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The giving of the Law at Sinai (Matan Torah), a central event in Israel’s history, is described in half a dozen places in the Torah – each description is a fragment of a bigger puzzle. Even when put together, these fragments do not add up to a unified picture. Perhaps the very nature of the event calls for multiple views: multiple views in the text produce multiple views in art.
In this brief selection of artwork from the 10th through the 20th centuries, we will focus on the treatment of:
Moses, the people, the mountain and the Tablets/Torah.
Our aim is to enable the viewer to experience the continuous involvement of Judaism in the defining moments of Matan Torah and to appreciate how every thinker can access her/his Matan Torah within the variety offered.
Let us start with two relatively recent works that examine the group and the leader.
Moses and the People of Israel
1) Helmut Ammann, Moses schreitet in das Dunkel (Moses steps into the Dark), 1964, 2) Shalom of Safed, Matan Torah (detail), 3) Shalom of Safed (Shalom Moskovitz), Matan Torah, 1969
These two extremes may be termed the long shot and the close-up. In one, we focus on Moses, in a decisive moment. In the other, we ourselves are part of the community, their excitement and fear, fervor and trepidation.
Helmut Ammann, a twentieth century evangelical German, brings us to a mystical interior of Moses based on Exod 20:18 and Exod 24:18–entirely in shades of black and white. Even without seeing his face we can feel the tension of his posture and movement, clenching his hands behind his back, leaning into the darkness. Imagine your own head where his is and share the anxiety and fervor of his confrontation.
Coming out of his devout Hassidic community Shalom of Safed, a venerable tinker and toy maker, stages a cosmic sound and light show illustrating the synchronous trembling of the people and the mountain in Ex 19:16-18. Rather than focusing on a single individual (even Moses is marginal), his Bible comics invite us to join the congregation.
Shalom of Safed’s page is divided in half and each half into horizontal slices. The upper half brings us into the congregation at Sinai. The lower half takes us to Shalom’s Safed to shop in Yiddish before Shavuot, the holiday of Matan Torah, to dine with the family in Hebrew, to daven with the minyan in Aramaic, the languages that fuse the centuries of Ashkenazi Jewish life. The Jews of Safed are the people ofIsrael at Sinai.
The psychedelic collective ecstasy of Shalom of Safed is a tumultuous contrast to the turbulent though reflective interiority of Helmut Ammann. And both are “true”.
1) Moutier Grandval Bible, Moses Receiving the Law, ca. 840, 2) – Handmade Midrash, 20th century, 3) Sefer Minhagim, Moses receiving the Torah, 1723
Moving from left to right, these three artworks of Mt.Sinai illustrate a single principle of sacred geography: revelation takes place on a high point to teach us that humanity and God are on a direct vertical line that is called the axis of the world (axis mundi). The mountain (or ladder or tower or ziggurat or stairway) rises; the cloud comes down to meet it, to close the gap between heaven and earth. Wherever this happens, this location marks the movable sacred center. This is where God and humanity meet; this is where the temple is built; this is where the altar is. It’s both fixed and portable. Wherever the human being makes the connection, that’s where it take place. Note that these three renditions of Matan Torah are completely independent – the shared view comes out of the collective unconscious, not out of an art-historical tradition.
Our fourth component in pictures of Matan Torah is – the Torah!
The Torah and the Tablets
1) Rembrandt, Moses smashing the Tables of the Law, 1659, 2) Nurit Karlin, Untitled, 1995, 3) Ben Shahn, Alphabet of Creation, 1957
Perhaps most familiar to the viewer are realistic tablets with readable letters as in Rembrandt`s famous 17th century oil painting, where the anguished Moses is about to smash the tablets. He is, in effect, breaking the covenant with God, tearing up the contract between God andIsrael, because of the infidelity of the people around the Golden Calf. Has Rembrandt chosen to expose the second tablet, revealing his own entangled domestic situation?
