Divine speech and human speech

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Yitro

One of the fundamental principles in the Torah is that the Creator has no body or form. At the same time, since we live in a physical world, the forms of spatial-temporal concepts are imposed on our minds. There is a general principle that “the Torah speaks in the language of humans” (Talmud Berachot31b). Every analogy is precise.

So, when we encounter anthropomorphic images, descriptions of G-d borrowed from human concepts — whether the Chumash, prophets, writings or Sages — we can pause to contemplate what is being communicated.

Throughout the Torah we encounter situations wherein G-d “speaks.” This divine speech is used during the process of creation — “let there be light.” The series of original sentences to bring about the universe are known as the Ten Utterances. There is also speaking to select individuals like Abraham and Moses. And in this week’s portion, the speech reverberates to the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

When studying, it is easy to gloss over these images without giving much thought to their specific intent. Ask someone, whether a child or scholar, what it means that G-d “spoke” — if indeed the Creator transcends the physical — and your question might be met with a few moments of silence. And while using human-like qualities to convey a message never poses a problem in the study of Torah, even for the simplest commentaries geared for beginners, we still should pause to ask: What can be learned from the analogy of speech?

To express or reveal

The simple answer is that all forms of speech involve revealing something to the recipient that was previously hidden or inaccessible. Human speech, a detailed condensation of thoughts, expresses ideas and emotions to another person. So too, the theme of divine speech in the Torah is to reveal information that was previous hidden.

As it pertains to the process of creation, the function of divine speech is to bring something from a higher realm — in G-d’s “thought,” a spiritual reality or potential state — into the physical. Concerning prophecy, speaking is transmitting subtle and complex information into the mind of a gifted human being. In this sense prophecy is not always the ability to see the future but a higher awareness. The commentaries relate that at the time of the giving of the Torah and hearing the Ten Commandments, even small children reached the level of the highest prophet.

Creative speech

Whenever one attempts to dissect these concepts, they must be stripped of their temporal, spatial and corporeal connotations. In this case, traveling from the analogy of human speech to the more abstract idea of divine speech, we must determine which ideas from our experience can be retained and which are inapplicable to G-d’s speech — there are always discrepancies wherein an analogy breaks down.

One of those differences, the commentaries relate, is that divine speech never departs from the source — there is no separate existence “outside” of the Creator — and it has the power to create life from scratch. The mystical texts pick up from here and elaborate. The original Ten Utterances that formed the universe through combinations of Hebrew letters never ceased; that divine energy, an exposure from the infinite source, continues to invigorate and sustain our world each second. Were G-d’s words to withdraw or disappear in the same manner as human speech, all reality as we know it would revert to its original state of nothingness.


Studying the different layers of meaning behind divine speech, while slowly making such abstract concepts more tangible, is a path to better appreciating the complete and inherent oneness of the Creator that is a cornerstone of our faith. In this vein, the first of the Ten Commandments, according to Maimonides, is a mitzvah to use one’s mind to “know” G-d (as opposed to believe) in as much detail as possible.

Part of this endeavor is contemplating how G-d’s speech brought the world into being — as we say in our morning prayers: “Blessed is He who spoke, and the world appeared.” Furthermore, this speech is the force that continues to sustain existence (every living being and object).

On the flip side, the esoteric works explain that although our speech cannot form reality in the same manner as divine speech, it has a more substantial effect than we might imagine. Bringing something from thought to speech not only reveals but creates a certain reality. So, in this sense, we must be careful with our words.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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