The Tablets, the Torah and Mount Sinai
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
I dedicate this article in memory of my friend Mindy who passed away this week. Mindy’s husband recalled her unique character. She didn’t socialize superficially. I saw this in Mindy, it was her praiseworthy mark of a “tznuah”, a modest person. Modesty was Moses’ mark of perfection too, “anav mikol adam”, “more modest than any other person”. Moses’ modesty was due to his level of appreciation of God’s kingship. With the greatness of one’s knowledge, comes his or her humility. Mindy genuinely appreciated people, but wisdom was her a security in life. One who is secure, does not seek the approval of others. Mindy needed no approval from man, God alone sufficed. Her excitement in hearing an idea, her devotion to her husband’s learning, and her unique, delicate and tender nature displayed her inner perfection. One of such character leaves her friends and family with an indelible affection for her. Mindy will always imbue those who knew her with an appreciation for what we can achieve - what we must achieve. The Talmud says that better is the ministering to a teacher, than learning from him. This means that a close, personal relationship impacts our personalities, greater than their teachings. Mindy made this impact.
The Tablets, the Torah and Mount Sinai
Certain facts or events, basic to our beliefs, are sometimes so quickly embraced, that our questions are overlooked, or not even detected. Children often ask us about our accepted foundations. Their questions are undiluted by social pressures, so they see the large holes in our beliefs, and not being repressed, they verbalize them. We hear their questions - from the mouths of babes - and wonder why we never realized such problems. Of course, our ignorance is the source of these problems. But if we didn’t ponder the questions that children ask - and certainly if we have no answers - we are missing some basic principles of Judaism.
Such is the case with Sinai. Recently, I was reviewing Deuteronomy 10:1, where God instructed Moses to quarry a new set of stones for God’s engraving of the second set of Ten Commandments. (God wrote the Ten Commandments on both sets, but God quarried only set #1, Moses was commanded to quarry set #2.) The first set of tablets, you recall, Moses broke in the sight of the people. A Rabbi explained this was done so the people would not worship the stone tablets as they did the Golden Calf. A new set of tablets was then required. Subsequently, I pondered, “Why do we needed the Ten Commandments engraved on stone tablets at all? If we need commands, we can receive them orally from God, or from Moses, so why are tablets needed? Also, why was there miraculous writing on the tablets? If Moses felt the people might err by deifying the first set, why was a second set created?” I also wondered why a box was required for the second set, but not for the first?
I then started thinking more into the purpose of the tablets, “Was this the only thing Moses descended with from Sinai? Was there a Torah scroll? What about the Oral Law? What did Moses receive, and when?” I also questioned what exactly comprised the content of the Written Torah and the Oral Law. Events subsequent to Sinai, such as the Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy had not yet occurred, so it did not make sense to me that these were given at Sinai. I looked for references in the Torah and Talmud. What did Moses receive at Sinai?
I wish at this point to make it clear, that I am not questioning the veracity of our Written Torah and our Oral Law as we have it today. Our Five Books of Moses, Prophets, Writings, Mishna, Medrash, and Talmud are all authentic, and comprise authentic, Written and Oral Law. What I am questioning, is how and what was received, by whom, and when. I am doing so, as this is part of God’s design of our receipt of Torah. If He gave it over in a specific fashion, then there is much knowledge to be derived from such a transmission. Certainly, the Ten Commandments must be unique in some way, as God created separate stones revealing only these ten. What is their significance?
The answers begin to reveal themselves by studying these areas in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 19, and 24 recount the arrival of the Jews at Sinai and the events which transpired:
Exodus, 24:1-4, “1. And to Moses (God) said, ascend to God, you, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy from the elders of Israel, and prostrate from afar. 2. And Moses alone, draw near to God, but the others, don’t approach, and the people, do not ascend with him. 3. And Moses came and told over to the people all the words of God, and all the statutes, and the entire people answered as one, and they said, ‘all the matters that God has said we will do.’ 4. And Moses wrote all the the words of God...”
