The Decalogue: Direct From Hashem or Via Moshe?

Exegetical Approaches

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The Torah's contrasting portraits of Hashem's revelation to the nation lead commentators to varying understandings of what the nation grasped directly from Hashem and what they understood only via Moshe. These, in turn, have important ramifications for how one understands the entire purpose of the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

On one end of the spectrum, Rambam and R. D"Z Hoffmann focus on the verses which present Moshe as an intermediary, asserting that the people heard only the voice of Hashem, but could not distinguish His words. Moshe, thus, acted as a mediator or translator for all ten. As such, the main purpose of revelation was not to instill faith in Hashem, but to teach the nation to believe in Moshe's prophecy.  On the other end of the spectrum, Ibn Ezra and others look at the depiction of the episode as a "face to face" encounter. They posit that Hashem conversed directly with the people, relaying to them all ten utterances with the goal of inculcating belief in God.

A middle ground is charted by Rashi, Ramban, and others, who attempt to harmonize the various verses by positing that there was a split in the commandments. The nation understood only the first two from Hashem, but needed Moshe to explain the final eight. Ramban explains that the goal of Revelation was twofold – to instill belief in both Hashem and in Moshe as His prophet. The fundamentals of faith were thus relayed directly, while the rest was taught via Moshe, who from this point on was to continue in this capacity as teacher of the law.

Understood None

The nation heard only the voice of Hashem, but understood none of His words, and Moshe's mediation between the people and Hashem was thus needed throughout the entire Decalogue.  Commentators disagree whether the voice was directed at the nation or if they merely overheard the sounds of the Divine conversation with Moshe.

Overheard Voice

The people listened as Hashem communicated the Decalogue to Moshe, but they only heard the Divine voice and could not decipher His words.

Purpose of Sinaitic revelationRambam states that the main purpose of the revelation was, not to instill belief in Hashem,3 but to teach the nation to believe in Moshe's prophecy.  This was best achieved by having the nation watch as Hashem spoke to their leader. This is supported by Hashem's words, "הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ וְגַם בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם".
Prophecy for the masses – Rambam's position is motivated by his belief that indiscriminate prophecy is impossible, and his understanding that the nation was not prepared or qualified to understand Hashem. However, Rambam allows for the possibility that specific people, like Aharon and his sons, could potentially have understood more, depending on their spiritual level.
Moshe's role – Since the nation was not on a high enough prophetic level to understand Hashem, Hashem spoke only to Moshe, who then relayed Hashem's messages to the people.
"פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" – This phrase is difficult for this position, since according to these exegetes, there was no "face to face" encounter, as the people were only listening in as Hashem spoke to Moshe and they were not even able to understand His words.4  Rambam explains that the words "פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" refer to a vivid sensory experience of apprehending the Divine without the intervention of an angel.5  Thus, even though the people only overheard Hashem's voice, this sound was heard directly, not via a messenger. As such, the experience could be termed a "פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" encounter.
"אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין ה' וּבֵינֵיכֶם" – This verse is understood, as per the simple reading of its context, to refer to Moshe's mediating role during the giving of the Decalogue itself.
"בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ" – This position finds support from this verse, as it makes no mention of Hashem intending to speak directly to the nation itself, but rather only of them listening as Hashem speaks to Moshe.
"קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים" – To support their position, these commentators point to the many verses in the description of the event in Devarim which consistently refer to the voice that the nation heard, rather than any words. See Devarim 4:12, 4:33-36, and 5:19-22.6
"מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱ-לֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל" – Rambam suggests that these words refer to the role Moshe played during the Decalogue, when he relayed to the nation every statement of Hashem exactly as he heard it.7
"וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם" – According to this approach, this verse refers to Moshe's relaying of the Decalogue which begins a mere one verse later.8
"וַיְדַבֵּר אֱ-לֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים" – Rambam assumes that Moshe is the unstated audience of this verse, and it is to him that Hashem addressed all of His words.
"דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה" – These sources do not address the issue of the nation's fear but would likely explain that the sound of Hashem's voice alone was enough to scare the people. Thus, after the giving of the Decalogue, they requested that in the future Moshe receive Hashem's words in private.  Had the nation not been fearful, perhaps all communications between Hashem and Moshe would have been overheard by the nation.
Singular form – Rambam explains that since Hashem was speaking just to Moshe, He used the singular ("לְךָ", "עָשִׂיתָ", "תִּגְנֹב" etc.), rather than the plural which might have been expected if the speech was aimed at all of the Israelites.
Switch from 1st to 3rd person – This approach would likely attribute the switch from first to third person to literary variation and not give it any additional significance.9
"אנכי ולא יהיה לך מפי הגבורה שמענום" – Rambam explains this statement of Chazal to mean only that the nation was able on their own to arrive at an understanding of the commandments to believe in the existence of God and His unity,10 thereby obviating the need for Moshe to serve as an intermediary for these two.