The other two artists in this trio are moving us away from such familiar figural art. Nurit Karlin’s cartoon challenges us to decipher seemingly familiar iconography, of the tablets and the writing. But, just as in some dreams, we can’t quite make out the message, she is expressing the uncertainty of the Divine message. In the third figure, Ben Shahn has eliminated the tablets entirely but not the letters. Influenced by the Sefer Hayetsirah, where the Torah is described as black fire on white fire, he views the alphabet as the tool for Creation whose purpose is Matan Torah. His Alphabet of Creation is the scribe setting down letters of the Torah in black ink on white parchment. The amorphous whiteness of an empty page now takes shape around the black letters. Something of God`s unknowable whiteness is revealed by setting down the figure against the ground – so the Torah, you may say, is black fire against white fire. The viewer can see the figures of the Hebrew alphabet in black – alternatively, the viewer can focus on the white around the letters, the background to grasp something of the infinity of God.
To complete the movement from concrete to abstract, we have five final works.
1) Mark Podwal, Aleph, 1974, 2) Michael Sgan Cohen, YeHoVaHa,1980, 3) Birds’ Head Haggadah, Matan Torah, ca. 1300, 4) Mark Podwal, Dalet – Derasha, 1978, 5) Kaufmann, Mishneh Torah, Moses at Sinai, 1296
Mark Podwal’s Aleph grows out of the mystical tradition that we never heard all ten commandments or even two of them. Rather, we heard only the first letter (aleph) of the first word (anokhi, I) of the first commandment. (I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt…)
How can we hear an aleph? Make your throat as if you’re going to pronounce a vowel – there’s a closing of the glottis, in preparation for an opening to say the word – that closing, on the verge of opening, is the silent aleph – the potential of everything, but the actuality of nothing. The intent of this tradition is to stress the utter mystery of the revelation. How fitting therefore that the aleph also refers to the first three words (names of God) of the first commandment (אnokhi אdonai אlohechem).
Another contemporary artist, Michael Sgan-Cohen, also conveys the ineffable silence ofMatan Torah (contrast the bedlam of Shalom of Safed) by painting four mouths pursed to form the four letters of the unpronounceable name of God – here the very letters of that name are seen as the essence of the revelation.
In the Birds’ Head Haggadah, the two tablets literally given to Moses by the outstretched hand of God, quickly become five—namely the five books of the Torah. Thus we have returned from the mystical plane to the rational earthy concerns of Halakha (Jewish law).
This seamless movement from two to five is telling us that for the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz, the ten commandments are the abbreviated essence of the Torah, the guidelines, which become the books of the Torah.
But the five books are not the end. In this contemporary drawing by Mark Podwal, the letters move through the Torah and beyond: the never-ending road of commentary. Note that the road is vertical, symbolic of the connection between humanity and God.
And finally, a unique, psychological insight is provided by this illustration from a 13th century illuminated manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. The children of Israel, captive under the glass-like Mt. Sinai, see God through a window which is also a mirror (aspeklaria).Israel sees that God is not only transcendent, but also imminent. Israel grasps that God is also within each of them, (read us) as they accept the Torah from the hands of Moses.
Questions for Shavuot Study
We have selected a lively variety of Torah-giving surprises and questions to talk about for many Shavuot all-nighters. Think about the following questions and others that can serve as the basis for further discussion:
1) How do art and language enable us to communicate with God?
2) What is the relationship between art and the word?
3) How do mystical and rational modes of thought work together?
4) Which of the images comes closest to expressing the ineffable? Explain your choice.
5) How do you personally relate to revelation? Write a poem or create a collage.
6) The giving of Torah is marked by a specific date. Why is there no date in the calendar for receiving the Torah?
7) Comment on Martin Buber’s statement that the real miracle of Sinai was “synchronicity”, the nature and the spirit of the people were in sync.
Exodus 19:16 – 24
16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down, warn the people, so that they do not break through to the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish. 22 “Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, or else the Lord will break out against them.” 23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’” 24 Then the Lord said to him, “Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, or He will break forth upon them.”
15 All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. 16 Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.” 17 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” 18 So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. 19 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons ofIsrael, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven.
1 Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. 2 “Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.”
3 Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” 4 Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” 9 Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. 11 Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank. 12 Now the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses arose with Joshua his servant, and Moses went up to the mountain of God. 14 But to the elders he said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a legal matter, let him approach them.” 15 Then Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. 17 And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountain top. 18 Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
1 Now the Lord said to Moses, “Cut out for yourself two stone tablets like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered. 2 “So be ready by morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to Me on the top of the mountain. 3 “No man is to come up with you, nor let any man be seen anywhere on the mountain; even the flocks and the herds may not graze in front of that mountain.” 4 So he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand. 5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. 6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” 8 Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. 9 He said, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession.” 10 Then God said, “Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the Lord, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you.
