Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Did all the nation *see* the sounds?

Summary: After considering several, including Saadia Gaon, who maintain that the sound was visual, we cite Ibn Ezra who maintains that it means perception. As peshat, Ibn Ezra appears correct, though there are a number of other compelling suggestions. The Karaites side with Rashi and Saadia Gaon, and the Samaritans emend away the difficulty.

Post: At Har Sinai:

15. And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar.טו. וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק:

And Rashi notes:

the voices: They saw what was audible, which is impossible to see elsewhere. — [from Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai]ראים את הקולות: רואין את הנשמע, שאי אפשר לראות במקום אחר:

In Mechilta deRashbi:
את הקולות. בנוהג שבעולם מה שאי אפשר לראות את הקול אבל
כאן ראו את הקולות ואת הלפידים כשם שראו את הלפידים כך ראו את הקולות

In sefer Magen David, the author, the Radvaz (Rabbi David ben Zimra, one of the early Acharonim) tries to relate it to natural phenomena, and cited Saadia Gaon as evidence. And also makes a nice homily out of it. Thus, words which leave a person's mouth stay in the air, split various atmospheres, and ascend above. If good, it is brought before Hashem, etc., and if bad, Oy Vey! And don't be astounded at this, for see that during the winter a person's breath makes an impression in the air; and therefore all Israel when they cry out because of dire straits cry out with a great (loud) voice, to make a great impression and to pierce the avirim {atmospheres}.

And behold, the great scholar in the science of nature, Rabbenu Saadia Gaon, za"l, wrote something close to this upon the verse "and all the nation saw the voices", that the voice split the air and the matter was sketched in the air as if it were written with explicit letters, and they saw these words as if they were written in the air, end quote.

This is somewhat astonishing, in that
Radvaz appears to be trying to say this (about words of tefillah or words of lashon hara) not as metaphor, or as inspiration, but as scientific fact, or alternatively spiritual fact, and therefore refers to Saadia Gaon as an expert in science. (Saadia Gaon indeed seems to be talking about metzius, that the kol had this particular effect. I am not sure if this is al derech hateva or miraculous. See where Aharon ben Yosef seems to say something similar, below.)

Radvaz is somewhat surprising because of the gemara in Berachot daf 24:
'One who says the Tefillah so that it can be heard is of the small of faith'. R. Huna said: This was meant to apply only if he is able to concentrate his attention when speaking in a whisper, but if he cannot concentrate his attention when speaking in a whisper, it is allowed. And this is the case only when he is praying alone, but if he is with the congregation [he must not do so because] he may disturb the congregation.
Where the reason one who says the Tefillah aloud is of small faith is that he imagines that otherwise, Hashem cannot hear him. Yet positing a practical reason for this, that otherwise it will not reach Heaven, seems to buy in to the very thing that brayta was rejecting. Aruch Hashulchan permits selichot and other non-Amidah davening to be said loudly, but this is because it increases concentration and fervor, not chas veshalom because otherwise Hashem wouldn't hear it as well.

While Saadia Gaon may have been interpreting the pasuk, and roim et hakolot, to describe a particular out-of-the-ordinary and miraculous event at Har Sinai, other meforshim disagree. In particular, Ibn Ezra writes
[כ, טו]
וכל העם רואים את הקולות -
וכבר פירשתי טעם רואים את הקולות. כי כל ההרגשות מתחברות אל מקום אחד.
All senses are connected to, and are processed, by one place, and so roim is appropriate. So too Ibn Caspi:

רואים את הקולות. היטיב א"ע בזה במה שאמר בזה ובדומה לו, כי בעבור שההרגשות החמשה מתחברות במקום אחד והוא הנקרא החוש המשותף, ישימו העברים האחת תחת האחרת, וכן הבאשתם את ריחנו בעיני פרעה (ה׳ כ״א):ש
Abarbanel also endorses Ibn Ezra's interpretation, though with the alternative that it refers to the lapidim and the kolot just come along for the ride with that verb:
 וכבר כתב הראב״ע כי בעבור שההרגשות ה"ה
מתחברות במקום א׳ והוא הנקרא החוש המשותף
ישימו העבריים האחת תחת האחרת כמו שאמר
ראה ריח בני. אשר הבאשתם את ריחנו בעיני
פרעה וכן נאמר כאן וכל העם רואים את
הקולות עם היות הקול מיוחד אל השמיעה
לא אל הראות. גם נוכל לפרש שאמר כאן
וכל העם רואים על הלפידים כי הם היו
הנראין ויהיה אומרו את הקולות כמו את יעקב
איש וביתו באו יאמר וכל העם רואים עם
הקולות את הלפידים כי בבחינת הלפידים אמר

