Whatever happened to the Ten Commandments?

If the sages considered the Ten Commandments so important, why did they eliminate them from the daily prayers?

‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day? (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Torah reading for Shavuot includes the Ten Commandments, following the opinion of one of the Tannaim (early Sages). This is, no doubt, the result of the rabbinic belief that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot (Shabbat 86b).
Even so, it’s very surprising that we read the Ten Commandments in public only on Shavuot and as part of the weekly portions of Yitro (Exodus 20) and Va’ethanan (Deuteronomy 5). After all, the Torah itself considered the Ten Commandments of seminal importance to the covenant between God and the People of Israel. They are also quoted or paraphrased by Psalms 50 and 81, by the Prophet Hosea (4:1-2), and by the Prophet Jeremiah (7:9).
Furthermore, Philo of Alexandria (first century CE) 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): “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 centuries later, Rav Sa’adia Gaon (882 to 942 CE) wrote Azharot (liturgical hymns for Shavuot) that include all 613 commandments under the headings of each of the Ten Commandments. They are recited until today on Shavuot by Jews from Oriental lands.
A similar idea is found in Numbers Rabbah (13:15-16). 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.”
Finally, many medieval and modern synagogues feature the Ten Commandments on top of the Holy Ark.
In light of all the above, why not read the Ten Commandments every day, just as we read the three paragraphs of the Shema 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, written in Egypt ca. 150 BCE 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 include at least three small scrolls that contain the Ten Commandments, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6 and 11) and other selected passages from Deuteronomy and Exodus. Dr. Esther Eshel maintains that they were collections of prayers recited at Qumran.
A more explicit reference is found in Mishnah Tamid 5:1, which states that every morning the priests in the Temple used to recite “the Ten Commandments, Shema (Deut. 6), V’haya im shamoa (Deut. 11)… Emet V’yatziv (the blessing after the Shema), the Avodah blessing (found today in the Amidah), and the Priestly Blessing.”
Similarly, in Sifrei Devarim (Piska 35) the Sages discussed the possibility of including the Ten Commandments in the tefillin. Indeed, 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 CE) relates that the Ten Commandments were still included in the tefillin in his day.
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: “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.” Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud 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…” (Responsa, ed. Blau, No. 263). In other words, standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments gives the impression that certain parts of the Torah are holier than others.
Despite this opposition, there were attempts to maintain the original custom or to renew it. Some Babylonian Amoraim tried to renew the custom in Sura and Nehardea, but other Amoraim objected (Berakhot, ibid.). At the synagogue in Fustat, Egypt, which followed the customs of Eretz Yisrael, they continued to recite the Ten Commandments on Shabbat and holidays before The Song at the Sea until the 13th century.
Rabbi Solomon 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” and is therefore forbidden (Responsa, Vol. 1, No. 184).
One generation later, Rabbi 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, “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 Yosef Karo (1488-1575) in his Shulhah Arukh (Orah Hayyim 1:5). Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, 1525-1572) quickly adds in his Ashkenazic glosses (ibid.) 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 (No. 64) that, in accordance with the Tur, he recites the Ten Commandments every morning before Barukh She’amar.
Indeed, some modern prayer books include the Ten Commandments. R. Yitzhak Baer printed them in his classic Avodat Yisrael in 1868 at the end of Shaharit, as did the ArtScroll Siddur in our day. In the Reform Gates of Prayer, 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;” that they will ignore the entire halakhic system and observe only the Ten Commandments. Therefore, it is good that our ancestors required the reading of the Ten Commandments in public three only 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.
The writer, a rabbi and professor, is president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., Jerusalem.