The following is the Torah’s awe-inspiring description of G-d's revelation at Mount Sinai:
“And it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled…Now Mount Sinai was completely on smoke, because God descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like that of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And the voice of the horn waxed louder and louder… And God spoke all these words, saying… I am the Lord your God… And all the people saw the sounds, and the lightning, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking.” (Exodus 19-20)
According to the Talmud, the words: “All the people saw the sounds,” mean that the Israelites actually saw the sounds of the Ten Commandments; that is, each word spoken by God took the form of letters that pierced the sky like lightening.(1)
Exactly what form did those letters take?
The ancient Kabbalistic text, Sefer ha-Yetzirah,(2) discusses the spiritual significance of the Hebrew alphabet. In contrast to man-made letters, which are merely conventional, the Hebrew alphabet is considered to have been given by the Creator, and represents profound spiritual forces – in modern terms, different energies that flow through each letter.
For example, the letters of God’s command: “Let there be light” – va’yehi ohr actually convey and bring into being the infinite varieties of light found in creation: from the visible to the invisible, from the spiritual to the manifest.
Although the Talmudic Sages disagree upon which script was used to write the Torah given at Sinai,(3) the Kabbalists clearly state that it was the same script used today in writing a Torah scroll – the square Hebrew lettering known as the Ashuri (Assyrian) script. According to Kabbalists, this name has nothing to do with the Assyrian Empire, but derives from the shape of the letters, which are a confirmation (ishur, in Hebrew) of their inner meanings, and bestow happiness (osher) upon those who can penetrate their secrets.
In our time, two Israeli scientists – Chayim Yaakov Guggenheim and Chayim Ben-Harav-Chai Elbeze – have each made an amazing discovery that illuminates the shape and sound of the Hebrew letters.
Chayim Yaakov Guggenheim is an electro-optics engineer at Aircraft Industries of Israel. He was part of the team that developed the Lavi fighter jet. When he came across the statement of the Sages above, it sparked in him an idea. Today, sophisticated instruments can transform sound waves into images that can be displayed on a computer monitor. Guggenheim wondered if it was possible to use these instruments to display, in tangible form, the ancient Jewish understanding that the sound of the letters actually correspond to their shape.
Guggenheim was initially skeptical, particularly in view of the fact that our present-day pronunciation of a number of the letters differs from the original spoken Hebrew. Despite his skepticism, and much to his amazement, he discovered that the sound waves for seventeen out of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet create an on-screen image very similar to the shape of the written letter itself.
The Spiritual Side of this Discovery
The most important questions are: Why did God allow us see the sounds when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai? Why was it necessary? What secret did God want to reveal to us thereby?
The answers are linked to the particular properties of human hearing and vision, and to the unification of the senses.
Hearing entails the receiving of sounds. Yet sounds lack clear definition. Who is talking? From which direction are they talking? In that sense, voices are more spiritual than visible, material objects. Hearing operates in the dimension of time, over which we have no control, and demands the listener’s subservience to the speaker. In contrast, sight works within a spatial context that is under our control, and through which we can grasp and appreciate events in a single glance. Therefore, sight is realer and more definitive than hearing, even to the extent that: “A witness cannot become a judge” (BT Gitten 5b). A witness is convinced as to what his eyes have seen and therefore loses the objectivity required to judge fairly.
At Mount Sinai, the People of Israel saw mighty revelations, they saw into the distance – to that which lies beyond the immediate senses. They saw the spiritual with the certainty of seeing the material. They saw the ineffable as tangibly real.
This means that when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, the curtain that normally conceals nature was swept away (the numerical equivalent for the Hebrew letters of the word hateva, “nature,” is 86, which is the same value as the letters of the Divine name “Elohim”) and they witnessed the essential Name of God – the infinite force that creates limited reality (the latter being alluded to by the name Elohim, which represents the source of the vessels-letters [with which God creates the world]): “I am the Lord your God”.
In his book Sha’ar HaYichud Veha-Emunah(“The Portal of Unity and Belief”) Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) explains the connection [between creation and] the letters. He interprets the word in the expression: “You give life to all” as “You give existence to all.” In other words, creation ex nihilo. The three letters in the word “You” are aleph, the first letter in the alphabet, tav, the last letter and heh, the fifth letter. Thus, the word “You” (Atah – אתה) extends over the entire Hebrew alphabet, with the fifth letter heh signifying the five apertures of the mouth – the throat, palate, teeth, tongue and lips – which are the source of the letters.
We have found that the five apertures of the mouth restrict the range of sounds we produce and make them into an image (a process that reflects the process of creation as a whole: the breath of the mouth is the aspect of “nothingness” and the letter created is the aspect of “something”). In other words, that which can be seen and identified as a result of the “contraction” [of God’s infinite light, through which the universe was created].
Notes and Sources
(1) The explanation given by the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntchitz, 1550-1619) on Exodus 19:15 and the explanation given in the Yalkut Shimoni #299 (a compendium of midrashim from the Talmudic era) on Exodus 18-20.
(2) “The Book of Formation” – the earliest known book of Jewish mysticism, attributed to the patriarch Abraham.
(3) BT Sanhedrin 21b.