Verse 24:12 continues: “And God said to Moses, ‘ascend to Me to the mountain, and remain there, and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the Mitzvah (commands) that I have written, that you should instruct them.”
“And Moses wrote all the the words of God...” teaches that prior to the giving of the tablets of stone, Moses ascended Mount Sinai, learned ideas from God, descended, taught the people what he learned, and wrote “the words of God.” (This was the order of events prior to Moses’ second ascension to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.) What were these “words”? Ibn Ezra says this comprised the section of our Torah from Exod. 20:19 - 23:33. This is the end of Parshas Yisro through most of Parshas Mishpatim. This was told to the Jews before the event of Sinai where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The Jews accepted these laws, and Moses wrote them down. This is referred to as the “Book of the Treaty.” Moses entered them into a treaty with God, that they accept God based on the section mentioned. Only afterwards was that famous, historical giving of the Ten Commandments from the fiery Mount Sinai. The Jews were offered to hear the Torah’s commands.
Earlier in Exodus, 19:8, we learn of this same account, but with some more information. When Moses told the Jews the commandments verbally, prior to the reception of the tablets, the Jews said as one, “all that God said, we will do, and Moses returned the word of the people to God.” Moses returned to God and told Him the Jews’ favorable response. Now, Moses knew that God is aware of all man’s thoughts, deeds and speech. What need was there for Moses to “return the word”? Then God responds, “Behold, I come to you in thick cloud so that the people shall hear when I speak with you, and also in you will they believe forever...” What was Moses intent on reporting the Jews’ acceptance of these commands, and what was God’s response? Was Moses’ intent to say, “there is no need for the event of Sinai, as the people already believe in You?” I am not certain. The Rabbis offer a few explanations why Revelation at Sinai was necessary. Ibn Ezra felt there were some members of the nation who subscribed to Egypt’s beliefs (inherited from the Hodus) that God does not speak with man. God therefore wished to uproot this fallacy through Revelation. Ibn Ezra then, is of the opinion that Revelation was not performed for the Jews’ acceptance of God, which they already had accepted, “and the entire people answered as one, and they said, ‘all the matters that God has said we will do.”
According to Ibn Ezra, God teaches the purpose of the miracles at Sinai: “Yes, the people believe in Me, but there is yet something missing: a proof for ALL generations”, as God said, “...and also in you will they believe forever.” It ends up that the Sinaic event of God giving the Ten Commands from a fiery mountain had one purpose; to stand as a proof for all generations. This is something many of us are already familiar with: Such a massively attended event at which an Intelligence related knowledge to man, from amidst flames, was and is undeniable proof of the existence of a Metaphysical Being in complete control of all creation. Sinai serves as our eternal proof of God’s existence. We now learn from a closer look, that the Jews had already accepted God’s commands prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments. That event was to serve as a proof of God’s existence, but the Jews’ agreement to those ideas was earlier.
What exactly did God give to Moses at Sinai?
The Torah tells us God communicated many commands without writing, and He also gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Ibn Ezra says the “Torah and the Mitzvah” referred to in Exod. 24:12 is as follows: “The ‘Torah’ is the first and fifth commands (of the Ten) and the ‘Mitzvah’ refers to the other eight.” This implies that all, which God gave physically, was the Ten Commandments on stone. Further proof is found openly, Deuteronomy 9:10, “And it was at the end of forty days and forty nights, God gave me the two tablets of stone, tablets of the treaty.” We find no mention of any other object, such as a Torah scroll, given to Moses. We therefore learn that Moses wrote the Torah, and God wrote the Ten Commandments. (Saadia Gaon views the Ten Commandments as the head categories for the remaining 603 commands.)
