Whatever Happened to the Ten Commandments?

Why this central part of the Torah is not in our daily liturgy.

The Torah reading for Shavuot is the Ten Commandments. This is based on the opinion of one of the Tannaim (early Sages) found in three places in rabbinic literature (Tosefta Megillah 3:5, ed. Lieberman p. 354; Yerushalmi Megillah 3:7, fol. 74b; and Bavli Megillah 31a). This is, without a doubt, the result of the rabbinic belief that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot (Shabbat 86b).

Centrality of the Ten Commandments

Even so, it is very surprising that we only read the Ten Commandments in public on Shavuot and as part of the weekly Torah portions of Yitro (Exodus 20) and Va’ethanan (Deuteronomy 5). After all, the Bible itself considered the Ten Commandments of seminal importance to the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments are also quoted or paraphrased by the Psalms (50:7, 18-19; 81:10-11), by the prophet Hosea (4:1-2), and by the prophet Jeremiah (7:9).

Furthermore, Philo of Alexandria (first century C.E.) considered the Ten Commandments the essence of the entire Torah, which elaborates in detail what the Ten Commandments say in condensed form. A similar idea is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shekalim 6:1, fol. 49d):

Just as at sea there are huge waves, with a host of little waves between them, so are there Ten Commandments, with a host of refinements and particular commandments of the Torah between them.

Five hundred years later, Rav Saadia Gaon (888-942) wrote Azharot, or liturgical hymns, for Shavuot, in which all 613 commandments are distributed under the headings of each of the Ten Commandments.

A similar idea is found in Numbers Rabbah (13:15-16, ed. Mirkin, p. 71), edited in the 12th century. That midrash states that there are 620 letters in the Ten Commandments; 613 letters refer to the 613 commandments and the other 7 refer to the seven days of creation. “This comes to teach you that the entire world was created for the sake of the Torah.”

Furthermore, Rabbi Levi claimed that the Ten Commandments are included in other central biblical passages such as the Shema (a prayer recited twice daily) and Leviticus Chapter 19, the beginning of the Torah portion Kedoshim.

Earlier Customs

Therefore, given their centrality, why not read the Ten Commandments every day just as we read the Shema (which is comprised of Deuteronomy 6 and 11 and Numbers 15) and The Song at the Sea (Exodus 15)?

The answer is that in the Second Temple period, Jews did indeed read the Ten Commandments every morning. So it appears from the Nash Papyrus, which was written in Egypt around 150 B.C.E. and published in 1903. It contains the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5) followed by the beginning of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6), and scholars believe that it was a liturgical text.

Furthermore, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 include at least three small scrolls, which contain the Ten Commandments, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6 and 11) and other selected passages from Deuteronomy and Exodus. Esther Eshel, in an exhaustive study of one of those fragments, believes that they were collections of prayers recited at Qumran.

A more explicit reference is found in Mishnah Tamid 5:1, which states that the priests in the Temple used to recite every morning “the Ten Commandments, Shema (Deuteronomy 6), V’haya im shamoa (Deuteronomy 11)… Emet V’yatziv (the blessing after the Shema), the Avodah blessing (found today in the Amidah, the central prayer recited at all services), and the Priestly Blessing.”

Similarly, in Sifrei Devarim the Sages discussed the possibility of including the Ten Commandments in the tefillin [phylacteries]. Furthermore, seven tefillin fragments discovered at Qumran actually include the Ten Commandments. In addition, the Church Father Jerome, who lived in the Land of Israel (342-420 C.E.) relates that the Ten Commandments were still included in the tefillin in his day. In his commentary to Ezekiel 24:17, he says that:

“The Hebrews say that the Sages of Babylon who observe the precepts surround their heads until today with the Ten  Commandments written on parchment, and these are what they were commanded to hang before their eyes on their foreheads…”

Why They Were Eliminated

Yet if the Sages considered the Ten Commandments so important, why did they eliminate them from the daily prayers? Rav Matana and Rabi Shmuel bar Nahman explained in Yerushalmi Berakhot, Chapter 1, fol. 3c: “It would be proper to read the Ten Commandments every day; and why don’t we? Because of the zeal of the heretics lest they say: These alone were given to Moses at Sinai.”

The Babylonian Talmud also explains (Berakhot 12a): “They were already abolished because of the murmuring of the heretics.”

Which heretics did they have in mind? Theories include the early Christians or Philo or Gnostics or Samaritans or a group of Jews in the third century. In any case, the abolishment of the recitation stemmed from the fact that certain groups claimed that only the Ten Commandments were given to Moses at Sinai.

Indeed, when Maimonides wanted to prevent the custom of standing when reading the Ten Commandments in public, he used a similar argument: “…and they think that the Torah contains different levels and some parts are better than others, and this is very bad.…” In other words, standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments gives the impression that certain parts of the Torah are holier than others.

Attempts to Restore Them

Despite this opposition, there were attempts to maintain the original custom or to renew it. Some Babylonian Amoraim [sages] tried to renew the custom in the cities of Sura and Nehardea, but other Amoraim objected (Bavli Berakhot ibid.). The members of the Palestinian synagogue in Fustat continued to recite the Ten Commandments on Shabbat and holidays before Shirat Hayam (The Song at the Sea) until the 13th century.

Rabbi Shelomo ben Adret–the Rashba (Barcelona 1235-1310)–was asked if one could recite the Ten Commandments in the Shaharit (morning) service “because there are people who want to institute this in public.” He replied that, even though this practice is supported by Mishnah Tamid (cited above), it was already abolished “because of the murmuring of the heretics” (Berakhot 12a cited above) and is therefore forbidden.

One generation later, R. Jacob ben Asher (Spain, died ca. 1340) reintroduced the Ten Commandments “through the back door.” He says in the very first paragraph of Tur Orah Hayyim that “it is good to recite the Akedah (Genesis 21) and the story of the manna (Exodus 16) and the Ten Commandments…” before the Shaharit service.

This passage was quoted by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) in his Shulhah Arukh (Orah Hayyim 1:5). Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, 1525-1572) quickly adds in his Ashkenazic glosses that only an individual may do so, but it is forbidden to recite them in public, as the Rashba ruled.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Cracow 1510-1574), relates in his responsa (rabbinic ruling) that, in accordance with the Tur, he recites the Ten Commandments every morning before Barukh She’amar, one of the morning prayers.

Indeed, some modern prayer books include the Ten Commandments. Yitzhak Baer printed them in his classic Avodat Yisrael (Rodelheim, 1868) at the end of Shaharit after the Psalm for the Day, as did the ArtScroll siddur [prayerbook] in our day. In the Reform Gates of Prayer (New York, 1975), the Ten Commandments appear in the Special Themes section in the back.

It is difficult to choose sides in this debate. On the one hand, the Ten Commandments are very important to Judaism and it is good for Jews to recite them daily and to know them by heart. On the other hand, there is indeed a danger that people will think that “there are different levels in the Torah”; they will ignore the entire halakhic [Jewish law] system and observe only the Ten Commandments.

Therefore, it is good that our ancestors only required the reading of the Ten Commandments in public three times a year, but encouraged their recitation in private all year long. In this fashion, we emphasize their importance without turning them into the only important mitzvot [commandments].

Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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