World of the Sages: Raising your voice

Why did the Almighty need to suit His voice to His translator-transmitter, Moses?

The Talmud offers a rule about the relative volume of two functionaries in a synagogue setting: The translator of the Torah reading is not permitted to raise his voice above that of the reader (B. Berachot 45a). From the Babylonian exile through mishnaic and talmudic times the prevalent custom was for the Torah reading to be coupled with a translation and to an extent an elucidation in the Aramaic vernacular. Following the reading of each biblical verse in the original Hebrew, the translator would render the verse in Aramaic (M. Megilla 4:4; B. Megilla 23b-24a). The purpose of this supplement was clear: To ensure that those present understood what was being read. The translator-transmitter, however, was instructed to check the loudness of his voice, to ensure that he was not louder than the Torah reader. While this custom was codified as Jewish law, it is only practiced today in select communities. This ritual faded as its utility became limited when the Aramaic vernacular fell into disuse and people did not understand the translation (Shulhan Aruch OH 145). The Talmud offers a biblical source for the volume rule, a source which as we will soon see is somewhat puzzling: Moses would speak and God would respond to him with a voice (Exodus 19:19). The verse appears in the context of the Ten Commandments: The Jewish people heard the first two commandments from the Almighty, while the remaining eight were transmitted by God to Moses who proceeded to relay them to the people. The Talmud notes that in the biblical verse the word vekol (with a voice) is superfluous; the verse could have been understood without this addendum. The added word indicates that the Almighty responded to Moses in a voice equal to that of Moses. Why did the Almighty need to suit His voice to His translator-transmitter, Moses? The talmudic rule, it would appear, suggests that it is the responsibility of the translator-transmitter to check his volume. The Almighty - as the reader of the original Torah verses - could have spoke as loud as He wished; all Moses needed to do was to ensure that his voice was no louder than God's? One possible explanation is that Moses needed to speak loudly so that all the people assembled at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah could clearly hear what he was saying. God only needed to speak to Moses, but had He merely whispered, Moses as the translator-transmitter would not have been permitted to speak loudly. The Almighty therefore raised His voice, so that Moses too could speak loudly (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). One of the commentators suggests - albeit with a huge measure of hesitation - that maybe Moses was the reader and the Almighty was his translator and that is why God needed to suit His voice to that of Moses (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). Explaining this possibility the commentator notes that Moses would have read the Torah in Hebrew. Yet not all present would have understood the language. Elsewhere in the Talmud it says that whenever God spoke, His words were divinely heard in the full gamut of 70 languages (B. Shabbat 88a). Thus the Almighty served as a translator for Moses the reader, and it was He who needed to appropriately lower the volume of His divine voice. While this explanation fits the talmudic interpretation of the biblical verse, it is certainly surprising to think of the Almighty as Moses' translator and even more startling to think of Moses as the original reader. Indeed, in a number of biblical passages Moses is described as explaining the Torah, that is, serving in the classic role of the translator-transmitter (see Deuteronomy 1:5; 27:8). With this in mind, another commentator proposes that not only must the translator-transmitter check his voice, but the reader too must aim to use the same volume level as his translator-transmitter (Rabbi Ya'acov Reisher, 17th-18th centuries, central Europe). This approach is borne out of the continuation of the talmudic passage which cites a slightly different source for the volume rule: "The translator is not permitted to raise his voice above that of the reader. If it is not possible for the translator to match the voice of the reader, then the reader should reduce the volume of his voice to the level of that of the translator." Why must the reader lower his voice, until now we have understood that the reader must be louder than the translator? The codifiers indicate that there may be textual omission in the Talmud: After stating that the translator must not be louder than the reader, they add that likewise the reader must not be louder than the translator. Hence if the translator is unable to match the reader's volume level, the reader should lower his voice so that both the reading and the translating are at the same volume (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo). The volume requirement is therefore incumbent on both reader and translator to speak at the same level. The Almighty reader lowered His divine voice so that it matched the human voice of Moses as he rendered the commandments before the people. What is the reason for these volume directives? We may suggest that each of these functionaries - the reader and translator - represents a different value. The translator was introduced in acknowledgement of the importance of understanding the content. In instituting this office, our sages were striving to provide access to the tradition even for those for who could not comprehend the text in its original formulation. By limiting the volume of the translator, however, our sages were saying that ideas may indeed transcend boundaries of language, yet there is no substitute for hearing the original text. Any translation contains an element of interpretation; the translator-transmitter serves as an intermediary. For an unmediated encounter with the texts of our tradition it is imperative to gain access to the original. By demanding equal volume, our sages sought to balance the ideal of providing an opportunity for everyone to explore the Torah without abandoning the value of accessing the primary source. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.