One of the few works of art found in most synagogues are the tablets of the Ten Commandments. They occupy a place of honor and are said to be the highest teaching of the Bible. Indeed, of the entire gift of Torah that Jews celebrate on Shavuot, the Commandments are the segment that was disseminated most widely outside Judaism. Yet they didn’t have an easy ride.
Christianity in particular gave Judaism such problems with the Decalogue that though the midrash reveled in its poetical acclaim for the Revelation, the sages deliberately removed the Ten Commandments from daily liturgy. That they were part of the daily service in the Temple is recorded in the Mishna (Tamid 5:1), reflected in the Nash Papyrus in which they are side by side with the Shema Yisrael, and confirmed by fragments of tefillin found in the Qumran Caves.
Judaism abandoned the daily reading “because of the claims of the (Christian) sectarians” (Berachot
12a). The followers of Paul believed that only the Ten Commandments and not the rest of the Mosaic law were divine, eternal and binding. In this context, for Jews to give priority to the Decalogue might have signaled agreement with the sectarians, so the daily reading was abandoned in order to show that all 613 mitzvot
were divine commands.
From then onward, the Decalogue has not formed part of the statutory service, though some people add it to their personal prayers and the commentators averred that the teachings of the Ten Commandments were hinted at in the Shema
Joseph H. Hertz, who was chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth from 1913 until his death in 1946, wrote: “The Teachers of the Talmud were most careful to emphasise that the Ten Commandments did not contain the Whole Duty of Man. The Decalogue laid down the foundations of Religion and Morality, but was not in itself the entire structure of Human Duty.” Maimonides opposed standing for the Ten Commandments when they came in the Torah reading for the parashot
, as well as during Shavuot, unless one always stood during the Torah reading, “as this may lead to the mistaken idea that one part of the Torah is greater than another.”
The Decalogue is quoted frequently in the New Testament, but Christian attitudes to the Commandments varied. Because some laws were a source of embarrassment, the commands about idolatry and the Sabbath received re-interpretation. The phrase “Thou shalt not” was deprecated as too negative and unfavorably compared to Christian formulations of ethics.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica
, the Decalogue “was of no particular importance in Christian tradition until AD 1246 when it was for the first time incorporated into a manual of instruction for those coming to confession. The traditional division of the commandments into two ‘tables of duties’ toward God and toward man made it possible to regard the second table as a succinct statement of the ‘law of nature’ within the framework of medieval Christian theology.”
Protestantism, however, included the Ten Commandments in manuals for instruction. Martin Luther set the seal on Protestant approval when he wrote, “Outside the Ten Commandments there is no good and God-pleasing work thinkable.”
Every version agrees that the Decalogue has ten commandments, no more and no less. The Bible uses ten as the basic unit, probably because it conforms with the body’s ten fingers and ten toes, and ten became the first convenient stopping point in arithmetic. Ten is the basic social group, from which the idea of the minyan
developed. There are a number of decads and pentads of laws in the Torah, which itself has five books, exactly half of ten. In Psalm 119, there are ten synonyms for the concept of mitzva
Not all ten Commandments are laws in the usual sense of the word. The first one does not explicitly order us to do anything, and it cannot be adjudicated in a court of law. But it identifies the lawgiver, God who redeemed the people from bondage. Maimonides sees it as a command to the mind – “Know that there is a First Cause bringing all else into existence” – not a command to believe, since no-one can force a person to believe when they do not want to. Another opinion said it was a command to accept God’s sovereignty: “The Monarch whose great deeds on your behalf you witnessed and experienced, that is the Monarch to whom you must be loyal and whose commands you must obey.”
The problem disappears, however, when we note that the Torah itself calls the Decalogue Aseret Hadibrot
, “Ten Words” or “Ten Statements” – i.e. ten principles. The English term Decalogue conveys a similar idea since it comes from the Greek for “ten words.”
Christianity, wishing to maintain the idea of ten laws, saw “I am the Lord your God” as merely a preamble. The Greek and Protestant Churches divide the Second Commandment into two, separating the law against polytheism and the law against idolatry. The Roman Catholics and Lutherans divide the law against coveting into two.
That law against coveting is still a problem in that no earthly court can read your mind and punish you for being envious. If the Decalogue is seen as a set of principles and not laws, this becomes a warning against fighting the facts. An illustration is given by Abraham Ibn Ezra. He says that one peasant can covet the good fortune of a second, more prosperous peasant. But he is not likely to covet the king’s daughter because he knows he could not have her except in a fantasy world. A believer knows what has been allocated to him has been decided by God, and whilst he can be ambitious he has no right to covet the impossible, like the peasant marrying the princess.
If “Do not covet” is seen as a law, it shows us that it is in the heavenly court that we will be held accountable for our infractions. Certain precepts are also actionable on earth, especially killing and stealing, but that does not detract from the status of the document as a set of moral obligations to God.
The rabbis point out that though coveting takes place in the human heart and mind, it can lead to the infringement of the other precepts. If you strongly covet something that is your neighbor’s you can find yourself telling lies in order to acquire it (an infringement of “Do not bear false witness”), stealing it (“Do not steal”), even taking your neighbor’s wife (“Do not commit adultery”), and even murdering your neighbor (“Do not kill”).
