January 31, 2010

Yitro: Something to Notice

“All the people witnessed the thunder [roim et ha-kolot ]…” (Exodus/Shemot 20:15)

The odd phrasing, that the people “roim et ha-kolot” — “saw the voices,” has been noted by many commentators through the centuries. Here’s some traditional commentary and visual midrash on this verse.

Marc-Alain Ouaknin has written about this verse in two of his books, which I recommend — although not as Torah commentary in the usual sense of the term. He notes in The Burnt Book that Hebrew, using an alphabet, rather than pictograms as other ancient cultures did, meant that people who saw alphabetic writing, representing sound instead of ideas/concepts, “saw the voices.”

The following is from Mysteries of the Alphabet:

The transformation of proto-Sinaitic into proto-Hebraic… is the result of several complex factors, one of which is particularly important. The discovery of monotheism, and the revelation and the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, introduced a new and important psychological element that may have produced a profound cultural change.

The second of the Ten Commandments states: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens or above or that it is in the earth beneath…” This prohibition on the image forced the Semites, who still wrote their language in a pictographic writing, to rid themselves of images. The birth of the modern alphabet created from abstract characters is linked to the revelation and the giving of the law. In his book Naissance et renaissance de l’ecriture (Birth and rebirth of writing), Gerard Pommier wrote: “To make the jump from the hieroglyphic to the consonant, from polytheism to monotheism, a frontier had to be crossed. An Exodus was necessary…

The Hebrews left Egypt and received the tablets of the law in Sinai, the law that enabled them to create a social structure, the law of which one of the consequences was the birth of a nonpictographic alphabet….

–Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mysteries of the Alphabet: the Origins of Writing. Ouaknin, Marc-Alain. Translated from the French by Josephine Bacon. NY: Abbeville, 1999. p.46-47.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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basics, midrash, Shemot, Visual Arts

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