Heard Voice Directly

Hashem spoke to the people directly, but due to their distance, they could make out only a voice and not distinct words.

Moshe's role – Since the people were not sanctified enough to come very close to Hashem they stood further away than Moshe.  Thus, although Hashem addressed His words to all, Moshe needed to act as a translator to relay and explain what the nation could not hear or comprehend.11
Purpose of Sinaitic revelation – As Hashem could have created a scenario in which all the people could understand Him despite their distance, R. D"Z Hoffmann's approach is logical only if one posits that Hashem intentionally positioned Moshe closer, requiring him to act as translator, while still addressing His words to all. This ensured that the people would recognize Moshe's stature as prophet, but simultaneously connected them to Hashem and bolstered their belief in Him.
Prophecy for the masses – R. D"Z Hoffmann suggests that the people were at a lower level of sanctity than Moshe.  This necessitated a greater distance from Hashem and resulted in reduced prophetic capabilities.
"פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" – R. D"Z Hoffmann would assert that the encounter was considered "face to face" since Hashem was addressing Himself to the nation as a whole and not just to Moshe.
"אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין ה' וּבֵינֵיכֶם" – This verse is understood simply to refer to Moshe's role as a middleman, both in terms of his physical positioning on the mountain in between Hashem and the nation, as well as his duties as translator during the delivering of the Decalogue.
"בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ" – According to R. D"Z Hoffmann, Hashem is telling Moshe that He will appear to him in the presence of the entire nation so that they will no longer doubt his prophecy.  This, though, does not insinuate that Hashem did not also direct His words at the rest of the people, but more simply that Moshe's positioning boosted the nation's faith in him.
"קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים" – R. D"Z Hoffmann brings support for the idea that the nation did not comprehend Hashem's words from the repeated emphasis on having heard His voice rather than His words. See Devarim 4:12, 4:33-36, and 5:19-22.12
"מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱ-לֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל" – According to R. Hoffmann, this verse refers to Moshe's dialogue with Hashem in Shemot 19:19-25 and not to the Decalogue.  Only when relaying the warnings is there a conversation in which Hashem responds to Moshe.  During the revelation itself, Moshe simply repeated Hashem's words to the people, but Hashem's words were not a response to Moshe and would not be aptly described as "יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל‏‎".13
"וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם" – R. D"Z Hoffmann asserts that this verse refers to transmitting Hashem's warnings to the nation, and not to the Decalogue.
"וַיְדַבֵּר אֱ-לֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים" – According to R. D"Z Hoffmann, Hashem did communicate the entire Decalogue to the nation.  A go-between was necessary, though, to fully understand what He said.
Singular form – R. D"Z Hoffmann would likely attribute no special significance to the singular rather than plural formulation, as there are many instances in Torah where Hashem addresses the nation and refers to them as a singular unit.14 Thus, this is not sufficient evidence that Hashem directed His words at Moshe alone.
The nation's fear – "דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה" – R. D"Z Hoffmann assumes that this event occurred after the giving of the Decalogue and suggests that had the nation not been fearful, Hashem would have relayed the rest of the commandments to them as well.  He even raises the possibility that the original plan was that, after the Decalogue, the nation would approach and perhaps even ascend the mountain to partake in the sealing of the covenant over the commandments.
Switch from 1st to 3rd person – R. D"Z Hoffmann agrees with Ibn Ezra's view that the first person to third person switch is insignificant, as "משפט אנשי לשון הקודש לדבר ככה".

Understood All Ten

The nation understood the entire Decalogue from Hashem. This position subdivides regarding whether Hashem's words were aimed at the people or Moshe.

Overheard Words

Hashem's spoke to Moshe only, but He intended that the nation would listen in on this conversation.

