> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish


Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

2448 years after creation, after 210 years in Egypt, after 86 years of servitude, after 7 weeks of freedom, the heavens are about to open - and the word of God will flow. A symphony of sound will burst out, but not just any sound: palpable sound. This is sound that is not merely heard. This is truth - truth you can see and feel. This is theophony; this is Revelation.

But before the content of the Revelation is imparted, before the words of God are perceived by the Children of Israel, after the thunder and lightning fill up the sky, there is one last verse, perhaps an introduction to the Decalogue:

And the Almighty spoke all of these things, saying... (Shmot 20:1)

While each and every word in this verse deserves attention, there is one word in particular that catches our attention. The final word in the verse, laymor ("saying"), seems extraneous, and therefore incomprehensible. The word is familiar to us from what may be the most often - repeated verse in the Torah, "And God said to Moshe, saying." In that usage, the intention is for Moshe to repeat the dictate, to share the Word of God with the People. But in this instance, the entire nation is present. All of the Jews stand at the foot of the mountain, and they presumably1 hear and see the Word of God. Why is "saying" necessary here, when God Himself is speaking to all the people directly? 2


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Commentaries have struggled with this word - and offered all types of suggestions: The Sfat Emet,3 for example, points to the use of the word laymor in this verse as an indication of the co-existence of Oral Torah with the written Torah about to be transmitted. In this view, two distinct aspects of Oral Torah are brought to the fore, as we are enjoined to teach the Oral Torah for two reasons: The Oral Law fulfills a very critical functional role, enabling us to apply the principles of the written Torah in subsequent generations. Additionally, the ongoing learning of the Oral Torah is seen as a sort of ongoing revelation. As Torah is learned and applied to new situations, the Word of God is continually brought into human experience. The Oral Law is what keeps us in touch with the Sinai experience.4 This dovetails with the idea that the totality of Torah was revealed at Sinai - including that which would be revealed to future generations.5 This idea, according to Rav Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov in his Igra Dkala, is encapsulated in the word laymor: By studying and applying the Torah, future generations return to what was said at Sinai.6 Furthermore, the authenticity of the teachings of later scholars is established by linking it to the experience at Sinai.


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The Maor VaShemesh (Rav Klonomous Kalman Epstein) connects the word laymor to the next verse - "Anochi" - "I am the Lord God..."

Ultimately, the most important Commandment is the first: "Anochi," the knowledge or acknowledgment of God, transcends all other Commandments and is the raison d'etre of all the Commandments. Lacking belief in God, the other Commandments become absurd. Indeed, the very word "commandment" becomes an oxymoron without God. Hence, citing a teaching of Rav Elimelech of Lizhansk, the Maor VaShemesh explains that all of the Torah is encapsulated in Anochi, for if a person accepts this first precept - he will then necessarily comply with the Torah as a whole; profound belief will lead to profound observance. The reverse is true as well: through the performance of the mitzvot we will come to know God.7 "The word laymor is therefore linked to Anochi : 'Laymor (saying) Anochi,' for this will lead to the performance of all the other Commandments. And when you fulfill the Commandments, you will discover Anochi - God." Our verse, then, should be rendered thus: 'God spoke all of these things in order to bring the Jews to say (or comprehend) "Anochi." 8

The Shem Mishmuel (Rav Shmuel Bornstein) explains the superfluous 'laymor' in our verse from a different angle. Elsewhere in his commentary, Rashi cites a tradition that all the of the Ten Commandments were transmitted simultaneously - "in one utterance." With their limited, human sensory capacity, the Jews were incapable of grasping this type of Divine speech. In order for them to understand the content of God's communication, says the Shem Mishmuel, it was necessary for Moshe to speak, to relay the Word of God in a more human form, just as he did on all the other occasions when the text includes the term laymor, "saying." 9


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This tradition notwithstanding, Rashi himself offers a different explanation for the idiosyncratic language of this particular verse. Rashi addresses the problem of laymor with a somewhat enigmatic comment:

This teaches that in response to the positive Commandments they said "yes" and to the negative commandments they said "no" (Rashi, Shmot 20:1).

Laymor, "saying," indicates that the people responded with a resounding "Yes!" when they received positive Commandments, and with a heartfelt "No!" when the Commandment was in the negative form (a prohibition). Yet Rashi's comment leaves none the wiser as to the exact meaning or purpose of the words of our verse, since we still do not know what precisely the word "laymor" refers to, and what the significance of the Peoples' response is.

Looking back to Rashi's source, we find a difference of opinion in the Mechilta; Rashi cites the view ascribed to Rabbi Yishmael.

They would respond "Yes" to positive Commandments and "No" to negative Commandments; this is the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Akiva (disagrees and) says that to the positive Commandments they responded "Yes" and to the negative commandments they responded "Yes."