The Torah was written by Moses, not God, Who wrote the Ten Commandments. What was God’s plan, that there should be a Divinely engraved “Ten Commandments” in stone, and that Moses would record the Torah? And we see the necessity for the Ten Commandments, as God instructed Moses to quarry new tablets subsequent to his destruction of the first set. These stones were necessary, even though they are recorded in Moses’ Torah! What is so important about these stone tablets? Not only that, but additionally, the Ten Commandments were uttered by God. Why? If He gave them to us in an engraved form, we have them! Why is God’s created “speech” required? Was it to awe the masses, as we see they asked Moses to intercede, as they feared for their lives at the sound of this created voice?
According to Maimonides, at Sinai, the Jews did not hear intelligible words. All they heard was an awesome sound. Maimonides explains the use of the second person singular throughout the ten Commandments - God addressed Moses alone. Why would God wish that Moses’ alone find the sound intelligible, but not the people? Again, Maimonides is of the opinion that the people didn’t hear intelligible words during God’s “oral” transmission of the Ten Commandments. This requires an explanation, as this too is by God’s will. We now come to the core issue of this article...
Why Moses Perceived the Miracle of Sinai Differently than the People
We must take note of Maimonides’ distinction between the perceptions of Moses and the Jews at Sinai. It appears to me, God desired we understand that reaching Him is only through knowledge. God teaches this by communicating with the Jews at Sinai, but as Maimonides teaches, Moses’ alone understood this prophecy on his level, Aaron on a lower level, Nadav and Avihu on a lower level, and the seventy elders still lower. The people did not understand the sound. This teaches that knowledge of God depends on one’s own level. It is not something equally available to all members of mankind. God desires we excel at our learning, sharpening our minds, thinking into matters, and using reason to uncover the infinite world of ideas created by God. The fact that knowledge is and endless sea, is the driving force behind a Torah student’s conviction that his or her studies will eventuate in deep, profound, and “continued” insights. This excites the Torah scholar, which each one of us has the ability to be. It’s not the amount of study, but the quality of it. “Echad hamarbeh, v’echad ha’mimat, uvilvad sheh-yikavane libo laShamayim.”
Sinai was orchestrated in a precise fashion. Maimonides uncovers the concept, which Sinai taught: In proportion to our knowledge is our ability to see new truths. Moses was on the highest level of knowledge, and therefore understood this prophecy at Sinai to the highest level of human clarity. He then taught this knowledge to the people, but they could not perceive it directly when it was revealed. God desired the people to require Moses’ repetition. Why? This established the system of Torah as a constant reiteration of the event at Sinai! A clever method. Sinai taught us that perception of God’s knowledge is proportional to our intelligence. Thus, Moses alone perceived the meaning of the sounds. You remember that earlier in this article we learned that the people were taught certain Torah commands prior to the event at Sinai. Why was this done? Perhaps it served as a basis for the following Sinaic event which God knew they would not comprehend. God wished that when Moses explained to them what he heard, that the Jews would see that it was perfectly in line with what Moses taught many days earlier. There would be no chance that the people would assume Moses was fabricating something God did not speak.
God does not wish this lesson of Sinai to vanish. This is where Moses’ writing of the Torah comes in. God could have equally given Moses a Torah scroll along with the tablets, but He didn’t. Why? I believe Moses’ authority - as displayed in his writing of the Torah - reiterates the Sinaic system that knowledge can only be found when sought from the wise. It is not open to everyone as the Conservatives and Reformed Jews haughtily claim. The system of authority was established at Sinai, and reiterated through Moses’ writing of the Torah. Subsequent to Moses, this concept continues, as it forms part of Torah commands, “In accordance with the Torah that they teach you...” (Deut. 17:11) God commands us to adhere to the Rabbis. God wishes us to realize that knowledge can only be reached with our increased study, and our continually, refined intelligence and reason. Words alone - even in Torah - cannot contain God’s wisdom. The words point to greater ideas, they are doors to larger vaults, and they, to even larger ones. Perhaps this is the idea that the Jews did not hear words. As the verse says, “a sound of words did you hear”. Maimonides deduces that no words were heard, otherwise, the verse would read “words did you hear”, not “a sound of words”. The Jews heard sounds with no words.
