Shavout: The Ten Commandments
By Rabbi Susan Laemmle
I begin by asking three questions — please hold them in your mind: (1) How often do we read or chant Aseret Ha-dibrot, the Ten Commandments, publicly in synagogue? (2) Is this an important portion of the Tanach? And (3) If yes, why don’t we publicly read — or even privately daven — this passage on a more regular basis?
I continue with a mixture of answers and speculation. We publicly read Aseret Ha-dibrot in the synagogue three times a year: from the book of Exodus in Parshat-Yitro, from the book of Deuteronomy in Parshat-Va’et-hanan, and on this, the first day of Shavout.
In Second Temple times, the biblical Feast of Weeks, with its first-fruits harvest celebration, got connected to the day on which the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, “the Sages taught: ‘On the sixth day of the month of Sivan, the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish People.’” In due course, Exodus chapters 19 & 20 became the synagogue reading for Shavout. We learn in Tractate Tamid that in the Temple, the Ten Commandments were recited every day. Furthermore, the liturgical scholar Ismar Elbogen places them squarely among the biblical passages expressing the central elements of Jewish faith that made up the religious assemblies that arose during the Babylonian Exile — and then took place parallel to sacrifices in the Second Temple. These religious assemblies evolved into synagogue services.
Why then, after the Temple was destroyed and the synagogue became the central Jewish religious institution, why do the Ten Commandments not form part of the daily, or even the weekly Shabbat, liturgy?
Brachot 12a teaches that “they would have liked to recite them outside the Temple as well, but the practice was stopped because of the insinuations of the minim” — that is, the heretics, among them the early Christians. In the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides provides background to that prohibition: the heretics claimed that these 10 commandments alone were given to Moses at Sinai. That is, the presentation of the Ten Commandments as a distinct, specially revered text in Jewish liturgy was held up by them as proof that only these commandments, and not the other 603, enjoyed Sinaitic authority. Rambam even wanted to prevent a custom we and other Jewish communities still observe — standing when reading the Ten Commandments in public — which he saw as giving the impression that certain parts of the Torah are holier than others.
And so it is that what could be characterized as an equivocal attitude toward the Ten Commandments made its way into Jewish thought and practice. Creative spiritual understanding by Saadia Gaon and others did find ways to have its cake and eat it too by viewing the Ten Commandments as including, or summarizing, all 613 mitzvot. Some prayerbooks include them at an optional point— for example, Artscrolls places them within a section called “Readings following Shacharis,” right after Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. Rabbi David Golinkin (President and Professor of Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem) asserts that the Ten Commandments are very important and it’s good for Jews to know them by heart. But he feels that there is indeed a danger of our thinking that there are different levels in the Torah and neglecting the halachic system as a whole while observing only these Ten Commandments. Golinkin concludes that it’s good that our ancestors only required the public reading of the Ten Commandments three times a year.
I agree with Golinkin’s evaluation, but would like to ask what we gain (and maybe lose) by de-centering the Ten Commandments within Judaism. One way to begin answering this question is with another question: If the Ten Commandments don’t stand at the very center of Jewish liturgy and faith, what does? That is, what liturgical formulation do we indeed recite publicly (as well as privately) on a daily basis? The Shma, of course. This is not the time to focus in depth upon the Shma. But I will draw attention to its rather odd way of coupling the Jewish People’s act of listening or hearing to the articulation of Adonai’s oneness. To my mind, the Shma declarative opening sentence captures the essence of Judaism, which is the relationship between the Eternal Power of the Universe and the Jewish People. And so this is that what we remind ourselves of when we lie down and when we rise up, in private and in public worship multiple times daily, and even more times on Shabbat and holy days: our commitment to the monotheism of one Divine Power and to Jewish Peoplehood. It’s as if everything else we take as vital and commanded stands rooted in that double commitment. Having the Shma at our center, rather than the Ten Commandments, encapsulates Judaism’s unusual pairing of universalism and particularism; the way in which it is both a world religion into which people can convert and a tribal identity encoded into our communal being.
De-centering the Ten Commandments also keeps us from over-simplifying what it takes to be a “good Jew.” We no longer consider Christians to be heretics or worry much about how they view our mitzvah system. But among ourselves and along the spectrum of Jewish observance, we continue to consider and reconsider the weighting of ritual and ethical mitzvot, of commitments that are distinctively Jewish over against those that virtually all civilized people and world religions uphold. Which mitzvot and sorts of mitzvot draw the most attention differs among the movements as well as the congregations within them. This enables individuals and families to find a niche that suits them within Judaism’s large tent.
Preparing to conclude these Shavout reflections, I remind us of this holy day’s essence: the desert encounter between God and the Jewish People. That encounter provided the foundation upon which Jewish life developed — the foundational context within which Jewish life goes forward today and, God willing, into the future. The central emotions of this holy day are gratitude, awe, and love. May they fill our hearts. Chag sameach!