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In 1923 Cecil B. de Mille produced his spectacular The Ten Commandments, showing a wild-looking Moses bringing down two squarish-shaped stone tablets of the Law from the mountain. In this he was following the Talmud, that says the tablets were square and the tops were level. Less than 60 years earlier, Gustav Dor had shown Moses descending with twin tablets, each one with a rounded head. He was following the Dutch artist Jan Goessart who, in 1520, showed Moses holding a similar pair of round-headed tablets. However, just a few years earlier Michelangelo's Roman church statue has Moses with a pair of rectangular tablets tucked under his arm like a briefcase. In 1481 the Italian fresco painter Cossimo Roselli showed Moses with two rectangular tablets, descending the mountain and then breaking them at the sight of the golden calf; while Lorenzo Ghiberti, on the famous bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery, dated 50 years earlier, again showed Moses receiving two rectangular tablets from God Himself.
There is an early relief of the seventh century from Constantinople that shows Moses receiving from God's hand in the sky the Law in the form of a scroll, and the third-century depiction of Moses from the ancient synagogue at Dura-Europos shows him reading the Law from a scroll. No tablets appear, so we cannot deduce any particular shape from these early sources. Where tablets are shown there seems to have been a difference of opinion as to whether they were rectangular or round-headed.
Even though the Talmud makes it clear that they were square, the majority of Jewish and non-Jewish artists, in children's books as well as on the majority of synagogue arks, show the tablets with rounded heads. But on one point they all agree, the Law was written, or better engraved, on two tablets of stone.
THAT SEEMS to be the easy way to read the biblical texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but were the Ten Commandments really engraved on two tablets, which together would have weighed one-quarter of a ton according to the dimensions given in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 14a)? Luckily the Gemara, which describes the tablets as each having been like a very large paving slab and six times as thick, does not have a monopoly on our history.
In any case, would it have made sense to engrave one of the shortest codes of Law on two pieces of stone, however large or small? If we look back into antiquity, we can see the actual pieces of stone of several codes of law. The most famous is the Code of Hammurabi of about 1750 BCE, which has 282 laws engraved in cuneiform on one mighty black stone, front and back. Also from Mesopotamia is the earlier code of 61 laws of Eshnunna of about 2000 BCE, and the 38 extant laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Sumer from a period a little later. These were all written on one piece of stone with a rounded head, as are major inscriptions from ancient Egypt, though we have no code of laws from that country.
To inscribe a set of laws, particularly such a succinct one as the Ten Commandments, on two pieces of stone seems to be asking for trouble. Is one stone the important one, and the other less so? Is one first class and the other second? What if one is lost, will its laws be forgotten and considered defunct?
The question must therefore be asked, were there really two pieces of stone, or could there have been just one? From the biblical texts it looks as if there were certainly two tablets, in Hebrew the word is luhot. Its original meaning is based on the root laha, meaning fresh or moist. In old age, Moses does not lose his freshness (leiho, Deut. 34:7). In a dispute between rival advisers to King Ahab, one prophet hits another on the cheek (haleihi, I Kings 22:24), a ruddy cheek being a sign of good health, of freshness. As leihi basically means the human cheek, then the two tablets or two luhot would be the two cheeks or sides of the one stone. This is further underlined by a passage in Ezekiel (27:5) which talks of the fine ships of the port of Tyre having their cedar wood made luhotayim, in the dual plural, meaning that the ships' planks had two smooth faces, or cheeks, on the underside as well as the top. Only the best ships would have that refinement. It looks therefore as if the two luhot of the Ten Commandments could be the two cheeks or smooth faces of one piece of stone.
IF WE look again at the Bible texts, we should now read them in that light. In Deut. 9:15, Moses says "and the two luhot of the Covenant were on my two hands," meaning the two smooth sides of one heavy stone. More revealing is 9:10, "He gave me the two luhot of stone written with the finger of God." Although the word stone is in the plural in the Hebrew, it implies the material and not the pieces, and is always translated in the singular, meaning that the "cheeks" were of stone, that is, the two sides were of stone. This is made clear in Exodus 24:12 which is quite explicit, when God says to Moses, "I will give you the luhot of the stone (ha'even)." And Exodus 31:18 says that He, God, gave "the two luhot of the Testimony, luhot of stone [singular], written with the finger of God."
Finally in 32:15, when Moses descended from the mountain, "the two luhot of the Testimony were in his hand, luhot written from their two sides (evreihem), from this side and that they were written."
Of course the conventional interpretation is that the tablets were separate pieces of stone, but to maintain that these two pieces were each written on both sides makes little sense, so the famous commentator Rashi takes it (basing himself on the Talmud in Shabbat 104A) that the same text was readable by miracle from both sides. But the Torah says that they were written on both sides, and one should rather say that this refers to the single stone itself, which had two sides (everim) of smooth faces or cheeks, and that it was the single stone that was written, or better engraved, on both of its faces.
The conclusion is, then, that the Ten Commandments - like other ancient codes of law such as the Code of Hammurabi - were engraved on both faces of one stone.
The writer is a fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.