Seeing Sound: Making Sense of Sinai

Wherein the Children of Israel experience synesthesia at Revelation.

A survey of commentaries on a few key words from Exodus.

וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק׃

All the people saw the sounds and the lightning, the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.

There is some disagreement about how to translate this verse. The people saw... something? Today, the word "kolot" means "voices" or possibly "thunder," but here it may also just mean "sounds." And besides this disagreement, there's even an inclination among some translators to downplay the ocular nature of this encounter. JPS has it: "All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn..." Koren says they "perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the sound of the shofar..." Metsudah: "...the voice of the shofar..." Chabad: "And all the people saw the voices and the torches..." Reb Zalman: "Now all of the people were seeing the thunder-sounds, the flashing-torches..."

How would YOU translate the untranslatable enigma?

To really hear what Sinai looked like and to see how it sounded, open your eyes and ears to these voices from the generations...

Mixed Reviews

"וכל העם רואים את הקולות" - רואין הנראה ושומעין הנשמע, דברי ר' ישמעאל. רבי עקיבא אומר: רואין (הנשמע) ושומעין הנראה.

"And all the people saw the sounds and the lightnings": They saw what was visible and heard what was audible. These are the words of R. Yishmael. R. Akiva says: They saw (what was audible) and heard what was visible.

The Midrash succinctly conveys the tension of understanding this aspect of Revelation. The initial explanation from R. Yishmael is that the Israelites saw what can be seen and heard what could be heard. Nothing remarkable here. But then the midrash quotes an opinion that amplifies/magnifies the synesthesia. R. Akiva says not only did the people see that which is normally aural, but they heard that which is normally witnessed through vision.

To your eyes, which of these opinions speaks the loudest?

A Miraculous Fluke

(ב) ראים את הקולת. רוֹאִין אֶת הַנִּשְׁמָע, שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לִרְאוֹת בְּמָקוֹם אַחֵר:

(ג) את הקולת. הַיּוֹצְאִין מִפִּי הַגְּבוּרָה:

(2) [THEY] SAW THE SOUNDS—they saw that which should be heard, something which is impossible to see on any other occasion.

(3) THE SOUNDS which issued from the mouth of the Almighty.

R. Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105) takes the verse at face value—this was a remarkable experience of switching senses—but he seems to qualify the event as a one-time miraculous instance of an otherwise impossible phenomenon: seeing the voice of G!d, so to speak.

Prior to this epic event, the Israelites witnessed so many seemingly impossible miracles. Why does Rashi need to qualify his explanation of the collective synesthesia?

The Focus of the Heart

רואים את הקולות כמו "ולבי ראה." התבוננו בענין הקולות שלא יוכלו לסבלם, כאמרם "לא אוסיף עוד לשמוע את קול ה' אלקי, ואת האש הגדולה הזאת לא אראה עוד, ולא אמות"

This is like ולבי ראה, “and my heart ‘saw’” (Kohelet 1:16). They meditated on the idea of the sounds, but they were unable to endure it. As it's said, “Let me not hear the voice of the LORD my God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die” (Devarim 18:16).

Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (c.1475-1550) connects our verse to Moses' retelling of the events later in Deuteronomy, as well as to the vision of the heart in Ecclesiastes. According to Moses, the people had asked to be cut off from hearing the voice and seeing the fire—a minimization through hindsight of the synesthesia from Exodus but certainly not a downplaying of the of event's intensity. In Ecclesiastes, the narrator speaks of the capacity of his heart/mind to "see" wisdom. That is, the heart-mind complex is where the content of a text or teaching is absorbed and understood. It's not really literal "seeing," rather, a sort of mental focusing of attention.

Why would just thinking about an idea bring upon a sort of mass hysteria? Meditate upon this explication. How does your heart see/hear it?

Sensory Overload

וכל העם רואים את הקולות. וכבר פירשתי טעם רואים את הקולות. כי כל ההרגשות מתחברות אל מקום אחד. והנה הטעם כאשר ראו הקולות והלפידים. כי מנהג האדם שיתפחד מהם וקול השופר שלא נשמע כזה לעולם. ואת ההר לבדו עשן. כאשר ראו הפלאים האלה נעו.

And all the nation saw the sounds: I have previously explained the intent of seeing the sounds. All sensations join together and are processed at one point. And this is the meaning when they saw the sounds and the lighting. This drove a person to be afraid, and the voice of the shofar was something never heard before. And the mountain itself was smoke. When they saw these wonders, they trembled.

Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089-c. 1167) says that Revelation sort of fried the senses of the Israelites. Flashes of flaming lightning, mountains of smoke, seemingly sentient shofars—it was all just too much. The collective motherboard was overloaded with information and, as means of self-protection, funneled every sensation into the ears. But this was perhaps even more overwhelming and the people quaked with terror, asking for it all to please just stop.

Why do all of the senses pour into the ears rather than the eyes, nose, etc.? What did Revelation taste like? How did it smell? Was it graspable?

Found in Translation

וְאוֹמֵר (שמות כ, טו): וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת. הַקּוֹל אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן אֶלָּא הַקּוֹלֹת, אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן הָיָה הַקּוֹל יוֹצֵא וְנֶחְלַק לְשִׁבְעִים קוֹלוֹת לְשִׁבְעִים לָשׁוֹן, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשְׁמְעוּ כָּל הָאֻמּוֹת, וְכָל אֻמָּה וְאֻמָּה שׁוֹמַעַת קוֹל בִּלְשׁוֹן הָאֻמָּה.