Purpose of Sinaitic revelation – This approach understands that the episode had a dual objective, to instill faith in Moshe as Hashem's messenger, and to inculcate belief in Hashem Himself.  The former was accomplished by having Hashem direct His words at Moshe and elevate him above the nation, while the latter was fulfilled when the people heard Hashem speak.
Prophecy for the masses – This approach assumes that all can prophesy if Hashem so desires, even without extensive preparation. R. Maimon, though, does qualify that each person experienced Hashem's words differently, as per their spiritual level.16
Moshe's role – R. Saadia asserts that, in addition to Moshe's unique positioning in being the addressee of Hashem's words, after each of Hashem's statements, Moshe repeated it to the people.17
"פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" – This phrase is somewhat difficult for this approach, since one would not normally refer to overheard speech as a "face to face" encounter. These commentators might explain that Moshe is simply saying that, despite the positioning, the nation understood Hashem's words clearly, as if the statements were said to them face to face.
"אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין ה' וּבֵינֵיכֶם לְהַגִּיד לָכֶם אֶת דְּבַר ה'‏" – According to R. Saadia, the phrase refers to Moshe's role during the revelation itself, as Moshe literally stood between the nation and Hashem in order to repeat to them Hashem's words.18
"בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ" – R. Saadia explains this verse according to its simple reading. Hashem's speech was directed solely to Moshe and was only overheard by the rest of the people. Thus, the nation was able to hear God while simultaneously appreciating the greatness of Moshe.
"וַיְדַבֵּר אֱ-לֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה" – R. Maimon suggests that the audience in this sentence is not explicit since Hashem's words were directed to all who were present, including Moshe, Aharon and the nation as a whole.  Hashem spoke to all (despite directing His words at Moshe).  This position might also point to the word "כָּל" as evidence that all ten utterances were said by Hashem to everyone.19
"מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱ-לֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל" – R. Saadia connects this verse to the above "בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ", suggesting that he thinks that it, too, refers to Hashem's speech during the Decalogue.20  He asserts that the verse comes to inform the reader that, to be heard over the loud blast of the shofar, both Moshe and Hashem needed to speak at a high volume.21  In contrast, R. Maimon, who does not assert that Moshe spoke at all during the Decalogue, might suggest that this refers to Moshe and Hashem's earlier conversation in verses 20-25.
The nation's fear – "דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה" – According to this approach, this scene is recorded in chronological order, as it occurred only after Hashem finished relaying the entire Decalogue.
Switch from 1st to 3rd person – This position would agree with Ibn Ezra below that the switch in person is merely common variation in Tanakh and has no special significance.

Heard Words Directly

Hashem spoke directly to the people themselves, and they, not Moshe, were His target audience for the entire Decalogue.

