World of the Sages: The core of our people

We might be inclined to suggest an alternative to the Shema: the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).

10 commandments 88 (photo credit: )
10 commandments 88
(photo credit: )
The twice daily recitation of Shema followed by the Amida is the focus of both the morning and evening prayers. Yet, perusing the Torah we might be inclined to suggest an alternative, or at least an additional passage, that could be considered essential: the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). Indeed, our sages describe how the original Temple service included the recitation of the Ten Commandments (M. Tamid 5:1). Each morning an appointed kohen would turn to his colleagues with the instruction: "Recite one blessing," and his peers would comply. They would then proceed to read the Ten Commandments and Shema. Together with non-kohanim present, three further blessings would then be recited: First, the blessing of Emet veyatziv (true and certain), a paragraph that we say today after reading the morning Shema. Second, a blessing over the Temple service, an altered text of which is recited as the 17th blessing of our daily Amida. Third, the kohanim would recite the priestly benediction. With much work to do in the Temple, the kohanim did not recite the entire Amida at this time. Thus the Ten Commandments were a central part of the prayer service in Temple times. Moreover, the kohanim who were pressed for time and did not recite the entire Amida nevertheless did not forgo the reading of this fundamental text. It is easy to understand why the Ten Commandments should be at the core of our prayers. At the moment of Divine revelation at Sinai, these were the words that our people heard. Furthermore, these statements represent the soul of our faith (Maimonides, 12th century, Egypt). Despite the obvious centrality of the Ten Commandments, this key scriptural passage is generally not recited as part of our daily liturgy. Nowadays, we merely hear the Ten Commandments as part of the Torah reading at certain junctures during the year. These foremost biblical verses that recall the Sinai covenant and reflect our very essence seem to have disappeared from our prayers. What happened to this cornerstone? The Talmud recounts that the sages in various places in the Land of Israel wished to follow the Temple rite of reciting the Ten Commandments as part of the daily prayer service. This practice was abolished in response to the heretics. Several similar Babylonian initiatives to institute the practice of appending the Ten Commandments to Shema were also abandoned because this recitation had already been abolished as a result of the heretics' arguments (B. Berachot 12a). What was this quarrel that lead to the elimination of this fundamental passage from our liturgy? It appears that the central place accorded to the Ten Commandments led or could lead agitators to claim that only these statements were Divine. The remainder of the Torah, which was not heard directly from God at Sinai - so the claim went - was merely a human invention and as such made no claim on our lives. The rabbinic response to this threat was to excise this passage from the liturgy (Y. Berachot 3c). Attempts to reinstate the Ten Commandments as a focal point of the daily service did not end during the talmudic period. In the 13th century, some people in a certain community sought to reestablish the public recitation of the Ten Commandments. The question as to the worthiness of this proposition came before the famed Barcelonan respondent, Rashba. Following talmudic precedent, his answer was firm: It is forbidden to institutionalize the Ten Commandments as part of the liturgy. The Rashba appeared to be responding to the suggestion that the Ten Commandments be restored to their former place of glory at the hub of the service. In his responsum, the halachist did not relate to the possibility of reciting the Ten Commandments elsewhere in the service. Such a suggestion had already been favorably proposed centuries earlier. During the ninth century, the Jews of Spain wrote to the contemporary authoritative Judaic center in Babylon, asking for the reliable version of the liturgy. The leader of the Torah academy in Sura, Rav Amram Gaon, compiled a work that was to become the basis for all prayer books thereafter, contributing much to the relative uniformity of our liturgy. In this influential work, the author writes that the Ten Commandments should be recited daily, not as part of the central portion of the service but following the Amida, together with other formative Torah portions. Thus a compromise position had been proposed: the Ten Commandments would no longer form part of the centerpiece of the daily liturgy, yet they could be recited as a postscript to the service. This tempered position became the normative standard adopted in halachic codes: On one hand it was recommended that the Ten Commandments be recited daily (Tur, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain), while at the same time any public rendition was proscribed. It was deemed that a private reading would not arouse the pesky questions of the dissenting heretics and furthermore, daily recital would recall the national Sinai experience and strengthen belief in the Divine (Rabbi Yosef Karo, 16th century, Spain-Turkey-Safed). This private recital was further limited to before or after the principal prayers, but not as part of them (Mishna Brura, 19th-20th centuries, Poland). In fact, we have a fascinating testimony of one rabbinic leader - Maharshal (16th century, Poland) - regarding the liturgical place of the Ten Commandments. In response to a question regarding prayers, Maharshal bemoaned the fact that he was unable to preserve the prayer rituals of his forebears, for in his youth he had focused solely on Talmud and the hairsplitting study of this vital text, neglecting the study of liturgy. Even the prayer book of his father was not available, for it had been destroyed by fire. The Maharshal proceeded to share the tidbits of tradition he recalled and then detail his own innovative prayer practices, including the daily custom of reading aloud the Ten Commandments before the opening Baruch she'amar prayer. The question remains why the Ten Commandments no longer assume a strategic place in our public prayer. Nevertheless, its seminal contribution to our tradition should not be ignored. When we read this passage from the Torah on Shavuot, we evoke the foundation of our heritage and the heart of our people. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.