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Were the 10 Commandments Really Given To Moses or were they divinely inspired?

How many of the 10 Commandments and the Bible itself are the words of God or divinely inspired, and thus those of Moses? Prof. Moshe Benovitz works with rabbinic interpretations of Biblical texts to seek the answer. The answer may surprise you….it is not monolithic. He reminds us to appreciate the varied and various rabbinic interpretations.


This week we celebrate Shavuot. Originally a celebration of the wheat harvest, the festival was identified in Second Temple times as the day the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.

Three of Maimonides’ thirteen articles of faith concern the Torah: he insists that the entire Torah that we have was given by God to Moses; that this Torah is the direct word of God, communicated to Moses in a manner fundamentally different from the prophecies of other prophets, which were divinely inspired, but not necessarily the actual word of God; and finally, that this Torah is eternal and unchanging. There is some basis for these notions in rabbinic tradition.

In both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmudim, certain sages report that at one point the Ten Commandments were recited daily, but this practice was discontinued because calling attention to the Ten Commandments played into the hands of heretics, who claimed that only the Ten Commandments were given to Moses at Sinai, while the rest of the Torah may have been the divinely inspired prophecy of Moses, or even Moses’s own words.

But other Talmudic Rabbis themselves distinguished between parts of the Torah that are God’s word and other parts that are the words of Moses. The fourth century Babylonian sage Abaye believed that when the Torah says, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying”, the words following are divine, but passages in the Torah without this explicit introduction are not necessarily the word of God. The book of Deuteronomy, for example, which is introduced with the words: “These are the words that Moses spoke”, is the word of Moses, not that of God. Thus blessings to be bestowed on those who keep God’s commandments, and curses for those who do not, are found at the end of both the book of Leviticus and the book of Deuteronomy, and Abaye says that the ones at the end of Leviticus must be treated with greater respect because they were said by God, while the one at the end of Deuteronomy are merely the words of Moses (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 31b).

Rabbi Yose bar Hanina, an older contemporary of Abaye from the land of Israel, went even further.

He goes out of his way to state that the entire Torah, including the Ten Commandments, are the words of Moses, and that these words of Moses are no different, fundamentally, from the inspired prophecies of other prophets. According to Rabbi Yosi bar Hanina, later prophets overturned four of Moses’s statements in the Torah:

Said Rabbi Yose bar Hanina: Moses issued four declarations regarding Israel, and four prophets came and overturned them. [In his personal deathbed blessing to to the Israelites,] Moses said: “Israel shall dwell safely…” (Deut. 33:28); Amos came and overturned this, saying: “How can Jacob arise?… God has relented” (Amos 7:2-3). [In his version of the blessings and curses,] Moses said: “Among these nations you will find no respite” (Deut. 28:65); Jeremiah came and said: “Israel will go and find respite” (Jeremiah 31:2). [In the second of the ten commandments,] Moses said, “Recompensing the iniquity of the fathers on the children” (Exodus 20:5); Ezekiel came and overturned this, saying: “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). [In the divine version of the blessings and curses in Leviticus,] Moses said , “You will be lost among the nations” (Lev. 26:38). Isaiah came and said, “On that day a great horn shall be sounded and the lost shall come [back] from the land of Assyria” (Isaiah 27:13). (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 24a).

At first glance, this whole discussion seems rather pointless. It is true that the Torah sometimes warns that Israel will be exiled or vanquished and at other times promises comfort, as do the prophets, but why set this up as the prophets overturning the words of Moses? Moses’s Torah itself foresees tranquility followed by exile followed by redemption. And while it is true that Ezekiel specifically denies the notion that children are punished for the sins of the parents; so does Moses himself, in a verse not cited here, according to which the children shall not die for the sins of the parents. (Deut. 24:16)

It would seem that Rabbi Yosi ben Hanina was not really interested in the specific verses and issues he cites. Rather, his point is that the Torah of Moses is neither the direct word of God, nor is its content necessarily eternal, nor is it fundamentally different from the divinely inspired words of the later prophets.

Moses made four statements in his divinely inspired Torah that were overturned by later prophets, who were equally inspired by God. And the Torah of Moses, divinely inspired but not the direct word of God, includes not only Deuteronomy 33, personal blessings uttered by Moses before his death, and Deuteronomy 28, the blessings and curses which Abaye, too, ascribed to Moses rather than God, but also Leviticus 26, which purports to be the word of God and is treated so by Abaye, and even the Ten Commandments, are statements of Moses.

Thus, Rabbi Yosi bar Hanina’s point is that the entire Torah, from the Ten Commandments through the words directly attributed to the Lord in Leviticus, through the blessings and curses and deathbed wishes of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, are all the divinely inspired words of Moses, not the direct word of God, and as such they can all be overturned by the divinely inspired words of later prophets.

The Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch are inspired and inspiring, but equally inspired and inspiring are the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Amos.


Image from Jodokuskirche Interior, Althauasen district in Bad Mergentheim, Germany (1779), picture by Schorle

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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