The last five commandments are short, sharp, almost staccato. As the
first five exhort reverence for God, the last five command reverence for
human life and the concepts of marriage and family, property and
possessions, reputation and integrity. All are negatives: “Thou shalt
Negatives are clear, unambiguous and concise. Try to turn them into
something positive and the result is wordy and imprecise: “Respect human
life” is very nice, but “Thou shalt not kill” is clearer. As Rabbi
Solomon Goldman wrote: “God Almighty hath said in a voice that goeth
thundering through the centuries, ‘Thou shalt not.’ Never! Never!
The Christian scholar W.R. Matthews wrote: “Neither Jews nor Christians
hold that prohibitions are enough, or that moral goodness consists in
observing them. What is maintained is that such a series of negative
commandments is an indispensable aid to moral development and cannot
safely be thrown aside even by persons of mature character.”
As children we realized there was a difference between right and wrong
when we heard “Do not”: “Don’t touch the hot fire… don’t cross the road
by yourself….” Matthews says, “’Thou shalt not’ is not the last word
in morals, but it is the first word.”
There is no human group or society that did not formulate laws of this
kind. Every society develops a law against murder. So does the Sixth
Commandment contribute anything which we might not have worked out by
ourselves? Fundamentally, the link between “I am the Lord your God” and
“do not murder.”
Not murdering is thus not merely a counsel of prudence that recognizes
that such an act invites retaliation and vengeance and endangers
everyone, but it has a higher motive, based on the principle that there
is a God who has made man in His own image (a concept to be understood
not in a literal but an ethical and intellectual sense). Man is part of
God, and to murder a human being is to diminish God.
Whatever the provocation, when a person is provoked and sorely tempted,
the thought of God should hold them back from transgressing. The sages
say that when Joseph was tempted by the wife of Potiphar, his father
appeared to his mind’s eye and he knew he could not sin; all the more,
when the thought of God appears before us, we know we cannot commit a
The command against murder also has broader implications. Not only acts
can be murderous; there are also murderous attitudes.
The Torah (Deut. 21) established a ritual to be followed if a dead body
was found and no-one knew who had killed the person. The elders of the
nearest city had to wash their hands and say, “Our hands did not shed
this blood, nor did our eyes see it.” Would anyone have suspected the
city fathers? The elders implied, “This man did not come to us hungry
and we failed to feed him. He did not come to us friendless and we
failed to show concern for his welfare.” If social problems exist and we
fail to deal with them adequately, we are in a sense guilty of murder
because we have left others to their fate and signaled that their lives
are not worth saving.
The tablets of the Ten Commandments, according to rabbinic tradition,
were prepared at the eve of Creation, antedating history and humanity
and independent of time and place. They were hewn from the sapphire
Throne of Glory and were therefore majestic, splendid and of Divine
origin. The fact that there were two of them symbolized the harmony
between man’s double duty, with the first tablet representing duty to
God and the second, duty to fellow men. This symmetry was made possible
by having five commandments on each tablet but required the fifth
(respect for parents) to be interpreted as a duty to God.
No one, however, is certain as to the exact shape of the tablets. The
great rabbinic compilations, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds,
record conflicting traditions. The Babylonian view was that the tablets
were approximately 55 centimeters square, whereas the Jerusalem Talmud
envisaged them as oblong, about 55 centimeters by 28.
Neither thought of them as having arched or domed tops, though this is
the way they have generally been depicted for centuries. They entered
Christian art in Italy, where they had the form of two rectangles.
According to Jewish Studies Prof. G.B. Sarfatti they acquired an arched
top due to the influence of the dipytch, a register folded into two
leaves with curved tops which was used by the Romans to list the names
of magistrates and later by the Catholic Church to record the names of
deceased people commemorated with oblations. This design spread to many
branches of religious art and architecture and made its way into the
arched windows of abbeys and churches.
As we can see from a statue in Lincoln Cathedral and from other
contemporary sources, even old Haggadot, the Jewish badge in medieval
England took the form of the tablets of the Decalogue.
Jewish communities themselves began to depict the Ten Commandments in
about the 13th century; the Decalogue eventually became a widespread
feature of synagogue buildings, almost always with the rounded shape
introduced by the Christian artists of the Middle Ages.
These days some Jewish artists prefer the square or rectangular shape
known in the time of the Talmud, but this is still the exception rather
than the rule. The Ten Commandments figure in many areas of Jewish
ritual art, ranging from ark curtains to tallit
clips. They often figure on Torah breastplates and hanukkiot. Almost
everywhere they top the synagogue ark. In some places the
(the partition between men’s and women’s
seating) is decorated by a line of joined tablets of the commandments.
Though there is a general view that the characteristic Jewish symbol is
the Magen David
(Star of David,) the Decalogue is
more ancient and has greater authenticity. Its theological significance
lies in its balancing of the inner and outer dimensions of a Jew’s
The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue,
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