We should address two distinct issues raised by this source and Rashi's treatment of it. First, what exactly is the disagreement between the two Talmudic authorities? Secondly, why does Rashi cite the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, given the Talmudic principle that Rabbi Akiva's is the decisive, accepted opinion in all cases of disagreement with his contemporaries?10 The Maharal, and later, Rabbi Soloveitchik both explain the argument: Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael agree that regarding the positive commandments the Jewish People responded and said "yes we will" - for example, when God said 'Remember the Sabbath Day to sanctify it', the people responded, "yes we will." The difference of opinion is regarding the negative commandments. Rabbi Yishmael taught that "do not murder" was rejoined with "no (we will not murder)." While Rabbi Akiva taught that the people said "yes, (we will not murder)." 11

There is a deep philosophical question at the heart of this seemingly trivial difference of opinion, summed up by Rav Soloveitchik as follows:

Should performance of a mitzvah result from an extraneous norm imposed upon finite man by the infinite, inscrutable Will of God, or should performance result from an inner urge whose realization enhances life and exalts the personality? This dichotomy [is often expressed as the central issue] of "metzuveh ve'oseh," whether reward is greater for one who performs a mitzvah as a result of an imperative or for one whose observance results from personal initiative.12

Rabbi Akiva's opinion expresses a very distinct approach to this question. He maintained that B'nei Yisrael's response was yes to all pronouncements, including the negative ones. In other words, their response was, "we surrender to Your will, we accept the norm, we shall comply with it." Even though the negative precepts are acceptable to and sanctioned by any civilized society, they require commitment and surrender to God nonetheless. Without surrender to Anochi, moral behavior is removed from the sphere of observance. God is taken out of the equation. The result is homocentric morality, observance of commandments that are socially acceptable at any given time or place.

Rabbi Akiva therefore maintained that morality must not rely solely on man's cognitive abilities, even in regard to mishpatim, since certain domains are inaccessible to human moral exploration and illumination. Yet the entire structure of morality would collapse should society actually permit their violation.13

Rabbi Yishmael's view is quite different. When they respond "no" to prohibitions - such as, "No, we will not murder," they acknowledge that murder is wrong. Indeed, according to Rabbi Yishmael, the people already believe murder is wrong. The Word of God confirms what they already know. There exists, according to this opinion, "natural moral law," and this, too, is part of the Revelation.

Rabbi Akiva's understanding of the acceptance of Torah is far more arduous and demanding: Man goes against his nature, man does not necessarily agree with the value statement or judgment, yet he accepts the Word of God, the authority of God. The People's response, "Yes" to both positive and negative Commandments, removes observance from the sphere of human morality and places it exclusively in the realm of obedience, acquiescence to God's command.

When explaining the text of the Torah, Rashi takes into account the reality of that particular moment at Mount Sinai. There, the Jewish People experience God firsthand. In the context of such an overwhelming experience, Rabbi Yishmael's view may have made more sense to Rashi: When God speaks directly to the Jews, as individuals and as a society, the logic and morality of each and every Commandment, positive and negative, is unavoidable. Everything is illuminated, crystal-clear. Torah, when presented in this way, is obvious and perfect.14 At that particular, unique moment in history, acceptance and obedience, practice and theory are indivisible. At that moment, responding "no" to prohibitions was both a statement of agreement and of obedience, for there was no gap between the two. Rabbi Yishmael's opinion was the more appropriate one in Rashi's eyes because it most faithfully explained the verse itself.15

On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva's explanation is more apt for subsequent generations, for whom obedience, submission to the Word of God and the rejection of moral relativism is the very core of true observance. When the words are not accompanied by thunder and lightning, we accept the law even when its logic escapes us.16 Rabbi Akiva believed that acceptance of the Torah is predicated upon accepting the Yoke of Heaven: whether we understand or not, we accept. Whether we desire what is forbidden or not, we obey.

Whether we say "Yes we will," "no we won't," or "yes, we won't" we speak as a response to the theophony. Whether we still hear the echoes of the Divine words, or if the thunder and lightning have abated, we accept the Torah, in every generation - whether or not we agree completely or understand completely - because sometimes we can only understand after we obey. We hope and pray that what we don't understand will become clear when we live a life of Torah.



1. See Shmot 19:9: God tells Moshe that He will speak to him from the cloud so that the nation will witness this speech. The implication is that the main beneficiary of the Divine word at Sinai was Moshe, and the others were there to see God speak to Moshe. This approach may be supported by the Rambam in the Guide for the Perplexed, Part 2 Chapter 35, where the Rambam delineates the supremacy of Moshe's prophecy.

2. Many of the commentaries note this textual difficulty, including the Maharal in the Gur Aryeh, and the Mizrachi, and Rav Dovid Halevi in the Taz, Rav Zadok of Lublin in Pri Zadik, and others.

