No Image did You See Except the Sound
“[Rabbi Akiva said:] All the people were seeing the thunderings (Exodus 20:15)…. They were seeing the fiery word issuing from the mouth of Power and being engraved on the tablets” (Mekhilta, Baḥodesh 9).
“[Rabbi Amorai] said: What is written: And all the people were seeing the thunderings, and the flashes (Exodus 20:15)—is thunder, visible? But and all the people were seeing אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת (et ha-qolot), the thunderings, are those קוֹלוֹת (qolot), voices, of which King David spoke:
YHWH’s voice is over the waters. The God of glory thunders (Psalms 29:3).
YHWH’s voice in power (ibid., 4), and it says, By the power, of My hand I have done it (Isaiah 10:13); Indeed My hand also has laid the foundation of the earth, [and My right hand has spread out the heavens: when I call to them, they stand up together] (ibid. 48:13).
YHWH’s voice in majesty (Psalms 29:4); Glory and grandeur His acts and His bounty stands for all time (ibid. 111:3).
YHWH’s voice breaking cedars (ibid. 29:5)—the bow that breaks cypress trees and cedar trees.
YHWH’s voice hews flames of fire (ibid., 7)—making peace between water and fire, hewing the power of fire and preventing it from evaporating water. Preventing water from extinguishing fire.
YHWH’s voice makes the wilderness shake (ibid., 8), as is said, And doing kindness with His anointed, for David and his seed forever (ibid. 18:51)—more than in the wilderness [when the Israelites were miraculously fed manna].
YHWH’s voice brings on the birth-pangs of does and lays bare the forests. And in His Temple all says glory (Psalms 29:9), as is written, I make you swear, O daughters of Jerusalem by the deer or the gazelles of the field, [that you shall not rouse not stir love until it pleases] (Song of Songs 2:7). To teach you that with seven קוֹלוֹת (qolot), voices, Torah was given. With each of them the Master of the Universe revealed Himself over them, and they saw Him. Thus it is written, And all the people were seeing אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת (et ha-qolot), the sounds.
One verse says: He tilted the heavens, came down, dense mist beneath His feet (2 Samuel 22:10). Another verse says: And YHWH came down on Mount Sinai, to the mountaintop (Exodus 19:20). However, still another verse says, From the heavens I spoke with you (Exodus 20:22). How is this so? And on the earth His great fire (Deuteronomy 4:36)—one voice. The other voices were in the heavens, as is written, From the heavens He made you hear His voice to reprove you, and on the earth He showed you His great fire, and His words you heard, from the midst of the fire (ibid.). But what was it? Great fire. From where did דִבּוּר (dibbur), Speech, emanate? From fire, as is written, and His words you heard, from the midst of the fire.
What is but no image did you see except the voice (Deuteronomy 4:12)? As Moses said to Israel: for you saw no whole image [on the day YHWH spoke to you from the midst of the fire, lest you act ruinously and make you a sculpted image of any likeness…] (Deuteronomy 4:15)—an image, but not כָּל תְּמוּנָה (kal temunah), a whole image [cf. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 1:3].
A parable: A king stood over his slaves wrapped in a white covering—is this not enough to hold הַמַּלְכוּת (ha-malkhut), the kingship, in awe?—that they gaze upon his garment. Though the king was at a distance they heard his voice [see Exodus 20:19–20; Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer 41]. Were they able to see his throat? You must say not. This teaches that they saw an image, but not a whole image. Thus it is written, but no image did you see except the קוֹל (qol), sound [or: voice]. It is also written, קוֹל דְּבָרִים (Qol devarim), the sound of words, you did hear.
One verse says: And all the people were seeing אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת (et ha-qolot), the sounds (Exodus 20:15). However, another verse says: קוֹל דְּבָרִים (Qol devarim), the sound of words, you did hear (Deuteronomy 4:12). How? At first they saw the voices. What did they see? The seven voices spoken of by David. But in the end they heard דִבּוּר (dibbur), Speech, emanating from the midst of them all. But we have learned that there were ten. Our Rabbis taught that they were all uttered with a single word [see Tanḥuma, Yitro 11]. But we have said that there were seven. There were seven voices. Of three of them is written: The sound of words you did hear but no image did you see except the sound (Deuteronomy 4:12). To teach you that they were all uttered with a single word. This is so that Israel should not err and say, ‘Others helped Him. Perhaps one of the angels, since His voice alone could not be so powerful.’ Thus on their account He returned and included them [in a single word].
Another interpretation: It was so that the world should not say that since there were עֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת (asarah ma’amarot), ten sayings, for ten kings it might be that He could not speak for them all through one. He therefore said אָנֹכִי (Anokhi), I (Exodus 20:2), which included all ten. What are the ten kings? They are the שֶׁבַע קּוֹלֹת (sheva qolot), seven voices, and שְׁלֹשָׁה אֹמְרִים (sheloshah omrim), three sayings. But what sayings? And YHWH has proclaimed you today [to be to Him a treasured people, as He has spoken to you…] (Deuteronomy 26:18). But what are three? The beginning of wisdom is—get חָכְמָה (ḥokhmah), wisdom, and in all that you get, get בִינָה (binah), discernment (Proverbs 4:7) [cf. Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer 17–18]. Therefore it is written [Yet it is a spirit in man,] and Shaddai’s breath that grants insight (Job 32:8)—Shaddai’s breath is תְּבִינֵם (tevinem), insight. What is third? As the old man said to the child, ‘Seek not things that are too hard for you, and search not things that are hidden from you. Reflect on the things that have been permitted you; you have no business with mysteries‘ (BT Ḥagigah 13a) [see Ben Sira 3:21–22]” (Bahir §45–§49).