27 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
19 “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain from the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick gloom, with a great voice, and He added no more. He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 20 “And when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders. 21 “You said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire; we have seen today that God speaks with man, yet he lives. 22 ‘Now then why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, then we will die. 23 ‘For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? 24 ‘Go near and hear all that the Lord our God says; then speak to us all that the Lord our God speaks to you, and we will hear and do it.’
25 “The Lord heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken. 26 ‘Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever! 27 ‘Go, say to them, “Return to your tents.” 28 ‘But as for you, stand here by Me, that I may speak to you all the commandments and the statutes and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I give them to possess.’
Rashi on Exodus 19:4
You have seen This is not a tradition that you have. I am not sending you this [message] with words; I am not calling witnesses to testify before you, but you [yourselves] have seen what I did to the Egyptians. They were liable to Me for many sins before they attacked you, but I did not exact retribution from them except through you.
and [how] I bore you Heb. וָאֶשָׂא. This is [alluding to] the day that the Israelites came to Rameses-because the Israelites were scattered throughout theland ofGoshen. And in a short time, when they came to start on their journey and leave, they all gathered in Rameses. Onkelos, however, rendered וָאֶשָׂא as וְאַטָלִיתיַתְכוֹן, and I caused you to travel, like וָאַסִּיעַ אֶתְכֶם He [Onkelos] amended [the translation of] the passage in a way respectful to the One above.
on eagles’ wings Like an eagle, which carries its young on its wings, for all other birds place their young between their feet since they fear another bird flying above them. The eagle, however, fears only man, lest he shoot an arrow at it, because no other bird flies above it. Therefore, it places them [its young] on its wings. It says, “Rather the arrow pierce me and not my children.” I [God] too did that: “Then the angel of God…moved, …And he came between the camp of Egypt, etc.” (Exod. 14:19, 20), and the Egyptians shot arrows and catapult stones, and the cloud absorbed them. and I brought you to Me As the Targum [Onkelos renders: and I brought you near to My service].
Rashi on Exodus 19:18
the kiln [used for the baking] of lime. I could think that it means [Mount Sinai smoked] like the kiln and no more. Therefore, [to clarify this,] Scripture states: “[the mountain was] blazing with fire up to the heart of the heaven” (Deut. 4:11) [meaning that the fire was far greater than in a lime kiln]. Why then does the Torah say “kiln”? In order to explain to the [human] ear what it is able to hear, [i.e., to give the reader a picture that can be imagined]. He gives the creatures [humans] a sign familiar to them. Similar to this [is the description in reference to God:] “He shall roar like a lion” (Hos. 11:10). Who but Him gave strength to the lion? Yet the Scriptures compare Him to a lion? But we describe Him and compare Him to His creatures in order to explain to [humans] what the ear is able to hear. Similar to this [is], “And its sound [the voice of God] was like the sound of abundant waters” (Ezek. 43:2). Now who gave the water a sound but He? Yet you describe Him and compare Him to His creatures in order to explain to [humans] what the ear is able to hear.
Rashi on Exodus 24:12
And the Lord said to Moses After the giving of the Torah.
Come up to Me to the mountain and remain there for forty days.
the stone tablets, the Law and the commandments, which I have written to instruct them All 613 mitzvoth are included in the Ten Commandments. In the “Azharoth” that he composed for each commandment [of the Ten], Rabbenu Saadiah [Gaon] explained the mitzvoth dependent upon it [each commandment
Rashi on Deuteronomy 29:19
The Lord’s fury… will fume [The image is as follows:] Through anger, the body [of a person] becomes heated up, and fumes are emitted from the nose. Similarly, [referring to God,] the verse says, “Smoke rose up in His nose” (II Sam. 22:9). Now, although this is inappropriate for the Omnipresent [since He has no physical form; nevertheless], Scripture describes [this concept] to the human ear in the manner to which it is accustomed and able to understand, according to the [natural] ways of the world.