3. The Sfat Emet makes this point on numerous occasions. See Sfat Emet Yitro 5640, Yitro 5641 and Shavuot 5647.

4. Chapter of the Fathers 3:2,6: But [when] two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Shechinah abides among them, as it is said: 'Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with another; and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon his name.' I have no [scriptural proof for the presence of the Shechinah] except [among] two, whence [is there proof that] even [when there is only] one [person]. The Holy One, Blessed be He, appoints unto him a reward? Since it is said: 'Though he sit alone and [meditate] in stillness, yet he takes [a reward] unto himself' ... R. Halafta [a man) of K'far Hanania said: [When there are] ten sitting together and occupying themselves with Torah, the Shechinah abides among them, as it is said: 'God stands in the congregation of God.' And whence [do we infer that the same applies] even [when there are] five? [from] that which is said: 'And He has founded His band upon the earth.' And whence [do we infer that the same applies] even [when there are three?] [From] that which is said: 'In the midst of the judges he judges.' And whence [do we infer that the same applies] even [where there are] two? [From] that which is said: 'Then they that fear the Lord spoke one with another, and the Lord hearkened, and heard etc.' And whence [do we infer that the same applies] even [when there is] one? [From] that which is said: 'In every place where I cause my Name to be mentioned I will come unto you and bless you.'

5. See Talmud Bavli Brachot 5a, Talmud Yerushalmi Peah chapter 2 Halcha 4 (17a): Talmud Bavli Brachot 5a - R. Levi b. Hama says further in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: What is the meaning of the verse: 'And I will give you the tablets of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written that you may teach them? 'Tablets of stone': these are the Ten Commandments; 'the law': this is the Pentateuch; 'the commandment': this is the Mishnah; 'which I have written': these are the Prophets and the Hagiographa; 'that you may teach them': this is the Gemara. It teaches [us] that all these things were given to Moshe on Sinai.

6. See Igra D'kala page 201a.

7. Maor VaShemesh, Parshat Yitro.

8. This train of thought has significant ramifications for modern Jewish education: How can we break into this circle of teaching and observance; which comes first, theory or observance? In the "normal" situation, a child is drawn into the world of mitzvoth as cognition allows that particular practice to be performed. For thousands of years, children learned how to perform mitzvoth by observing their surroundings, and acquired theoretical or philosophical insight as they developed in their practice. In today's world there are those whose first experience of observance is in adulthood. The onset of observance and learning are not always able to be lock-stepped, for there are some commandments that can't be performed until one understands the ideas, and some ideas that can't be understood until performed. Not all mitzvoth are the same. Additionally, not all people are the same. Different people connect with different mitzvot naturally and spontaneously, while others may be out of reach, or less easily incorporated or understood.

9. Shem Mishmuel Yitro 5672.

10. Talmud Bavli Eruvin 46a.

11. Maharal Tiferet Yisrael chapter 34.

12. Lecture presented to the Rabbinical Council of America by Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik on June 22, 1972. The Rav indicated that if in this dispute the choice were his, he would be guided by the rule, "Halacha keRebbe Akiva," and would accept Akiva's interpretation. "Surrender and obedience are most necessary, not only for chukim but for mishpatim as well.... With regards to the sin of murder, man, no matter what persuasion, faith or ideology indignantly condemns the murderer and the act of murder. Yet, what about a situation which Dostoevsky portrayed so vividly in Crime and Punishment? The book depicts a cruel, miserly old woman who is a loan shark sucking the blood of those unfortunates caught in her web; a person who evicts the old and frail on a winter day in below zero temperatures. In sharp contrast, also depicted is a brilliant young student who cannot afford to continue his medical studies and who hopelessly watches his sister being sold into white slavery and exiled to some oriental country. A loan of a few hundred rubles could have remedied his problems, yet the old woman refused to lend him the money. In a moment of despair the student kills the miser. Do we have the right to condemn the student? Should we consider such a murder a crime? Again the answer is Rabbi Akiva's 'hen'; the Almighty has forbidden murder, whatever the motive...

13. Ibid.

14. Perhaps this is the meaning of the Gemara that at Sinai God upended the mountain and held it over the heads of the people, forcing them to accept the Torah. I would suggest that this passage is not to be taken literally; rather, when God spoke to them, they had no choice but to accept the Torah. See Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88a.

15. Rashi sees his mandate to explain the text of the Torah, and will choose the Halachic opinion that fits into the plain reading most easily. See Rashi on Bereishit 33:20.

16. Rabbi Soloveitchik in this lecture introduced a concept known as efshi, ei efshi, The Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna, in the introduction to Avot (shmoneh prakim) writes that there some laws that are perfectly natural, and religiously acceptable to desire, like eating milk and meat, wearing shatnez, certain sexual laws, a person may feel that he or she desires to break these laws, but they surrender to God and abstain. There are other laws like murder, that a person should know is wrong and not desire.



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