What did we hear at Sinai?


By Rabbi James R. Michaels
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.

Yitro contains the dramatic description of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The words used to describe the event are so graphic that the attentive reader understands it was unique in human history — the revelation of God to the entire Israelite people gathered at the base of the mountain.

So awesome was the experience that Jewish tradition says every generation of the Jewish people was present, not just the one which physically stood there. It echoes through the ages, uniting all Jews in the covenant with God.


The prologue to the event is indeed dramatic. The people were told to prepare themselves physically and spiritually for an unparalleled experience. The Torah describes sounds so loud that people could actually see them.

The content of God’s revelation is captured in the Ten Commandments. But what, exactly, did the people hear? Various answers given by rabbis throughout Jewish history can be quite illuminating.

The most common idea is that the people heard all 10 utterances, held in rapt attention as they heard the actual voice of God. The thrust of this idea is that Jewish practice entails observing both religious laws (the first five) and ethical principles (the second five, which stress legal obligations). We can’t be “good Jews” by observing ritual practices while leaving ethics and morals behind.

A second idea is that Israel heard the first two commandments directly from God, but then Moses spoke the remaining eight. This idea demonstrates that the Torah’s laws, while given once, have always been the subject of rabbinic interpretation and explanation. Jewish observance, while ordained at Sinai, has been explained, expounded and expanded by the great sages of all ages. That’s how Jewish law can respond to contemporary matters, including the COVID-19 pandemic and issues of medical ethics.

A third idea, from the Chasidic tradition, is that the people only heard the first letter of the first word. That word — Anochi — begins with an aleph, a silent letter. The thrust of this concept is that while ethical and religious behavior can be quantified, the basis for this behavior should come from each person’s individual perception of God. Moreover, within the performance of the mitzvot, each person should grow continually in his/her/their perception of the divine basis for how we act.

To expand on this concept: Jewish children have religious educational experiences in school and camp settings, obtaining a sense of divine expectations that fits their level of maturity. Adults, however, shouldn’t be content with juvenile concepts; instead, we should seek to grow our perceptions of God and Jewish behavior as we move through all the stages of life. It’s a challenge, but one which brings reward and enrichment throughout our lives.

When the people heard the Ten Commandments, they responded “All that the Lord has spoken, we will faithfully observe.” May we also be moved by these words, and respond with faithful action.

Questions for thought and discussion: 

1. There’s a well-known story of the sage Hillel, who was asked to explain all of Judaism while standing on one foot. He said, “That which is hurtful to you, don’t do to anyone else. All the rest is commentary; go and study it.” Have you engaged in meaningful study to expand your perception of the divine?

2. The philosopher Maimonides said that all of the mitzvot should lead to ethical behavior. Can you experience ethical growth through your observance of Jewish ritual?

Rabbi James R. Michaels is rabbi emeritus of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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