Tal. Bab. Shabbat 88a
And they stood under the mount: R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, `If ye accept the Torah, `tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.` …Resh Lakish said: Why is it written, And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day; What is the purpose of the additional `the`? This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with the Works of Creation and said thereto. `IfIsrael accepts the Torah, ye shall exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness.`
Midrash Tehillim 8
4. Another comment. The words My son, if thou art become surety for thy neighbor(Prov. 6:1) are addressed to children in Israel who became sureties for one another at the time of the giving of Torah. How so? When the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to give the Torah to the people of Israel, He said to them: “Give Me sureties that you will live by the Torah.” And when the people of Israel said: “Behold the Patriarchs will be sureties for us,” God replied: “As ye live, the Patriarchs themselves are in debt to Me. Would that they were able to stand surety for their own persons!” A parable is told of a man who needed lo borrow money, and was told “Bring surety, and thou wilt receive as much money as thou desirest.” The man went and brought another who himself was in debt, and he was told: “Thou hast brought one already in debt to me. Would that he were able to stand surety for his own person! Go now and bring some one not in debt to me, and then receive what money thou desirest.” Likewise, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the people of Israel : “You bring Me the Patriarchs, sureties against whom I already hold many pledges! Bring Me sureties who are not ill debt to Me!” `Whence do we know that God spoke thus? Because it is written The Lord made not this covenant with Our fathers, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day(Deut. 5:3). When the people ofIsrael asked: “Who are those not in debt to Thee?” God answered: “Infants.” Whereupon the people ofIsrael brought sucklings at their mothers` breasts, and pregnant women whose wombs became transparent as glass so that the embryos in the wombs could see God and speak with Him. And the Holy One, blessed be He, asked the sucklings and the embryos: “Will you be sureties for your fathers, so that if I give them the Torah they will live by it, but that if they do not, you will be forfeited because of them?” They replied: “Yes.”
Targum Yonatan to Exodus 19:17
16. On the third day, on the sixth of the month, in the morning time, there were claps of thunder, and lightning, and a thick cloud enveloping the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17. And Moses brought all the people out of the camp to meet the Shekinah of the Lord, and immediately the Lord of the world uprooted the mountain and lifted it up in the air and it was transparent like glass, and they stationed themselvesunder the mountain. 18. Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord had inclined the heavens to it and revealed himself upon it in glowing fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.
Rashbam on Exodus 19:18
k? ?ešen [mount sinai] was all smoking: is written with a qames in the first syllable and a pata? in the second syllable, because it is a past-tense verb; it means “[Mount Sinai] smoked.” If k? ?ešen were a noun, it would be written with twoqames vowels.
k? ?ešen: ]is a participle that] means “like the smoking”; fumee in the vernacular. If
k? ?ešen were a noun here [in the construct case], it would be vocalized k? ?ašan . Just as the construct form of dabar isd?bar, as in the phrase (Deut. 15:2) “the nature (d?bar) of the remission,” and the construct form of baqar is b?qar, as in the phrase (Num. 7:88) “herd animals (b?qar) for sacrifices of well-being,” so also the noun ?ašan –which appears in the phrase (Is. 6:4) “the House kept filling with smoke (?ašan)” –becomes ??šan, in the construct case.
Pal. Tal. Shekalim
How were the tablets laid out?
R. Hananiah b. Gamaliel says, Five commandments were on one side, and five
on the other tablet. This is in line with that which is written, And he declared
to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the ten
commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone (Deut. 4: 13),
Five on one side, five on the other.
Rabbis say, Ten were on one tablet, and ten were on the other.
This is in line with that which is written, And he declared to you his covenant,
which he commanded you to perform, that is, the ten commandments; and he
wrote them upon two tables of stone (Deut. 4: 13). Ten on this tablet, ten on that one.
R. Simeon b. Yohai says, There were twenty on this tablet and twenty on that one.” This is in line with that which is written, And he declared to you his covenant which he commanded you to perform, that is, the tens of commandments” Twenty on this tablet, twenty on that one.
R. Simai says, There were forty on this tablet and forty on that one. On one side and on the other side they were written (Exod. 32: 15).
They corresponded to one another as a tetragon [four-sided figure].
Hananiah, nephew of R. Joshua says, Between each one of the commandments were its details and refinements.
