Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Seeing the Sounds

This is an essay I wrote for Professor Astor in my first year in YU. It is laughably horrible. But I tried my darnedest to be innovative, and maybe there's a good diyuk or two there. My major point was that Rashi misread/rejected his purported source, Rabbi Akiva, so that's significant. Part of the assignment was to describe the various methodologies of the commentaries I used, where and when they were reading, etc, which I didn't really know and didn't really put much thought into. I like how I remember writing this essay and thinking it was completely perfect. When I got an 85, I was so upset I met with him, and he still didn't understand my essay. Reading it over now with a constant grimace on my face, I can understand why. Oy.

To See a Voice
            There is arguably no greater event in history to happen to the Jews than the event that took place at Mount Sinai. They became “The Jews” at that point in history. The Ten Commandments were given. There was lightening. There was the blowing of a shofar, smoke on the mountain. It was a quite a sight. In fact, the verse seems to say the Jewish people actually saw sounds/voices, and the shofar blowing. Did they experience synesthesia, the mixing of the senses? They actually heard with their eyes? Or is there another explanation?
And the entire nation saw the voices and the fire, and the sound of the shofar, and the smoke of the mountain. The people saw and they trembled; and they stood from a distance.
Shemos 20:15
וכל־העם ראים את־הקולת ואת הלפידם ואת קול השׁפר ואת ההר עשׁן וירא העם וינעו ויעמדו מרחק׃
שמות כ:טו
The Nation of Israel has just been told the 10 Commandments. The verse then says:
Text Box: וכל עמא חזן ית קליא וית בעוריא וית קל שופרא וית טורא תנן וחזא עמא וזעו וקמו מרחיק:
אונקלוס כ:טו
The English translation follows Onkelos’s Aramaic translation of the verse. He interpreted the verse at its literal meaning, that the people actually saw the voices along with the smoke and fire. This is normal for Onkelos, who almost always does a straight, word for word translation of a verse. The Talmud (Megillah 3a) writes that Onkelos wrote the translation on the Bible according to the instructions of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. Presumably, the Rabbis of the time approved of this translation, and it was so officially endorsed that we even find the Rabbis including Targum Onkelos in an obligation to read the weekly Bible portion (Berachot 8b). It was written around 110 C.E.
“They saw that which is heard, which is impossible to see in a different place.”
Rashi, Exodus 20:15
רואין את הנשמע, שאי אפשר לראות במקום אחר:
רש"י שמות כ:טו
Rashi seems to agree with Onkelos. He comments on the words “"ראים את הקולת:

Rashi wrote his commentary in France, in the 11th century. His methodology, as laid out in his commentary to Genesis 3:8, is to arrive at a simple/literal meaning that aids in putting a certain word or phrase in context. This is primarily done using rabbinic writings, such as midrash, even though a given word could have multiple other meanings as well. Here, he tries to jive “ראים” with “קולות”, while keeping in mind the flow of the verses. He does this by saying that all the noises were seen as well as heard, but no additional details happened. The question is, then, what rabbinic source does he use as support?
Several midrashim are very similar to Onkelos and Rashi’s view of the event at Sinai, including Rabbi Akiva in the Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Shemot Rabba, and Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. We shall discuss each one to determine where their similarities end.  They all seem to be based solely on tradition from Sinai, but not from literal interpretation of the verse.
There are commentaries that do not interpret the verse to describe the people’s synesthesia, and instead see “ראים” as referring to something else. These are Rabbi Yishmael of the Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, the Ibn Ezra, the Rashbam, and the Seforno. They all seem approach the interpretation of the verse based on various meanings of words in the verse. What does “ראים” mean?
Come, let us see.
                        The Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael was written during Tannaic times, and was certainly known during the times of the Amoraim, according to Lauterbach. In Parshat Yitro (Parsha 9), the midrash quotes an argument between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva as to what the Jews saw at Mount Sinai.
Lauterbach Edition:

