From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: Sinai with subtitles

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – According to Jewish tradition, the revelation at Mount Sinai was a unique and unprecedented event. The Bible describes the encounter as primarily an oral phenomenon: the Almighty’s speaking the words of the Ten Commandments. Jewish thinkers over the ages have speculated about deeper dimensions of that event when the transcendent divinity communicated through a medium that could be heard and understood by human ears.

To be sure, the scriptural narrative refers to other features of the revelation besides the divine speech— including lightning, thunder and shofar blasts. We can scarcely begin to imagine the overwhelming impact of these pyrotechnics on the Israelites, so recently released from years of brutalizing slavery.

At the conclusion of that momentous pronouncement, the Torah describes the people’s reaction: “All the people saw the sounds, and the flames, and the noise of the shofar and the mountain smoking.”

“Saw the sounds.” Really? What is going on here?

Indeed, an early midrash observed: “Normally it is impossible to see a sound – and yet here it juxtaposes ‘the sounds’ and ‘the flames.’ Even as they saw the flames, so did they see the sounds!”

A dispute about this text arose between the two most prominent Jewish exegetes in the early generations of rabbis. “They saw what was visible and heard what was audible; these are the words of Rabbi Ishmael. Whereas Rabbi Akiva says: they both saw and heard what was audible.”

It would appear that Rabbis Ishmael and Akiva were both consistent with their respective theories about how to read biblical expressions. Rabbi Ishmael, who was distinguished for his rational approach to scriptural language and theology, and his conviction that “the Torah spoke in human language,” argued here that we must read the complete verse, which mentions not only the sounds of thunder and trumpeting, but also flames or lightning. For each of these phenomena the reader should supply the appropriate sensory verb: thus, the people saw what was visible and heard what was audible.

Rabbi Akiva took a different approach. He believed that the holy language in which the Torah was revealed was not subject to the prosaic limitations of rational human discourse. He also preferred to magnify the proportions of miracles (You might still recall that passage in the Passover Haggadah where he multiplied the Egyptian plagues to a total of 250). Hence his assertion that the Israelites were literally seeing the sounds that issued from Mount Sinai was fully consistent with his views.

The precise details of Rabbi Akiva’s scenario were open to diverse interpretations, and the sages proposed several embellishments designed to enhance the revelation’s wondrous dimensions. I find it intriguing to observe how most of these features, which once astonished their audiences, have become commonplace achievements of modern technology.

For example, the rabbis noted that alternative versions of the wording of the Sabbath commandment (“remember” it in Exodus, but “observe” it in Deuteronomy) “were both uttered in the same pronouncement – something beyond the possibilities of human speech” (we would now simply call this “stereophonic”). Similarly: “in our normal experience in the world, it is impossible to see a sound, but here they saw the sounds and the flames” (a routine job for an AV projector). The audible words transformed themselves into legible letters as they were spoken, and subsequently were engraved on the tablets (speech-to-text conversion, and subtitles). The inscription was readable from both sides of the tablets (an ability that is easily achieved on digital billboards).

Most medieval commentators seemed to side with Rabbi Ishmael, insisting that the “seeing” should be attached grammatically to the flames and not to the sounds. They adduced numerous examples of scriptural usages where the Hebrew word for “see” (R’H) denotes perception through other senses, such as taste or smell, or as a synonym for “understanding.” As Ibn Ezra explained, it is because all five senses coalesce in a single place: on the brow.”

The first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria dismissed any suggestion that the sound issuing at Sinai was at all comparable to a human voice, which is produced by a physical mouth, tongue and windpipe. God is incorporeal and therefore has no such organs. Rather, he created for this occasion a unique metaphysical entity, perfectly harmonious, that reconfigured the air and transformed it into flame. Unlike feeble human voices, this divine sound did not fade as it proceeded farther from its source, but rather it maintained its volume and brilliance even as it spread. Unlike the hearing of physical ears, which is “a sluggish sense, inactive until aroused by the impact of the air,” this was a communication of pure abstract rationality. It took the form of a flame streaming from heaven, which “became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience. And so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear them.”

A millennium later, another Jewish philosopher in Egypt interpreted the passage in a very similar manner. Moses Maimonides asserted that the divinely created “voice” at Sinai expressed a pure metaphysical abstraction that was unintelligible to anyone but Moses, the most sublime of philosophers and prophets. It was Moses who translated the revelation into a sequence of grammatical sentences that could be grasped by normal Israelites who (with the exception of the first two commandments) heard only an undifferentiated sound. “G-d spoke to Moses, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words…”

Maimonides’ son Abraham found support for his father’s interpretation in the Torah’s wording about the people seeing, rather than hearing, the sounds,” as would have been the case when hearing normal conversation.

The kabbalist author of the Zohar enhanced the vivid imagery and took it even further. “They beheld what was visible and heard what was audible from within the darkness, fog and cloud. …They shone with celestial light, and they had knowledge of things that would remain unknown to subsequent generations.”

Maybe our own generation will merit hearing some of that enlightening wisdom.


Fraade, Steven D. “Hearing and Seeing at Sinai: Interpretive Trajectories.” In The Significance of Sinai: Traditions about Sinai and Divine Revelation in Judaism and Christianity, edited by George J. Brooke, Hindy Najman, and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, 247–68. Themes in Biblical Narrative 12. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008.

Haynes, Theresa Abell. “Voices of Fire: Sinai Imagery in Acts 2 and Rabbinic Midrash.” Nordisk Judaistik 32, no. 1 (2021): 30–45.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Theology of Ancient Judaism. 3 vols. London, UK and New York, NY: The Soncino Press, 1962. [Hebrew]

Kreisel, Howard. “The Prophecy of Moses in Medieval Jewish Provençal Philosophy: Natural or Supernatural?” In Judaism as Philosophy: Studies in Maimonides and the Medieval Jewish Philosophers of Provence, 315–60. Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2015.

Matt, Daniel Chanan, ed. The Zohar: Pritzker Edition. Pritzker edition. Vol. 4. 12 vols. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Robertson, David G. “Mind and Language in Philo.” Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 3 (2006): 423–41.

Rogers, Trent A. “Philo’s Universalization of Sinai in De Decalogo 32–49.” The Studia Philonica Annual 24 (2022): 85–105.

Wolfson, Harry Austryn. Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Structure and Growth of Philosophic Systems from Plato to Spinoza. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1947.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

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