I wonder -- if we could consider the kolot and the lapidim to be thunder and lightning, then they are associated with each other quite closely. And if so, one could readily say that they saw the thunder and lightning, as one entity. This is akin to Abarbanel's second answer. And I think it is a very strong answer.

(See also Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, who seems to take roim as evidence that this all was a prophetic vision which everyone experienced.)

In terms of peshat, I think Ibn Ezra is right, approximately. I think that it is not necessarily that the five senses can be interchanged at will, but rather that ראה primarily means "see" but can also mean "witness" or "experience". And if so, one can experience a smell, a taste, a sound.

A common explanation of roim et hakolot nowadays, connecting it to modern scientific knowledge, is to attach this to synesthesia:

Cytowic calls sound → color synesthesia "something like fireworks": voice, music, and assorted environmental sounds such as clattering dishes or dog barks trigger color and simple shapes that arise, move around, and then fade when the sound stimulus ends.[3] For some, the stimulus type is limited (e.g., music only, or even just a specific musical key); for others, a wide variety of sounds triggers synesthesia.
Sound often changes the perceived hue, brightness, scintillation, and directional movement. Some individuals see music on a "screen" in front of their face. Deni Simon, for whom music produces waving lines "like oscilloscope configurations—lines moving in color, often metallic with height, width and, most importantly, depth. My favorite music has lines that extend horizontally beyond the 'screen' area."[3]
We might relate this to the idea in Ibn Ezra that multiple senses all come to the same place, but at the same time, say that they actually saw the sounds. However, on a peshat level, none of this is necessary. As Ibn Ezra et al write, and as I modified it, roim does not require actual sight of the sounds.

In matters of peshat and derash like this, where it is not so clear how to draw the lines, it can be interesting to see what the Karaites say. In his commentary, the Karaite scholar Aharon ben Yosef writes:

And all the nation saw -- I have explained it. Or it is like "see the smell of my son".

How did he explain it, before? His supercommentator writes:

The Rav wrote this above, in this parasha, in explaining the verse {Shemot 19:9hinei anochi ba eilecha be'av he'anan -- know that when you consider the matter of the air, etc., that the words were etched into the air by the decree of Hashem, and Israel saw with their eyes the forms of letters, via the sound which created in the air, which the fire burned up. For this reason, the verse associated sight with the sounds.

This is what Aharon ben Yosef gives as his primary answer, and only gives the Ibn Ezra answer as his secondary answer. This even though our own instinct may be to consider it midrashic. Here it is a literal rendition of the words, works with other pesukim. That it is extremely miraculous is not a flaw, because we are speaking of maamid Har Sinai and the appearance of the Divine Presence.

Yet I don't think it is peshat, and not because of derach hateva concerns. Overly literal interpretations often
make the stuff of midrash, and peshat is arrived at by not making too much of the peculiarities of natural language. Dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam.

It is also interesting to see what appears in the Samaritan Torah. This should be instructive, as it is part of a general pattern of the Samaritan Torah "fixing" difficulties by emending the text. It is important to realize that, so that we do not stray after it to thing that we should emend our Masoretic text to match. According to Vetus Testamentum, the Samaritan Torah reads as follows:

That is, they emend the text to fix the problem. They place the two kolot (that is, kolot and kol hashofar) together, and replace roim with shama. Then, they stick in roim right before the lapidim, moved later in the verse. Then, they harmonize the text that follows, by borrowing a section from Devarim 5:20, which also was after the Aseres HaDibros. It should be obvious that lectio difficilior should apply here, and that they are "fixing" a problem which does not really exist, with a proper understanding of the implications of the word ראה.

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