This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Rocky Revelation*

As Moses prepared to make his descent from Mount Sinai to deliver God’s law to the people, the Bible states that the Almighty provided the prophet with “two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” The image of a text etched by a divine finger is a powerful expression of the immediate connection between the Torah and its author. (Who can forget that fiery 1956-vintage special-effects finger that carved the commandments in the Cecil B. Demille film?) Ancient synagogue art such as the Beit Alpha mosaics and the Dura Europos frescoes, though generally wary about portraying God with physical limbs, did permit the iconographic convention of a divine hand emerging from the celestial firmament.

Rationalist interpreters of Judaism were particularly uncomfortable with any graphic representation of a human-shaped God. They held that the authentic supreme being whose existence is proven from the study of science and philosophy is entirely without visible or tangible form, human or otherwise; and to suggest that the deity has hands or fingers would be idolatrous heresy.

The most influential proponent of philosophical Judaism, Moses Maimonides, therefore opposed a literal understanding that the tablets containing the ten commandments were etched by “the finger of God.” In his Guide of the Perplexed he argued that the Bible’s designation of the fashioning of the tablets at Sinai as “the work of God” was actually meant to imply no more than that the stones were products of nature—in the same way that all natural phenomena ultimately derive from the divine “first cause”—rather than a specific act of supernatural craftsmanship. For Maimonides God’s greatness lies in his creation of the eternally immutable laws of nature and not in the capricious suspension of those laws by means of miracles.

As regards writing with the finger of God, Maimonides adduced several instances from scriptural Hebrew where “finger” is employed as a metaphoric equivalent for “word.” Accordingly, it means that the tablets were written by the word or command of God, which in turn (since God does not have the physiological vocal structure that generates human language) means that it conformed to the divine will and intention.

The fourteenth-century Catalan scholar Rabbi Moses Narboni, author of an important commentary to the Guide, brought a remarkable piece of personal experience to support Maimonides’ claims about the natural origins of the stone used in Moses’s tablets. He cited a tradition to the effect that the name “Sinai” was derived from the Hebrew “s’neh,” referring to the [burning] bush that Moses had encountered on that mountain at the outset of his prophetic calling.

In a meeting with one of the notables of Barcelona’s distinguished Ibn Ḥisdai family, Narboni was shown a rock that had been brought from the Sinai region and contained arcane patterns resembling a bush. Most wondrous was his discovery that no matter how many times he would split the rock, the image of the same perfectly drawn bush would be discernible on each of the resulting fragments. Narboni found immense satisfaction in the realization that the existence of such a rock in the natural environment of Sinai confirmed Maimonides’ theory about the origin of the tablets of the covenant.

Subsequent scholars were fascinated with Narboni’s report. Several of them simply copied it in their own discussions of the passage in Maimonides’ Guide (without necessarily crediting their source). Rabbi Samuel Ibn S’neh Ẓarẓa of Valencia took the trouble to track down Narboni’s rock, which had since been relocated along with its owners to Perpignan, evidently to escape the outbreak of the Black Plague in Barcelona. As it happens, Rabbi Samuel related that he himself had adopted the Hebrew epithet S’neh (bush) as the equivalent of his Spanish name “Zarza,” possibly of Arabic origin, that has a similar meaning.

The volatile Rabbi Jacob Emden of Altona, ever an opponent of philosophy and of the Guide of the Perplexed (Emden questioned the attribution that heretical tome to a rabbinic scholar of Maimonides’ stature), quoted Narboni and other writers who invoked the Sinai stones in support of a naturalist reading of the biblical narrative. However he dismissed that approach as so much superfluous wind and serpentine venom. Those arrogant rationalists were simply unable to appreciate the profound mysteries of creation, making a mockery of the miracles wrought by our all-powerful God.

A very different attitude was that of the impoverished Lithuanian Talmud student Solomon ben Joshua. His encounter with Maimonides’ ideas inspired such admiration that he changed his name to Salomon Maimon and moved to Berlin to become a respected philosopher. In his commentary to the relevant passage in the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimon cited Narboni’s story about the stones from Sinai. Not only did he trust Narboni as a reputable scientist, but he told of his personal experience of having seen stones that were imprinted with natural graphic designs. On this basis, he speculated that the biblical tablets must have been inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphics, where each one of a vast range of pictograms represents a complete idea; or perhaps with the recently introduced Canaanite alphabetical script in which a small number of phonetic signs can be combined into unlimited numbers of words. In those times such scripts were usually understandable only by the priestly caste. However, “after our master Moses sculpted the two stone tablets out of the mountain and found in them this wondrous writing, he explained to the people the meaning of that script which had hitherto been indecipherable for them.”