And All the People Saw the Thunderings: “They saw what was visible, and heard what was audible.”-These are the words of R. Ishmael. R. Akiba says, “They saw and heard that which was visible. They saw the fiery words of fire leave the mouth of the Almighty as it was struck upon the tablets, as it is said, ‘The voice of the Lord hewed out flames of fire.’”
Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro Parsha 9
וכל העם רואים את הקולות: רואין
הנראה ושומעין הנשמע דברי
רבי ישמעאל. רבי עקיבא אומר רואין ושומעין הנראה: רואין דבר של אש יוצא מפי הגבורה ונחצב על הלוחות, שנאמר: קול ה' חוצב להבות אש:
'יתרו פרשה ט ,מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל
Typical of midrash, omnisignificance plays a major role in the formulation of the argument between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. What exactly happened at Sinai? Rabbi Yishmael believes that there was no synesthesia at the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Therefore, he is willing to interpret the verse to reflect this, by butchering its plain meaning and playing around with the structure of the verse to make it fit. Rabbi Akiva is recognized by kabbalists as one of the greatest Jewish mystics, the only one to make it out of Pardes safe and sound (Chagiga 14b). Here, he seems to be expressing the view that there was some kind of meditation-vision, seeing God’s voice, through the mixing of the senses. He therefore is willing to take the verse at its literal level to explain it according to the mystical nature of the giving of the Torah.
Typical of midrash, as well, is the concept of interpretation of multiplicity of meaning in the verse. Rabbi Akiva clearly holds that “ראים” in Hebrew can mean “seeing and hearing”. Rabbi Yishmael disagrees. The Kav Hamida, a commentary on the Mechilta, explains that Rabbi Yishmael is holding that “ראים” is only referring to the things in the verse that can be seen. “שומעין” is not written because the verse is, as he puts it, “מקרא קצר”- short, or economical with its words. Why doesn’t Rabbi Yishmael hold of multiple meanings here? A possible answer for this is that Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva do not disagree as to what happened at Sinai. Israel saw God’s voice, that is our tradition. They are simply arguing if this is indicated in this verse. According to Rabbi Akiva, it is if we take into account multiple meanings of verbs. Rabbi Yishmael says that it is too weak to say that here, as one can easily say that the verse is being economical, and “ראים” is only going on the things that could be seen.
            Interestingly, Rabbi Akiva indicates there was some kind of synesthesia, but the synesthesia they experienced was that they were “רואין ושומעין הנראה[1], unlike Rashi’s “רואין את הנשמע”. Rabbi Akiva’s answer to the problem of “seeing sounds” is that they heard the voice of God, as well as seeing the words take the form of fire and engrave themselves onto the two tablets. It seems to me that Rashi does not agree with this view because nowhere in the verse does it say they heard. To say they saw that which is heard is fine, because it does say “ראים”, coupled with the fact that you can’t see thunder or the sound of a shofar blowing. But to add in that they “heard that which is seen” is not found in the simple reading of the verse, and is therefore unnecessary to “fix” the verse. Although the language of Rashi and Rabbi Akiva are similar, Rashi clashes conceptually with Rabbi Akiva in respect to what happened at Sinai. Therefore, I do not think this is Rashi’s source.
            Shemot Rabba was written during the times of the Amoraim, and possibly in part earlier, during the times of the Tanaim, according to WUJS. It describes the situation as follows:
When God gave the Torah at Sinai, He showed Israel wondrous things through His voice. How? God would speak and His voice would go out and return throughout the world. Israel would hear the voice coming upon them from the south, and they would run to the south to receive the voice, and from the south the voice would switch to the north, and they would run to the north, and it would switch to the east, and they would run to the east, and it would switch to the west, and they would run to the west. And from the west it would switch to the heavens, and they would suspend their eyes, and it would switch to the land, and they would look to the land…
Shemot Rabbah, 5:9
 ...כשנתן הקב"ה את התורה בסיני הראה בקולו לישראל פלאי פלאים, כיצד? היה הקב"ה מדבר, והקול יוצא ומחזיר בכל העולם. ישראל שומעין את הקול בא עליהם מן הדרום, והיו רצים לדרום לקבל את הקול, ומדרום נהפך להם לצפון, והיו רצים לצפון, ומצפון נהפך למזרח, והיו רצים למזרח, וממזרח נהפך להם למערב, והיו רצים למערב, ומן המערב נהפך להן מן השמים, והיו תולין עיניהן, והיה נהפך בארץ, והיו מביטין לארץ...
שמות רבה ה:ט