“`[His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work,] encrusted with sapphires` (Song of Sol. 5: 14)-
“Like the great sea.”
R. Simeon b. Lakish, when he would reach this verse, would say, Well did you teach me, Hananiah, nephew of R. Joshua. Just as in the great sea, between one great wave and another are small swells, so between each commandment were the details and refinements of the Torah [written out].
Said R. Tanhuma, I raised the question before R. Pinhas, The law should be in accord with the view of R. Judah, and not in accord with the view of R. Meir. What is the scriptural basis for the position of R. Judah? Take this book of the law, and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you (Deut. 31:26).
In the opinion of R. Judah, who said this, where was the scroll of the Torah? It was set in a kind of chest, which they made for it outside [of the ark], and there the scroll of the Torah was kept. [So he can make sense of the verse.]
What is the scriptural basis for the position of R. Meir?
And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you (Exod. 25: 21).
In the view of R. Judah, who maintains that considerations of temporal sequence do not apply in the Torah, [the verse cited by Meir poses no problems]. Why not?
And in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you (Exod. 25: 21).
And afterward: And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark (Exod. 25: 21).
R. Pinhas in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: The Torah which the Holy One, blessed be he, gave is white fire.
The letters with which it is engraved are black fire.
It is fire, surrounded with fire, engraved out of fire, and set in fire.
With flaming fire at his right hand (Deut. 33: 2).
Mekhilta Bahodesh 4
Below the Mount. Scripture indicates that the mount was pulled up from its place and the people came near and stood under it, as it is said: And ye came near and stood under the mountain (Deut. 4.1]) Of them it is declared in the traditional sacred writings: Oh my dove that art in the clefts of the rock, etc. (Cant. 214). Let me see thy countenance, that is, the twelve pillars erected for the twelve tribes of Israel; let me hear thy voice (ibid.), that is, when responding to the Ten Commandments; for sweet is thy voice (ibid.), after having received the Ten Commandments; andthy countenance is comely (ibid.), when: All the congregation drew near and stood before the Lord (Lev. 95) R. Eliezer says: This may be interpreted as referring to the occasion at the Red Sea: Let me see thy countenance, when told:Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord (Ex. 14.13); let me hear thy voice, when: They were sore afraid and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord (ibid., v. 10). For sweet is thy voice, refers to: And they cried and their cry came up (Ex. 223); and thy countenance is comely, refers 10: And did the signs in the sight of the people, and the people believed (ibid. 430-31) Another Interpretation: For sweet is thy voice, when saying at the Red Sea: I will sing unto the Lord, for He is highly exalted (ibid 151); and thy sight is comely, when Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast Thou founded strength (Ps. 8.3).
Because the Lord descended upon it in fire – This tells that the Torah is fire, was given from the midst of fire, and is comparable to fire. What is the nature of fire? If one comes too near to it, one gets burnt. If one keeps too far from it, one is cold. The only thing for man to do is to seek to warm himself against its flame.
And the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace. One might think that it was like an ordinary smoke. Therefore it says: of a furnace. But if: of a furnace, one might still think it was just like that of a furnace. It says, however:And the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven (Deut 4:1]). Why then does it say: of a furnace? That the ear might get it in accordance with its capacity of hearing. Similarly: The lion hath roared, who will not fear, etc. (Amos 3.8) And who gave strength and force to the lion? Was it not He? But it is merely that we describe Him by figures known to us from His creations so that the ear may get it, etc. Similarly: And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east; and His voice was like the sound of many waters (Ezek. 43:2). And who gave strength and force to the waters? Was it not He? But it is merely that we describe Him by figures known to us from His creations, so that the ear may get it, etc.
And the whole mount quaked – And was not Sinai in one class with all other mountains? For it is said: The mountains quaked at the presencc of the Lord , even yon Sinai (Judg. 5:5). And it also says: Why look ye askance, ye mountains of peaks (Ps. 68:17), meaning: He said to them: All of you are but crook-backed (Gibnim), as when it says: “Or crook-backed (Giben) or a dwarf” (Lev. 2l:20).-And why did the Shekhinah rest in the portion of Benjamin? Because the heads of all the other tribes were partners in the selling of Joseph, but Benjamin was not a partner with them. And furthermore, the heads of all the other tribes were born outside of the land, and only Benjamin was born in the land of Israel.-But even though this be so, it (Sinai) was The mountain which God hath desired for His abode (Ps 68:17)
And there was the voice of the horn. Behold, this was a good omen.
