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I have a question regards Devarim 4:11 which in Hebrew reads: "עַד-לֵב הַשָּׁמַיִם חֹשֶׁךְ, עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל". Transliteration reads the words 'choshech, anan and araphel'. It seems to me that there was a fire while in the midst of heaven, the heart of heaven, there where these three which describe somewhat of the 'heavy and thick cloud' HaShem revealed Himself through.

It seems to me that HaShem cloaked Himself (His light) with these three.

So what I would like to know is how to translate and understand Devarim 4:11 correctly what do these three words 'choshech, anan and araphel' mean, how does one define them? What's meant by these words often translated as 'darkness, cloud and thick cloud/darkness/gloom/mist'?


P.s. In 1 Malachim 8:12 it says: "יְהוָה אָמַר, לִשְׁכֹּן בָּעֲרָפֶל" that HaShem chose to live in araphel; it's the same thing/place as to where Moshe went into in Shemot 20:21. The presence of HaShem is often pictured in the Tenach as a cloud or to dwell in a cloud (1 Kings 8:10-11, Exodus 19, 40:34-38 and other verses). The cloud and thick fog were a form of ‘choshech’ (darkness) and choshech is the language of ‘holding back’, as it is written (Bereshit 22): “You [Avraham] have not held back (chasachta) your son, your only one.”

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I think this excerpt from Part III Chapter IX of Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim should clarify the phrase that you mentioned as well as explain the general concept of how G-d reveals himself to man:

Thus the prophets frequently hint at the existence of a partition between God and us. They say He is concealed from us in vapours, in darkness, in mist, or in a thick cloud: or use similar figures to express that on account of our bodies we are unable to comprehend His essence. This is the meaning of the words, "Clouds and darkness are round about Him" (Ps. xcvii. 2). The prophets tell us that the difficulty consists in the grossness of our substance: they do not imply, as might be gathered from the literal meaning of their words, that God is corporeal, and is invisible because He is surrounded by thick clouds, vapours, darkness, or mist. This figure is also expressed in the passage, "He made darkness His secret place" (Ps. xviii. 12). The object of God revealing Himself in thick clouds, darkness, vapours, and mist was to teach this lesson; for every prophetic vision contains some lesson by means of allegory; that mighty vision, therefore, though the greatest of all visions, and above all comparison, viz., His revelation in a thick cloud, did not take place without any purpose, it was intended to indicate that we cannot comprehend Him on account of the dark body that surrounds us. It does not surround God, because He is incorporeal. A tradition is current among our people that the day of the revelation on Mount Sinai was misty, cloudy, and a little rainy. Comp. "Lord, when thou wentest forth from Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped water" (Judges v. 4). The same idea is expressed by the words "darkness, clouds, and thick darkness" (Deut. iv. 11). The phrase does not denote that darkness surrounds God, for with Him there is no darkness, but the great, strong, and permanent light, which, emanating from Him, illuminates all darkness, as is expressed by the prophetic simile, "And the earth shined with His glory" (Ezek. xliii. 2).

There is further support to the specific distinction between ערפל which is a thin cloud (See Rash"i and Siftei Chachamim on Shemot 19:9) and is synonymous with the term עב הענן, and the term ענן used by itself which connotes a precipitous cloud that produced the thunder and lightning. This seems to be conveyed by Ibn Ezra on Shemot 19:16.

  • "for with Him there is no darkness" sounds like Rambam perhaps tried his hand at some 1 John :] – SolaGratia Sep 17 '18 at 22:29
  • @SolaGratia Those are the translator’s choice of words; Maimonides wrote his Guide in Arabic. – Oliver Nov 18 '18 at 3:38
  • It was said tongue in cheek; but while we're at it, I'm not sure the translator's choice of words are a non-translation of the Arabic. "with him" and "no darkness" can only be said in so many ways in Semitic fashion, as it appears to have been said at least from this translation. – SolaGratia Nov 18 '18 at 14:32

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