According to Shemot Rabbah, it was voice they heard from God that showed them wondrous things. It would fly around the world, in all four directions, and the Jewish people would chase after it. Rashi did not include this in his explanation, because, as above, nowhere in the verse does it mention hearing, as well as the fact that Rashi’s explanation extends to the “ראים” of the shofar blasts, but Shemot Rabbah only explains the “קולות”. Also, it is not so clear this piece from Shemot Rabbah is referring to our verse, especially since our verse does not say anything about Israel running around earth chasing God’s voice. If it is referring to our verse, then it seems to be an idea similar to Rabbi Akiva’s, that they literally saw God’s voice, as well as hearing it. Therefore, I do not think this is Rashi’s source.
            Another midrash similar to Rashi’s interpretation is found in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer:
Rabbi Yehudah says, “When a person talks to his fellow, he sees him, but does not see his voice. The Nation of Israel heard the Lord’s voice and saw it leave from the mouth of the Almighty, and thunder and lightning, as it says, “And all the people saw the voices and the lightning.”’
Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 49
רבי יהודה אומר מדבר אדם עם חבירו, הוא נראה וקולו לא נראה, וישראל שמעו קולו של הקב״ה וראו את הקול יוצא מפי הגבורה וברקים ורעמים, שנאמר וכל העם רואים את הקולות ואת הלפידים
פרקי דר״א פמ״א

            This Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer is very close to Rashi, and has all the same concepts, but if Rashi used this as a source, he did not borrow any similar phrases from it. Another major difference is that Rashi seems to extend his interpretation of “seeing and hearing” onto the shofar blasts also, something not done by this midrash. Therefore, I do not think this was Rashi’s source.
            In the Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was written during the times of the Tannaim, and in part, during the times of the Amoraim, according to W. David Nelson. In it, the midrash says:

It is the way of the world that it is impossible to see voices. But here, “…they saw the voices and the fire.” Just like they saw fire, so too they saw the voices.
Mechilta of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Exodus 20:15
בנוהג שבעולם מה שאי אפשר לראות את הקול אבל כאן ראו את הקולות ואת הלפידים כשם שראו את הלפידים כך ראו את הקולות:
מכילתא דרבי שמעון בר יוחאי שמות כ:טו
The parallels to Rashi are numerous with this one. First, the concept of “seeing” everything is here, not just God’s voice. One can easily extend the logic of this midrash to the seeing of shofar blasts as well, like Rashi, something that could not be done with the previous two midrashim. Also, phrases are similar; “שאי אפשר לראות” from this midrash sounds very much akin to Rashi’s language of “שאי אפשר לראות במקום אחר”. This is possibly why Rabbi Herzceg in the Artscroll Rashi set cites this as the source for this concept. Meaning, only at Sinai could this “miraculous” experience occur. Because of these reasons, I think this is the full source for Rashi’s idea.
Other commentators do not believe the verse is indicating synesthesia.
The Ibn Ezra wrote a commentary to the Bible that was completed fully shortly before his death in 1164, in Spain, according to Jewish Encyclopedia. On our verse, he writes:
And I have already explained previously[2] the reasoning for “seeing the sounds”. It is because all senses are connected to each other to the same place, [the brain]. And behold the reasoning is that they saw the sounds and the lightning, because the way of man is to become afraid from such things and the sound of the shofar that was unlike anything else in the world.
Ibn Ezra, Exodus 20:15
וכבר פירשתי טעם רואים את הקולות. כי כל ההרגשות מתחברות אל מקום אחד. והנה הטעם כאשר ראו הקולות והלפידים, כי מנהג האדם יתפחד מהם וקול השופר שלא נשמע כזה לעולם
 אבן עזרא שמות כ:טו