In the sacred writings wherever the horn is mentioned it augurs well for Israel, as when it says: God is gone up amidst shouting, the Lord amidst the sound of the horn (Ps 47:6). And it also says: And it shall come to pass in that day, that a great horn shall be blown (Isa 27:13) And it also says: And the Lord God will blow the horn, and will go with whirlwinds of the south” (Zech. 9:14)
Waxing louder and louder: Ordinarily the more the sound of a voice is prolonged the weaker it becomes. But here the longer the voice lasted the stronger it became. And why was it softer at first? That the ear might get it in accordance with its capacity of hearing.
Moses spoke and God answered him by a voice. R. Eliezer says: How can you prove that God spoke only after Moses had told Him: Speak, for Thy children have already accepted? It is in this sense that it is said Moses spoke. Said to him R. Akiba: It surely was so. Why then does it say: Moses spoke and God answered him by a voice? It merely teaches that Moses was endowed with strength and force, and that God was helping him with His voice so that Moses could let Israel hear the same tone which he himself heard. In this sense it is said: Moses spoke and God answered him by a voice
Midrash Tanhuma Jethro 13
And the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace (Exod. 19:18). What furnace? Perhaps it is comparable to this furnace? Therefore Scripture says: And the mountain burned with fire(Deut. 4:11). Why then does Scripture say of a furnace? It does so only in order to transmit to the ear that which it can comprehend. Similarly it says: The lion hath roared, who will not fear (Amos 3:8), yet who instilled strength and power in the lion, if not He? We describe Him by the qualities given to His creations, so that the ear may hear what it is able to comprehend. Likewise, Behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east; and His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth did shine with His glory(Ezek. 43:2). Who instilled strength and force into the waters? Was it not He? Here again we describe Him merely by the qualities possessed by His creations, so that the ear may comprehend (what it hears).
When the voice of the horn waxed louder and louder. Normally, if a person blows a horn, the sound becomes weaker, but in this instance it waxed louder and louder. Why was the sound soft at first? So that it might (safely) penetrate the ear.
Rabbi said: At the time that the Israelites stood at Sinai, all agreed with one accord to receive with joy the yoke of the Kingdom of heaven, as it is said: And all the people answered together; and said(Exod. 19:8). And furthermore, they pledged themselves in behalf of each other. At the time the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to make a covenant with them concerning the hidden and revealed matters, they said: We will make a covenant with Thee concerning the revealed matters, but not concerning that which is hidden, lest one of us sin in secret and the entire congregation be held responsible because of him, as it is said: The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us(Deut. 29:28), in order that we may perform all the words of this law. Therefore, God spoke all these words.
Midrash Tanhuma Noah 8
The Israelites did not accept the Torah until the Holy One, blessed be He, arched the mountain over them like a vessel, as it is said: And they stood beneath the mountain(Exod. 19: 17). R. Dimi the son of Hama stated that the Holy One, blessed be He, told Israel: If you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, your grave will be there. If you should say that He arched the mountain over them because of the Written Law, isn`t it true that as soon as He said to them, “Will you accept the Torah?” they all responded, “We will do and hear,” because the Written Law was brief and required no striving and suffering, but rather He threatened them because of the Oral Law. After all, it contains the detailed explanations of the commandments, both simple and difficult, and it is as severe as death, and as jealous as Sheo!. One does not study the Oral Law unless he loves the Holy One, blessed be He, with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, as it is said: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might(Deut. 6:5).
Whence do you learn that this word love refers only to studying (the Oral Law). Observe what is written after this: And these words which I command thee this day shall be upon thy heart(ibid., v. 6). What words are alluded to here? The words of the Oral Law (Talmud), which are upon the heart. And Scripture says immediately thereafter: And thou shalt teach it to thy children. It is the Oral Law (Talmud) that must be taught.
