculous. We cannot understand how that worked but it did. At the end he feels a little cornered and demurs a little. “I cannot guarantee that things happened the way I describe them, as it is possible that it was a much “deeper” experience. All we know is that there was an experience that whoever participated was convinced that the Torah is true and (now he adds surprisingly) that the world was created”. Every time I read this piece I am struck at how far he is from Rambam’s way of thinking. I am no expert on the Kuzari but I have read some comments of those who know him. Apparently his writings in Kuzari and his Piyuttim are completely different. He is much closer to Rambam’s thought in the Piyuttim.

What is interesting in both R. Nissim and R. Yehudah Halevi is that they do not address the obvious problem; if one cannot see the speaker how did they know it was God speaking? We will see that Ramban, who has at the core of his thinking some similarities to these two thinkers, addresses this in his discussions of Sinai. What is also interesting is Kuzari’s idea of prophecy. While he discusses it at length many times in his writings, he introduces us here to the premise that prophecy cannot result from a human capacity. It is tainted and needs to be from the outside totally. Only then can it be authentic. Prophecy is therefore a purely miraculous event. That is what Sinai proved.

Next I will discuss Rambam’s understanding of Sinai followed by Ramban.


  1. David,I might be mistaken but doesn't the Rambam say somewhere that the people didn't actually hear God's voice(after all God has no voice). But God created a special "kol" & that's what they heard.I can't recall off hand the mareh makom.

    What I find interesting is what the *kol Yehudah* comments in his perush on Kuzari 1:87 starting "'ve-eleh aseret ha-devarim":

    עשרת הדברים עצמם שמעו כולם בחתוך אותיות. לא כהרמב"ם שכתב פ ל"ו מהשני שהדבור היה למשה וישראל שמעו קול עצום ופשוט בלא הבדל דברים ומשה יורד לתחתית ההר להודיעם. או שהקול נשמע לאזנם בשני הדברים הראשונים אנכי ולא יהיה לך ומן השאר לא הגיע לאזנם אפילו הקול.

    גם לא כדעת הרמב"ן ששמעו בכולם קול עצום ופשוט והשנים הראשונים לבדם בחתוך אותיןת ומשה לבדו שמע את הקול מדבר אליו בכולם. רק דעת החבר ששמעו כל ישראל עשרת הדברים בהבדל דברים נחתכים באותיות. ואחריו החזיק הרי"א ז"ל במרכבת המשנה אשר לו פ ואתחנן בסוףביאורו על עשרת הדברות.

    (p.s. my son in law left me his scanner before he left for the U.S..But I don't know how to operate it,It would have saved me so much time & bother in typing out the Hebrew above.I have to call my son & ask him how to use it!)

    BTW there is a mistake in the kol yehudah with ref.MN.It's not 2:36 but 2:33.

  2. Correct. Rambam the way I understand him believes they "Heard" in their head just the idea that God is ordering Moshe to tell them the Mitzvot. In fact the way Rashba undersatnds him even the first two Dibrot they did not "hear" but Mipi Hagevurah means gevurat hasechel. introdiuced these two though because they are what most people nowadays believe. Ramban is much more sophisticated and to the regular Yeshivish guy today would be just as big an apikores as Rambam if they understood what he really says.

  3. David,

    You hit the nail on the head with your comments about R' Yehuda Halevi's piyutim. The Sephardic High Holiday liturgy is comprised of many of his liturgical poems, together with writings from the Ibn Ezra family and other Sephardic greats (nothing from Kalir at all), and I have always been struck by their unabashedly philosophical character. Reciting some of his piyutim is like reading poetic summaries of the Moreh Nevuchim! He leaves me profoundly inspired and well focused on Yom Kippur especially.

    It is a shame the Ashkenazic tefillot revolve around Kalir, who speaks in obscure, heavily anthropomorphic language that is difficult to comprehend prima facie, let alone understand in depth!

  4. Han'i Ashkenazy dedaru be'areah dechashucha!

    My younger son who lives in Israel has a sephardic soul. He married a teimani woman and is more sephardi than many I know!

  5. What is interesting in both R. Nissim and R. Yehudah Halevi is that they do not address the obvious problem; if one cannot see the speaker how did they know it was God speaking?

    Answer: Synesthesia - they heard what is seen and saw what is heard.

  6. Avakesh, the way I understand Synethesia is that it is just sensations. How does that resolve the problem? You may hear and see but it is all imaginary.