Purpose of Sinaitic revelation
  • This position highlights the goal of teaching the nation to believe in Hashem, as per the verse in Devarim, "אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת כִּי ה' הוּא הָאֱ-לֹהִים"‎.22  Divine revelation to a mass audience was a unique event in world history and constitutes one of the strongest proofs of God's existence and the Torah's Divine origin.23
  • According to Shadal, there may have been a dual purpose of instilling belief in both Hashem and Moshe. By hearing Hashem speak to Moshe before the actual revelation (see below), the nation recognized his prophetic stature, and by hearing Hashem on their own during revelation, they came to believe in God.
Prophecy for the masses – This approach assumes that anyone can prophesy, even without extended preparation.  Nonetheless, most of these commentators do limit the level of prophecy of the people. Thus, R. Yose b. R. Chanina in the Tanchuma says that each person grasped Hashem's word according to his own capabilities, while Ralbag and Abarbanel emphasize how the nation could experience revelation only via their physical senses, hearing a concrete (rather than mental) voice.24
Moshe's role – According to these sources, Moshe did not play any significant role during the revelation. He, like the rest of the nation, simply listened to Hashem.  According to Abarbanel and Shadal, even physically, Moshe was positioned amidst the people and not higher up on the mountain.25
"פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" – These commentators understand the phrase "פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" to refer to a direct, unmediated encounter.  R. Levi in the Tanchuma describes the experience as one in which each member of the nation felt as if Hashem was speaking to them personally.
"אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין ה' וּבֵינֵיכֶם" – According to most of these commentators, these words refer to the mediating role that Moshe assumed after receiving the Decalogue, when giving over the rest of the commandments.26 Alternatively, this position could posit, as does Ramban, that this refers to Moshe's role before the Decalogue when he acted as a go-between to relay all of Hashem's instructions to prepare the nation.
"וַיְדַבֵּר אֱ-לֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה" – Ibn Ezra supports the idea that Hashem communicated all the commandments directly from the text's usage of the words "‎‏כָּל הַדְּבָרִים"‎.27 Shadal adds proofs from Devarim 4:12-13, 4:36, and 5:19-21, all of which emphasize how Hashem spoke (and did not produce merely the sound of a voice) to the nation.
"בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ"
  • Spoke to all – According to Ibn Ezra,28 this verse does not insinuate that Hashem was to speak to Moshe alone, but only that when Hashem did speak to him (along with everyone else), his prophetic stature would be verified. The nation had doubted Moshe's prophecy, believing that if Hashem speaks to a person, he cannot live afterwards.  Thus, Hashem tells Moshe that when the nation sees Him speaking to Moshe during the giving of the Decalogue, they will finally recognize that their preconception was false.
  • Change of plan – According to Ralbag and Abarbanel, Hashem originally told Moshe that He would speak to him alone and the nation would overhear, leading them to believe in Moshe's prophecy.  Moshe then clarified to Hashem that the nation preferred to not have a mediator, but rather desired a direct face to face encounter. As a result, Hashem acquiesced and changed the original plan.29
  • Before the Decalogue – Shadal asserts that this refers to the nation hearing Hashem's conversation with Moshe before the Decalogue.
The nation's fear - "דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה" – According to these sources, this scene is found in its chronological place and only occurred after Hashem finished relaying the entire Decalogue.  According to Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Ralbag, were it not for this fear, Hashem would have relayed all 613 commandments to the people directly.30
"כִּי יְרֵאתֶם מִפְּנֵי הָאֵשׁ וְלֹא עֲלִיתֶם בָּהָר"
  • According to Ibn Ezra, Moshe is saying that the nation feared the fire, despite the fact that they did not go up the mountain.
  • This position could also maintain that the original plan (had the nation not been overcome by fear) was to ascend the mountain after the giving of the Decalogue and to hear the rest of the 613 commandments from perhaps an even closer vantage point and at a higher spiritual level.31
"מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱ-לֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל"
  • Before the Decalogue – According to Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, and Shadal,32 this refers to the conversation between Moshe and Hashem before the giving of the Decalogue and, as such, provides no information regarding how Hashem delivered the commandments.33
  • Before and during – Ralbag maintains that the verse refers to Hashem's words both before and during the Decalogue.34  The mention of Moshe speaking refers only to the earlier conversation, but the fact that Hashem spoke "בְקוֹל" can refer to both.35
  • During the DecalogueR. Eliezer suggests that that the verse refers to the Decalogue but is simply saying that before Hashem spoke to the nation, He waited for Moshe to tell Him that they were ready.36
Switch from 1st to 3rd person – Ibn Ezra explains that it is common for the text to switch between first and third person, and he points to other examples of this.37 Ibn Ezra also explains the specific location of the switch, pointing out that after the nation accepted Hashem as their God in the first two commandments, He could then refer to Himself as the Israelites' God in third person.

Understood Only Two

The nation understood only two commandments directly from Hashem. These commentators disagree as to how the nation received the other eight:

Other Eight Only From Moshe

Due to the nation's fear, Hashem stopped speaking to them and instead spoke only to Moshe, who then relayed the final eight commandments to the nation.