Midrash Tanhuma Bereshit 1
With the beginning (Gen. 1:1). This is what Scripture means when it says: The Lord
with wisdom founded the earth(Prov. 3:19). That is, when the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to create this world, He consulted the Torah before embarking upon the work of creation, as it is said: Counsel is mine and sound wisdom; I am understanding, power is mine(ibid. 8:14). How was the Torah written? It was written with letters of black fire on a surface of white fire, as is said: His locks are curled and black as a raven(Song 5: 11). What is meant by His locks are curled?It means that each crowned stroke on the letters of the Torah contains heaps and heaps of law. For example, it is written in the Torah: Profane not My Holy Name(Lev. 22:2); but if you should change the het in the word yehallelu (“profane”) into a heh,the word would read “praise,” and you would thereby destroy the world. Conversely, where it is written Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord (Ps. 150:6), if you should alter the heh in the word tehallel (“praise”) into a het, the word would read “profane,” and you would thereby destroy the world.
Similarly, in the verse Hear; 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deut. 6:4), if you should change thedalet in the word ehad (“one”) into a resh, the word would then read aher (“another”), and you would thereby destroy the world, since it is said: For thou shalt not bow to another god (Exod. 34: 14). Likewise, in the verse They have lied against the Lord (Jer. 5: 12), if you should change the preposition bet (“against”) into the preposition kaf (“like”), you would thereby destroy the world.
Again, in the verse There is none holy as the Lord (I Sam. 2:2), if you alter the preposition kaf (“as”) to read bet(“in”), you would thereby destroy the world.
If a slight change in a single letter can produce such drastic consequences, how much more so the alteration of a complete word. Such, then, is the meaning of His locks are curled. Accordingly David praised God by saying: Thy commandment is exceedingly broad (Ps. 119:96); and elsewhere in Scripture it says: The measure thereof is longer than the earth (Job 11:9).
The Torah served as an artisan in all the work of creation, as it is said: Then I was with Him, as a nursling (amon) (Prov. 8:3). However, you do not read the word as amon (“nursling”), but as uman (“artisan”), since it was with the assistance of the Torah that God stretched out the heavens and established the earth, as it is said: If My covenant be not with day and night, if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth (Jer. 33:25). With it, He bound up the sea lest it should go forth and overflow the world, as it is said: Fear ye not Me? saith the Lord; nor will ye not tremble at My presence who have placed the sand for the bound of the sea (ibid. 5:22). With it, also, He locked up the deep so that it might not inundate the world, as is written: When He set a circle on the face of the deep (Prov. 8:27). Similarly, He fashioned with it the sun and the moon, as is said: The Lord giveth the sun to light the day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars to light the night. Who stirreth up the sea, that the waves thereof roar; the Lord of hosts is His name (Jer. 31:35). Hence, you learn that the world was founded upon the Torah.
The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to the Israelites so that they might devote themselves to it and to its commandments day and night, as it is said: But thou shalt meditate therein day and night (Josh. 1:8). And it says elsewhere:But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day und night. And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water (Ps. 1:2-3).
(Furthermore,) the world endures because of those who guard the law, as Hannah stated: For the pillar of the earth are the Lord`s (I Sam. 2:8). Who are the pillars of the earth? They are the guardians of the law, for whose sake alone the world was fashioned, as is said: He hath fashioned the world because of them (ibid.).
It has been taught on the authority of R. Simeon the son of Lakish: Why does Scripture say of the creation process (simply) first day, second day, third day, fourth day, fifth day, the sixth day, adding the definite article (heh) only in this instance, so that it reads the sixth day? This is to teach us, the rabbi explained, that God made an agreement with the works of creation in which he declared: If Israel accepts the Torah, in which there are five books, well and good, but if not I will return you to a state unformed and void (Gen. 1 :2).
Dr. Jo Milgrom is a lecturer in the Judaism and the Arts M.A. program at the Schechter Institute , where she offers her unique workshop on “Handmade Midrash”. She and Joel Duman launched the Visual Midrash website in 2009.
Dr. Joel Duman is a Biblical educator at HUC Jerusalem, JTS and the Hebrew University High School.
Image: “Matan Torah” from Sefer Minhagim, author unknown, 1723, woodcut. Courtesy of the TALI Education Fund website, Visual Midrash, a digitalized collection of artwork on biblical and Judaic subjects.