He believes that the senses are all really one, so when the verse says “ראים”, it means “experienced”. In other words, when the verse says “ראים”, can  be interpreted as one of the five senses, whichever one fits the object. Therefore, they heard the shofar blasts, and they saw the lightning. Unlike his using his usual methodology of picking up on a philological point, Ibn Ezra is instead telling us that the word “ראים” is just an example of any other sense, such as hearing or tasting, because they are all connected in the brain, and can be replaced with one another. Is this a philological statement? It seems to me not. This is not based on the root of the word “to see”, as the Ibn Ezra would undoubtedly say the same thing if they “heard the lightning”.  Ibn Ezra does not believe that it is the most literal meaning of the word “ראים” to say “seeing and hearing”, but he does believe that “ראים” can mean “hearing”. This is not like Rabbi Akiva, who says they did both, but it does seem like Rabbi Yishmael, who, according to my explanation of him above, holds that “seeing” includes “hearing” as well. This is at odds with the Ibn Ezra’s usual methodology, where he does not use midrash in formulating his interpretation. A possible difference between them is that the Ibn Ezra is willing to extend “ראים” to all feeling, including fear, while Rabbi Yishmael relegates “ראים” only to seeing and hearing.
Another opinion is that of the Rashbam. The Rashbam was the grandson of Rashi, and the older brother of Rabeinu Tam, and the Rivam. He writes:

Hail and stones, as it says “God’s sounds and hail”.
Rashbam, Exodus 20:15
הברד והאבנים, כדכתיב "קולות אלהים וברד"
רשב"ם שמות כ:טו