Moshe's role – Moshe acted as an intermediary for the last eight commandments, relaying them to the nation in Hashem's stead.
Why the split? According to these sources, the original plan was for Hashem to say the entire Decalogue directly to the nation.  After Hashem relayed the second commandment, though, the nation became frightened and requested that Moshe mediate.
"פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" – This phrase describes the first part of the encounter, when the nation heard and understood the first two commandments directly from Hashem.
"אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין ה' וּבֵינֵיכֶם" – This clause refers to the second part of the experience when Moshe served as an intermediary to deliver the final eight commandments.
The nation's fear – "דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה" – According to these sources, this episode took place in the middle of the Decalogue, between the second and third commandments.  It is recorded out of order so as not to interrupt the flow of the story and to keep the Decalogue in one continuous list.  R. Yosef Bekhor Shor adds that had it not been for their fear, the nation might have heard all the commandments in this manner.  Alternatively, Hashem had never planned on relaying more than these commandments regardless of the nation's fears.39
"כִּי יְרֵאתֶם מִפְּנֵי הָאֵשׁ וְלֹא עֲלִיתֶם בָּהָר" – This verse seems to imply that, were it not for their fears, the people would have ascended the mountain.  This poses a difficulty for this approach which maintains that the people expressed their fears midway through the Decalogue, as during the Revelation they were prohibited from ascending the mountain regardless of whether they were afraid.  Thus, this approach might need to explain, as Ibn Ezra above, that Moshe is saying that despite the fact that they did not ascend the mountain, they were still in fear.40
Switch from 1st to 3rd person – R. Yosef Kara adduces support for this approach from the fact that the Decalogue switches from first person to third person immediately after the second commandment.  If this is when Moshe began to speak, the third person references to Hashem make sense.
"מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱ-לֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל" – Rashi explains that when Moshe relayed the eight commandments, Hashem gave Moshe's voice extra strength so that he could be heard.41
"וַיְדַבֵּר אֱ-לֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים" – Ibn Ezra argues against this position from the word "כָּל" which suggests that there was no differentiation between the commandments.  Rashi explains that the verse comes to teach that, originally, Hashem said all ten commandments simultaneously and only afterwards distinguished each one.
"וַיְדַבֵּר אֱ-לֹהִים... לֵאמֹר" – Rashi might suggest that the audience of Hashem's words is left ambiguous, because there were two different, consecutive, audiences for the different sections of the Decalogue.  Hashem first spoke to the nation and then to Moshe alone.
"בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ" – This verse is difficult for these sources since they maintain that the original plan was not to speak to Moshe, but rather directly to the nation.  They could explain that this refers to the nation listening to Hashem's earlier conversation, when He instructs Moshe before the Decalogue.
Purpose of Sinaitic revelation – This position could posit that the revelation was aimed at instilling belief in Hashem, rather than in Moshe's prophecy.  It was only a concession to the people's fear that led Moshe to play any part at all.
Prophecy for the masses – These commentators assume that Hashem sometimes grants prophetic powers to the uninitiated.

Voice Without Words for Other Eight

Hashem communicated also the final eight commandments to the nation, but in these they discerned only His voice and needed Moshe to serve as an interpreter.

Why the split? Ramban suggests that Hashem intentionally desired that Moshe explain the final commandments to the nation, thereby displaying his exalted prophetic status, but that He also wanted the nation to understand the first two from Him directly, as these relate to belief and serve as the basis for the rest of Torah.42
"פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" – According to Ramban, the people heard the entire Decalogue "face to face", but only comprehended the first two commandments.
"אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין ה' וּבֵינֵיכֶם" – This clause refers to Moshe's intermediary role during the second part of the encounter, when Moshe explained the final eight commandments.
Switch from 1st to 3rd person – To support the change of speaker, Ramban points to the fact that only the first two commandments speak of Hashem in first person.
"וַיְדַבֵּר אֱ-לֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים" – The word "כָּל" is what motivates Ramban to suggest that the nation actually heard all of the commandments (even if they did not comprehend all of them).
The nation's fear – "דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה" – Ramban asserts that this took place before the Decalogue. Even before Hashem began to speak, the nation distanced themselves even further than required by the set boundary and requested that Moshe speak.43  Ramban maintains that the similar description in Devarim which speaks of the elders conveying their fears refers to a different episode, which transpired after the Decalogue.  Assuming that Hashem intended to transmit the rest of the Torah in the same manner, the elders asked Moshe that he instead be an intermediary.  Hashem agreed since He had never intended to do otherwise.
"מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱ-לֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל" – Ramban maintains that these words refer to Moshe and Hashem's conversation during the three days of preparations for the revelation.44
"בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ" – According to Ramban, this refers to the Decalogue. Hashem tells Moshe that when the nation experiences prophecy and hears Hashem speak, they will finally recognize that it is Hashem who regularly speaks with Moshe.  This will lead them to believe in both.
Purpose of Sinaitic revelation – Revelation had a dual purpose, to instill belief in both Hashem and Moshe as His prophet.  The latter was necessary since it was to be Moshe's job to give over the rest of the commandments.
Prophecy for the masses – This approach assumes that one can prophesy even without extensive preparation, if Hashem so chooses.