“This is the mystery of All the people saw the sounds and the flashes, and the sound of the shofar (Exodus 20:15). The sounds—these are the other letters that emerged from those sounds (as we have said), appearing in the air before the eyes of all, as is written: the sounds. It is not written all the people saw הַקּוֹלֹת (ha-qolot), sounds, but rather אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת (et ha-qolot), the sounds, alluding to the [entire sequence of] letters [from א (alef) to ת (tav)] that issued from them” (Zohar Ḥadash 41c).
“[Rabbi Yoḥanan said:] The voice went forth and split into seven voices, and from seven voices into seventy languages, so that all the nations would hear. Each and every nation heard His voice in its own language [see Rabbi Avraham Abulafia, Or ha-Sekhel 7: ‘שִׁבעִים לָשׁוֹנוֹת (Shevi’im lashonot), seventy languages, is numerically equivalent to צֵירוּף הָאוֹתִיּוֹת (tseruf ha-otiyyot), permutation of the letters’]” (Tanḥuma, Shemot 25).
“There were thunderings and lighting (Exodus 19:16). Rabbi Abba said, ‘It is spelled קֹלֹת (qolot), thunderings, deficiently [i.e., spelled without a ו (vav)]—two קָלִין (qalin), voices, turning back into one, issuing from one another: air from water, and water from air. It has been taught: Two that are one; one, an entirety encompassing two.
Rabbi Yose said, ‘קֹלֹת (Qolot)—one that is great and mighty, never ceasing. For it has been taught: In four cycles in the year the voice ceases, and then judgments arouse in the world; but this voice, comprising other voices, never ceases and is never deprived of its full existence and potency. This voice is voice of voices, a voice containing other voices.’
Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘Voice issues only from the aspect of air and water, and voice generates voice, intermingling, and it is spelled קֹלֹת (qolot).’
And lighting (Exodus 19:16). Rabbi Yose said, ‘This corresponds to what is written: He makes lightning for the rain (Psalms 135:7)—a flame in diadems, cluster of compassion, in unsubsiding love. It has been taught: Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘Torah was given from the side of Gevurah. Rabbi Yose said, ‘If so, it is on the left side!’ He replied, ‘It returned to the right, as is written: From His right hand, a fiery law for them (Deuteronomy 33:2), and it is written Your right hand, O YHWH, glorious in power (Exodus 15:6). We find left turning into right, and right into left; thus Gevurah is on the left.’
And a heavy cloud on the mountain (Exodus 19:16)—a mighty cloud settling in its place, not moving. וְקֹל (Ve-qol), And the voice of, a shofar, very strong (ibid.)—out of this mighty cloud issues that voice, as is said: when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness (Deuteronomy 5:20).
Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘There were three types of darkness, as is written: darkness, cloud, and dense fog (ibid. 4:11), and that voice issued as inmost of all.’ Rabbi Yose said, ‘Inmost of all, of which is written a mighty voice, unceasing (ibid. 5:19).
Rabbi Abba said, ‘It is written: All the people were seeing הַקּוֹלֹת (ha-qolot), the voices (Exodus 20:15). Were seeing—the verse should read were hearing. However, we have learned as follows: Those קָלִין (qalin), voices, were engraved in that darkness, cloud, and dense fog, and were visible in them as a body is visible, and they saw what they saw and heard what they heard from within that darkness, dense fog, and cloud. From within the vision they saw, they were illumined by the supernal radiance and knew what later generations coming after them would not know. They all saw face-to-face, as is written: Face-to-face YHWH spoke [with you]… (Deuteronomy 5:4).’
What did they see? Rabbi Yose taught, ‘Radiance of those voices—for there was not a single voice that did not shine radiantly, enabling them to gaze upon all hidden, concealed treasures and all generations that will appear until King Messiah. Therefore, All the people were seeing הַקּוֹלֹת (ha-qolot), the voices—actually seeing!” (Zohar 2:81a–b).
“When the blessed Holy One revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, when Torah was given to Israel in ten utterances, each and every utterance generated a voice, and that voice branched into seventy voices, all shining and sparkling before the eyes of all Israel, who saw eye-to-eye the splendor of His Glory, as is written: All the people were seeing הַקּוֹלֹת (ha-qolot), the voices (Exodus 20:15)—actually seeing!
That voice warned every single Israelite, saying to him, ‘Will you accept me upon yourselves with such-and-such commands of Torah?’ They replied, ‘Yes.’ It returned, circling round his head, and warned him, saying, ‘Will you accept me upon yourselves with such-and-such penalties of Torah?’ Each one said, ‘Yes.’ Afterward, that voice returned and kissed him on the mouth, as is written: O that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! (Song of Songs 1:2)” (Zohar 2:146a).