Friday, August 13, 2010

Moshe's Prophecy - the metaphor "Mouth to Mouth" - Peh El Peh.

In a private exchange with Rabbi Yoni Sacks, we touched on the subject of Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy. When talking about his prophecy, the Torah refers to it with two different expressions - peh el peh and panim el panim.

וְדִבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ

And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaks unto his friend. (Shemot 33:11)


ח  פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא
 בְחִידֹת, וּתְמֻנַת יְהוָה, יַבִּיט;.

8 Mouth to mouth do I speak with him, and vision and not in riddles, and the likeness of the Lord he beholds … (Bamidbar 12:8)

Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 7 explains the features of Moshe’s prophecy as compared to that of the other prophets. Among a list of differences he points to these two verses –
כל הנביאים, על ידי מלאך; לפיכך רואין מה שהן רואין במשל וחידה.  ומשה רבנו, לא על ידי מלאך,
שנאמר "פה אל פה אדבר בו"
ונאמר "ודיבר ה' אל משה פנים אל פנים
ונאמר "ותמונת ה', יביט
כלומר שאין שם משל, אלא רואה הדבר על בורייו בלא חידה בלא משל; הוא שהתורה
מעידה עליו, "ומראה ולא בחידות", שאינו מתנבא בחידה אלא במראה, שרואה
 הדבר על בורייו
יכל הנביאים, יראין ונבהלין ומתמוגגים.  ומשה רבנו, אינו כן; הוא שהכתוב אומר "כאשר ידבר איש אל ריעהו"
כמו שאין אדם נבהל לשמוע דברי חברו, כך היה כוח בדעתו של משה רבנו להבין דברי הנבואה; והוא עומד על עומדו שלם.

I will translate and comment as I go along.

All prophets prophesize via an angel, which causes them to see that which they see, in parables and riddles while Moshe Rabbeinu [does not prophesize] via an angel.

What exactly is an angel? Rambam in MN 2:6 explains that it is a very broad term that indicates a messenger or intermediary in all its meanings. It is used in Tanach as a description for the fulfillment of God’s will whether it is through natural events such as winds or fires or singularities. In the context of prophecy, Rambam is explicit –

Accordingly Midrash Kohelet has the following text: When man sleeps, his soul speaks to the angel, and the angel to the cherub. Thereby they have stated plainly to him who understands and cognizes intellectually that the imaginative faculty is likewise called an angel and that the intellect is called a cherub. How beautiful must this appear to him who knows, and how distasteful to the ignorant!

One of the most common forms of prophecy is through dreams. The way those prophetic dreams work, is by stimulating the imaginative faculty [angel] which apprehends abstract matters in their physical forms which are then deciphered by the intellect [cherub] as to their true meaning. The way the prophecy is then transmitted by the prophet to others, is subject to the prophet’s own interpretation and thus is dependent on his level of intellectual perfection. A prominent example of this in Tanach is the short cryptic description of the divinity by Yeshayahu and the more expansive one by Yechezkel. The Rabbis (Hagigah 13b) comment that Yeshayahu was as a Ben Krach – a city dweller – while Yechezkel was a Ben Kfar – a village dweller – a metaphor for their respective level of perfected apprehension which resulted in the different depiction of the same vision. On the other hand, Moshe apprehended the prophecy with his intellect thus the prophecy did not require interpretation by him. He was able to transmit it verbatim without his personal input. This is the kind of prophecy that was needed to transmit laws, whose presentation need to be precise.   

“After we have spoken of the essence of prophecy, have made known its true reality, and have made clear that the prophecy of Moshe our master is different from that of the others, we shall say that the call to the Law followed necessarily from that apprehension alone” (MN2:39)

Rambam goes on to explain that the uniqueness of Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy is necessary for the immutability of the Torah. In other words, the repeated insistence by the Torah of the uniqueness of his prophecy is to make that point that the Torah cannot ever be changed by any subsequent prophet including Elyahu or Mashiach.

Rambam offers the following textual support for Moshe’s unique prophecy -

  1. “Mouth to mouth do I speak with him”

Rambam in MN2:45 explains this term cryptically.

“You will perhaps ask this question: among the different degrees of prophecy there is one in which prophets, e.g., Isaiah, Micah, appear to hear God addressing them. How can this be reconciled with the principle that all prophets are prophetically addressed through an angel, except Moses our Teacher, in reference to whom Scripture says, "Mouth to mouth I speak to him" (Num. xii. 8)? I answer, this is really the case, the medium here being the imaginative faculty that hears in a prophetic dream God speaking; but Moses heard the voice addressing him "from above the covering of the ark from between the two cherubim" (Exod. xxv. 22) without the medium of the imaginative faculty.

Mouth to mouth is identical to hearing the voice from “between the two cherubim”. We saw earlier that Cherub is a metaphor for the intellect. The two cherubim are thus the two intellects, men’s and the source of prophecy, the Active Intellect which in Medieval Philosophy stood for knowledge at its source. A prophet may imagine that God is speaking to him and delivering a message which needed deciphering while Moshe “knew” with his intellect that God was speaking to him. The message that Moshe apprehended needed no further interpretation and could be transmitted further in the form he “heard” it.

If we were to categorize Peh el Peh, we would say that it describes the process of transmission/reception of prophecy – it goes directly from the mouth of the Giver so to say, to the mouth of the prophet without the prophet’s interpretation.

As an aside, it is worthwhile to consider that a metaphor for mouth to mouth is kissing. When we say that Moshe, Aharon and Miriam died through kissing, Mitat Neshikah, we are saying that their physical end came about in the ecstasy of this highest level of prophecy and apprehension where there was no interference of the imaginative.

  1. And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face.

Another description of Moshe’s prophecy is the metaphor “face to face”. I will address this aspect of Moshe’s prophecy in the next post as I continue with the translation/comment of this Halacha.

Note: this series of posts, though at first blush seem to be a detour in my discussion of Ta’amei Hamitzvot, are really part of that same discussion. The connection will become clearer as I continue.


  1. I am very confused, isnt Cherub the second level of separate intellects which the Rambam says that all levels of the separate intellects are greater than man's? Also isn't Malach a reference to Ishim (which communicate with the navi) which is another term for the active intellect and therefore cause all form in teh sublunar sphere?

  2. Yosi, You are asking an excellent question. These metaphors are clearly context dependent. The word Malach takes on different meanings in different contexts but as Rambam tells us generally refers to an intermediary that accomplishes God's will.

    Note that the Rambam language is "the imaginative faculty is *likewise* called an angel" in the Hebrew translation *Af* or *Gam Kein*.

    Cherub too is context related as you can see from the cryptic descriptions of it in the beginning of the third chelek in MN. (I do not understand those perakim but you can see for yourself that Chya and Keruv interchange).

    In our context they depict the imaginative and the Sechel. Moshe's nevuah the two Keruvim depict the giver and receiver. Apparently meant to differentiate the source of moshe's nevuah from other prophets where it is the Ishim.

  3. How do you know that yours is the correct interpretation in this context, and that cherub is a metaphor for the intellect?
    In the midrash kohelet, according to your explanation what is "his soul" other than the cherub (intellect) or the angel (imaginative faculty) which it is communicating with?

  4. Yosi,

    the quote frokm MN above reads "that the imaginative faculty is likewise called an angel and that the intellect is called a cherub". I assume therfore that with Moshe two Cherubim are both intellects as there is no angel. But as I say on the sidebar of my blog, I only tell my understanding of Rambam which are not necessarily what he meant.