All the claims we have seen so far were based on second-hand evidence, whether on rocks that were purported to come from the Sinai, quotations from earlier authors, or comparisons to analogous phenomena. A somewhat stronger case was made by the nineteenth-century traveler Jacob Saphir of Jerusalem. Saphir reported that the region around Jabal Musa (the mountain traditionally identified as Sinai) is strewn with the rocks that are known in Arabic as “‘Uṣ Sinai.” The stones are easily mistaken for wooden boards and the Arabs do in fact use them for the construction of houses. Saphir related that what he initially took to be coloured flowers and grasses spread across the terrain turned out on closer inspection to be delicately shaped veined stones that crumbled at his tread.

Well, this landscape of floral rocks is starting to sound like some kind of fabled fairy-land or an elaborate theme park exaggerated by religious credulity. It is not quite obvious how it supports Maimonides’ thesis that the etching of Moses’ tablets was not the product of a specific divine act.

The simple truth, however, is that this phenomenon can be explained according to the hard facts of geology. The stones described by Rabbi Moses Narboni and Jacob Saphir were in reality instances of a class of materials known as “manganese dendrite” wherein symmetrical tree-like markings (often mistaken for fossils) appear in rocks, especially limestone, as a result of chemical and physical processes of manganese oxide flowing through porous rocks. Like so many designs in nature, especially plants, these usually have the appearance of the intricate mathematical forms known as fractals. Their distribution follows the model of crystals that repeat their patterns on different scales. This is fully consistent with Narboni’s observations of how the bush images were replicated when he split the stone into pieces.

Whether we approach it as science or miracles, traditionalists like Rabbi David Solomon Eibenschutz of Soroki, Moldavia knew how to derive valuable spiritual lessons from the way nature linked the simple rock fragments to a lowly bush and to the inconspicuous Mount Sinai, creating an appropriate setting for the revelation of the Torah through the meek prophet Moses. All this underscores the principle that pride and arrogance are not conducive to learning.

This fundamental lesson in intellectual humility is indeed worthy of being written in stone.


This article and many others are now included in the book

The Times of Our Life
The Times of Our Life: Some Brief Histories of Jewish Time

published by

Alberta Judaic Library
Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary,June 7, 2019, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Atlas, Samuel H. From Critical to Speculative Idealism: The Philosophy of Solomon Maimon. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964.
    • Beit-Arié, Malachi. “iggeret me-‘Inyan “Aseret ha-Shevaṭim me’et R’’’ Avraham ben Eli‘ezer Ha-Levi ha-Meḳubbal mi-Shenat RP"Ḥ.”’” Kovez Al Yad 6, no. 2 (1966): 369–78.
    • Hayoun, Maurice R. Moshe Narboni. Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism 1. Tübingen,: Mohr, 1986.
    • Jospe, Raphael. “The Stone and the Bush.” Cathedra for the History of Eretz Israel and its Yishuv 48 (1988): 191–94. [Hebrew]
    • ———. Torah and Sophia: The Life and Thought of Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera. Vol. Monographs of the Hebrew Union College. 11 vols. Cincinnati and Hoboken: Hebrew Union College Press Distributed by Ktav Pub. House, 1988.
    • Kaufmann, David. “Shullam’s Report of the Burning of Samuel Zarza: A Legend Based on a Name.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Old Series, 11, no. 4 (1899): 658–62.
    • Melamed, Yitzhak Y. “‘Let the Law Cut through the Mountain’: Salomon Maimon, Moses Mendelssohn, and Mme. Truth.” In Höre Die Wahrheit, Wer Sie Auch Spricht, edited by Lukas Muehlethaler, 70–76. Schriften Des Jüdischen Museums Berlin 2. Göttingen and Bristol, Conn.: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014.
    • Potter, Russell M., and George R. Rossman. “Minerology of Manganese Dendrites and Coatings.” American Mineralologist 64 (1979): 1219–26.
    • Schacter, Jacob J. “Rabbi Jacob Emden, Philosophy, and the Authority of Maimonides.” Tradition27, no. 4 (1993): 131–39.
    • Socher, Abraham P. The Radical Enlightenment of Solomon Maimon: Judaism, Heresy, and Philosophy. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.