What did they see at Sinai? Rashbam answers that they saw hail and stones, basing his interpretation of “קולות” from Exod. 9:28, where there is a connection of “קולות” with “וברד”. This approach is very common for the Rashbam, to use other verses to figure out the translation of a problematic one. The Rashbam sees no reason to use midrashim to explain verses of the Bible. Instead of fantastical interpretations of God’s voice, the Rashbam uses an explanation that does not involve the use of extra details. Instead, “קולותmeans hail and stones. Whose voices are they “ראים”? Do we have an indication of God talking? The answer is that it is instead miraculous natural phenomena that they saw. This is all the context in which the Rashbam is trying to fit this explanation in to. He would not disagree that there are other levels of interpretation that can be at play here, and literary devices and context influence the meaning, but he thinks that there is only one valid literal interpretation.
The last opinion is that of Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who wrote his commentary on the Bible in the 1500’s, in Italy. He comments:
Just like “My heart sees”[3], they understood that they could not fathom the sounds, like they said, “Let me not continue to hear the voice of the Lord, my God, and let me no longer see this great fire, so that I will not die."[4]
Seforno, Exodus 20:15
כמו "ולבי ראה", התבוננו בענין הקולות שלא יוכלו לסבלם, כאמרם "לא אוסיף עוד לשמוע את קול ה' אלהי, ואת האש הגדולה הזאת לא אראה עוד, ולא אמות":
ספורנו שמות כ:טו  
Seforno focuses on changing our understanding of the word “ראים”, instead of “קולות”, and uses a verse to prove his point, that “ראים” can mean “understanding” or “perceiving”. It can be explained with a common phrase nowadays: “ ‘I see,’ said the blind man.” He doesn’t literally see, he understands. Therefore, they didn’t actually see the sounds, but rather understood that they couldn’t wrap their minds around the sounds, and the shofar blasts, and everything else, and they got very scared of them. This fits into his overall methodology of keeping to literal interpretation, while avoiding mystical connotations. He is also fond of pointing out moral insights found in the Bible.[5] He does not appear to use midrashic interpretation here.
            In conclusion, we’ve seen that Rashi and Onkelos have many similarities to the interpretations of the Sages. We’ve seen the Mechilta, and how Rabbi Yishmael wanted to add in a few words to make the verse make sense, but Rashi didn’t seem to like that. We saw how he seemed to agree with Rabbi Akiva about how they did experience synesthesia, but he wrote it with a few modifications to work towards a better plain reading.  We’ve seen the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, as well as the Shemot Rabbah, which adds a more “colorful” story to what Israel actually saw, but Rashi did not want to limit his approach to the word “
קולות”, striving to include the shofar blasts in the interpretation of the verse. Therefore, he chose the Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which has many similarities in language and in concepts. Some later commentators do not interpret this verse to be referring to synesthesia at all. Rabbi Yishmael, as we’ve said, believes that they saw the visible and heard the audible, and the reason the Bible did not write it like that is because it is very economical with its words. The Ibn Ezra says that seeing is just a reference to the senses. So they saw the visible and heard the audible, whichever one fits for each phrase in the verse. Although this seems the same as Rabbi Yishmael, we said that a difference between them is how far “ראים” can be extended in terms of the senses, Ibn Ezra saying all the way, while Rabbi Yishmael limits it to seeing and hearing. We saw the Rashbam offers an original answer that “קולות” does not refer to voices or noise, but rather to a visible object, hail and stones. According to him, “ראים” means “ראים”. And lastly, the Seforno interprets “ראים” as “understanding” or “perceiving”. Therefore, they were “ראים” that they couldn’t fathom the “קולות” and everything else in the verse, and then complain to Moses lest they die.
As always in Judaism, there is an argument. Did they see sounds or not? The Sages were predominantly of the opinion that they did, but the Rishonim who came later have no trouble finding biblical sources that allow them an easier, less mystic way of understanding the Bible. The later commentators were just going for literal understanding of the text. But, in my mind, the reason the Sages were so hung up on this can be understood by reading the Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 8:1.
The Children of Israel did not believe in Moses because of the signs he presented, for someone who believes 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 Moses 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 Moses split the sea and drowned them in it; the Children of Israel needed food, so Moses brought down the manna for them; they needed water, so Moses split the rock for them; Korah and his followers rebelled, so Moses 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 Moses, when our eyes, and no-one else's, saw, and our ears, and no-one else's heard, the fire and the voices and the lightning, and Moses drew near to the darkness, and the voice spoke to him, and we heard it saying to Moses, "Moses, Moses, go tell them such-and-such".
Rambam, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, 8:1
משה רבינו לא האמינו בו ישראל מפני האותות שעשה. שהמאמין על פי האותות יש בלבו דופי שאפשר שיעשה האות בלט וכשוף. אלא כל האותות שעשה משה במדבר לפי הצורך עשאם. לא להביא ראיה על הנבואה. היה צריך להשקיע את המצריים קרע את הים והצלילן בתוכו. צרכנו למזון הוריד לנו את המן. צמאו בקע להן את האבן. כפרו בו עדת קרח בלעה אותן הארץ. וכן שאר כל האותות. ובמה האמינו בו במעמד הר סיני שעינינו ראו ולא זר ואזנינו שמעו ולא אחר האש והקולות והלפידים והוא נגש אל הערפל והקול מדבר אליו ואנו שומעים משה משה לך אמור להן כך וכך..
רמב"ם הלכות יסודי התורה ח:א.
So we see, the only reason the Jews believe in Moses as their ultimate prophet, who was a messenger of God and who transmitted his word onto paper, was because they were made witnesses by God himself to those facts. Not only did they hear it, but they saw with their own eyes. That kind of testimony, passed down from generation to generation, is the sole basis for the truth of the Bible and its main prophet, and is what distinguishes itself from Islam and Christianity. Indeed, this event is the only reason to believe in Moses, and therefore the religion of the Jews. Perhaps this is what it means in the Passover Haggadah: “If He had brought us before Mount Sinai and had not given us the Torah, it would have been enough!” The obvious, commonly asked question is, what would have been the point of bringing the Jews to the mountain without giving them the Torah? The answer, based on what we’ve said, is that the hearing and seeing of God’s voice would have been enough for them. They would have been God-fearing people regardless of the Torah. Yet, the Torah is a testimony to morals, ethics, and intellectuality, and there is much more to it than simple faith alone.

[1] Hagaos HaGra adds the word “והנשמע”. Indeed, one must say this to make any sense out of the following phrase about how the קול"“ of the verse refers to God’s voice (something heard) turning into fire, as well as the fact that Rabbi Akiva is supposed to be explaining how they “saw” the shofar blasts as well. Nevertheless, this is not exactly the same as Rashi’s very limited רואין את הנשמע“, meaning that what they saw was seen normally, but what they heard was abnormally experienced, in the form of sight.
[2] Exodus 5:21
[3] Ecclesiastes 1:16
[4] Deuteronomy 18:16
[5] Jewish Encyclopedia

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