And the text says: All the people saw the thunders. It's not written "thunder (hakol)," but rather "thunders (hakolot)." Rabbi Yochanan teachs that When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into seventy human languages, so that the whole world might understand it, and every nation heard it in their own language.

Rather than having a laser-like focusing effect that we saw in the Ibn Ezra's explanation, this Midrash describes the experience as the opposite: an unfolding outward to meet the entire horizon. The kolot were not really "thunderings" but instead were the sort of cosmic rumbling that apparently happens when G!d speaks simultaneously in every language of world. Here, it is not clear if the people actually saw the voice refract through a prism but the atmosphere was certainly thick with the sound of the Divine's multi-layered sermon.

This teaching seems to say that each person all across the world heard the Divine word in a language the s/he could understand. That is, the event was personally tailored. But wouldn't this have lessened the intensity of the experience? Rather than hearing 70 languages all at once, it seems like each person heard just one native language—not overwhelming at all!

Sounds to Fill the Air

וכל העם רואים את הקולות וגו'. יש לדקדק בענין זה איך ראו את הנשמע ... והנה קרוב לשמוע שכל דבור ודבור שיצא מפי הקב"ה, מיד נתגשם אותו דבור והיה בו כ"כ ממשות עד שהיו רואין באויר כל האותיות פורחות וכאילו היה הכל כתוב לפניהם

We have to understand how they could seen the sounds ... It sounds reasonable that each word the G-d spoke became palpable and tangible to the extent that it took on physical form and could be seen in the air as floating letters as is they were written in front of them.

Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550–1619) aka the Kli Yakar echoes the Midrash above, saying that as G!d spoke the voice transmorgified into floating letters that filled the air for all to behold. Thus, the assembly of Israel literally saw the sounds.

R. Hayley Goldstein asks: What would it mean to listen this deeply? To listen to yourself, to your loved ones, to G!d, with your full mind, heart and senses? What do you see? (Goldstein is one half of Nireh Or [@nireh_or on Instagram], which shares original parsha commentary/reflections and artwork by Lizzie Sivitz, included here...)

Come and hear these other insights...

  • Rav Kook (18650-1935) explained: "The prophetic vision at Mount Sinai...granted the people a unique perspective, as if they were standing near the source of Creation. From that vantage point, they were able to witness the underlying unity of the universe. They were able to see sounds and hear sights. God’s revelation at Sinai was registered by all their senses simultaneously, as a single, undivided perception." [source: Gold from the Land of Israel, p. 135, adapted from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah, p. 49, found here: http://ravkooktorah.org/SHAV58.htm]
  • The Sfat Emet (18470-1905) taught: "...the Seer looks at a thing in its completeness, exactly as it is. But for the Hearer, the sound changes as it enters his ears, and it isn’t exactly the same sound that was originally made. That’s the advantage of Seeing. But with Hearing, there is an advantage that the sound truly enters inside of him through the ear, whereas the sight remains outside. With this in mind, the verse teaches us that the Children of Israel had both advantages. They received the words in the manner of 'seeing sounds,' such that even though they truly entered inside of them, nevertheless they 'saw' the sounds, without any distortion." [source: R. David Kasher's "Synesthesia at Sinai," which includes many of these sources as well as this Hasidic interpretation from R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter: https://boulderjewishnews.org/2018/synesthesia-at-sinai-parshat-yitro/]
  • The Zohar says, Rabbi Abba said, “It is written: All the people were seeing הקלות (ha-qolot), the thundering. Were seeing—the verse should read were hearing. However, we have learned as follows: Those קלין (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 that they saw, they were illumined by 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 YHVH spoke [with you] (Deut. 5:4) And 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 הקולת (ha-qolot) the voices—actually seeing!” ... Rabbi Shim’on said, “Upon this voice of the shofar depends all. It is written: a mighty voice (Deut. 5:19); a voice of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:12)—with radiance more subtle and lucid than all.” [source: Zohar 2:81b, Pritzker Edition Vol. 4, translated by Daniel C. Matt p. 443-446]
  • It is said of the Zvoliner Rebbe, Reb Shmuel Eliahu, who was the forebear of Modzitz, the Hasidic dynasty known for its music, that when he led his community in prayer the building shook and those who were there experienced the meaning of seeing the sounds. [source: http://web.archive.org/web/20010207033850/http://modzitz.org/]
  • My favorite translation of the enigmatic phrasology in Exodus 20:15 comes from a friend, Yoseph Needelman, who points out the tense of the keyword רֹאִ֨ים implies that the children of the Children of Israel—that is, us—are still seeing these revelatory sounds.
  • Another friend, the scholar Leonard Stein, understands the verse this way: "Seeing is a common verb for experiencing, and that’s the idea here. But it isn’t just the description of experiencing the kolot (which, based on a simple reading of the context, means thunder). The Torah always uses berakim for lightning, not lapidim (which are actually torches of light). My sense from the passage is that it’s trying to evoke the visceral experience of this profound moment, which defies comprehension; making something distant extremely close-up. It does that by conflating the primal ways we perceive what is outside our bodies, through our senses. And here you have all five senses awakened. There’s sight (they see flashes of light), smell (the mountain smoke), hearing (the sound of the shofar), and touch (yanu’u, their bodies trembled or swayed, like someone grabbing a lulav). That leaves you with taste, what is most intimately experienced from the outside in, the kolot, what is produced through one mouth meeting another, the secret of “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth…” And that leads to another consideration of this synesthesia, so that it is not simply seeing/hearing."

  • And then there's this, as heard in Exiled in the Word: Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to Present (ed. Jerome Rothenberg & Harris Lenowitz, p. 91):
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