A Purpose of the Tablets
We now understand why Moses taught the Jews commands before Sinai’s miracles. We understand why Moses wrote the Torah - not God. We understand why God created the miraculous event at Sinai, as well as the system of transmission of knowledge. But we are left with one question. Why did God create the Ten Commandments of stone? Why was the second set alone, housed in a box?
Let us think; they were made of stone, both sets - the broken and the second set - were housed in the ark, there was miraculous writing on these tablets(Rabbeinu Yona: Ethics, 5:6), they contained the ten head categories for all the remaining 603 commands(Saadia Gaon), and they were to remain with the people always.
Why did the tablets have only ten of the 613 commands? We see elsewhere (Deut. 27:3) that the entire Torah was written three times on three sets of 12 stones, according to Ramban. Even Ibn Ezra states that all the commands were written on these stones. So why didn’t the tablets given to Moses at Sinai contain all the commands?
Perhaps the answer is consistent with the purpose of Sinai: That is, that the system of knowledge of God is one of ‘derivation’ - all knowledge cannot be contained in writing. God gave us intelligence for the sole purpose of using it. With the tablets of only ten commands, I believe God created a permanent lesson: “All is not here”, you must study continually to arrive at new ideas in My infinite sea of knowledge. So the head categories are engraved on these two stones. This teaches that very same lesson conveyed through Moses’ exclusive understanding of God’s “verbal” recital of these very Ten Commands on Sinai: Knowledge is arrived at only through thinking. Knowledge is not the written word, so few words are engraved on the tablets. But since we require a starting point, God inscribed the head categories which would lead the thinker to all other commands, which may be derived from these ten. God taught us that our knowledge of Him is proportional to our intelligence. This is why Moses alone perceived the “orally” transmitted Ten Commandments. Others below him in intelligence, i.e., Aaron, his sons, and the elders, received far less.
This theory is consistent with Saadia Gaon’s position that the Ten Commandments are the head categories of all remaining 603 commands. Saadia Gaon too, was teaching that God gave us the necessary “Ten Keys” which unlock greater knowledge. Saadia Gaon saw knowledge not as a reading of facts, but as it truly is: a system where our thought alone can discover new ideas, and that new knowledge, opens new doors, ad infinitum. All truth is complimentary, so the more we grasp, the more we CAN grasp.
The tablets mirror the event of God’s revelation, and the nature by which man may arrive at new ideas. Just as Moses alone understood the sounds at Sinai, and all others could not readily comprehend the sounds, so too the tablets. All is not revealed, but can be uncovered through earnest investigation. Moses possessed the greatest intellect, so he was able to comprehend Sinai more than any other person. Just as Sinai taught us that refined intelligence open doors to those possessing it, via Moses’ exclusive comprehension, the tablets too were a necessary lesson for future generations. They were commanded to be made of stone as stone endures throughout all generations. (Placing the second set of tablets in a box may have been to indicate that the Jews were now further removed from knowledge, in contrast to the first set. They removed themselves via the Golden Calf event.)
Why was a “miraculous” writing essential to these tablets? Perhaps this “Divine” element continually reminds us that the Source of all knowledge is God. Only One Who created the world could create miracles within a substance, such as these miraculous letters. We recognize thereby, that Torah is knowledge of God, and given by God. These tablets are a testament to the Divine Source of Torah, and all knowledge.
We learn a lesson vital to our purpose here on Earth to learn: Learning is not absorbing facts. Learning is the act of thinking, deriving, and reasoning. “Knowledge” is not all written down, very little is. Thus, the Oral Law. Our Torah is merely the starting point. God’s knowledge may only be reached through intense thought. We must strive to remove ourselves from mundane activities, distractions, and from seeking satisfaction of our emotions. We must make a serious effort to secure time, and isolate ourselves with a friend and alone, and delve into Torah study. Jacob was a “yoshave ohallim”, “a tent dweller”. He spent years in thought. Only through this approach will we merit greater knowledge, and see the depths of wisdom, with much enjoyment.