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Why did Moses descend with two tablets of the 10 commandments?


This coming Shabbat we will read the Torah portion of Yitro, which of course includes the 10 Commandments. As you probably know, most of the depictions of the 10 Commandments in the world, whether Jewish or Christian, look something like this, which is on the roof of the Dohani Street Synagogue in Budapest, completed in 1859, or, another example, the beautiful Moorish Synagogue in Florence, Italy, which was completed in 1882.

 Now these depictions have two main features. First of all the 10 Commandments have a rounded top on both sides, which we will not discuss and second of all you can clearly see the division of five commandments on one side and five commandments on the other side.

Josephus Flavius, writing almost 2,000 years ago, says that the division was mitzvot ben adam hamakom, commandments between man and God, and mitzvot ben adam l’khavero, ethical commandments. That doesn’t exactly work because the fifth commandment, honor your father and your mother, is obviously more of an ethical commandment than a commandment between man and God. Philo, also writing 2,000 years ago, says that that fifth commandment serves as a bridge between the first five and the second five.

The Tanaim, the rabbis of the Mishnah, had two or more opinions as to how the 10 Commandments were written on the tablets. In the mekhilta, written some 1,800 years ago in the land of Israel, Rabbi Khanina ben Gamliel says, “How were the 10 Commandments given? Five on this tablet and five on that tablet.”  The sages say that there were ten commandments on both of the tablets.

The problem with Rabbi Khanina’s opinion, which is of course the depiction throughout the world today, is that it’s really not equal in amount. The first five commandments contain 146 words and the second five commandments contain 26 words.

Rabbi Josiah Derby writing in an article in Conservative Judaism Magazine in 1982 and Dr.  Meshulam Margaliot, writing on the Bar Ilan website in 1998, both came up with the same solution to this problem.

In the ancient Near East when two kings or a king and a vassal made a treaty, each received a complete copy of that treaty. For example, there is a treaty between the Hittite king and King Bitani of Mesopotamia from 1350 BCE, of which they found two copies in two different places or the famous Ramses II of Egypt with a Hittite king from 1269 BCE. The Egyptian copy was found in Egypt and the Hittite copy was found in Turkey. They are both identical and in each case the treaty was deposited in the temple.

So why did Moses descend with two tablets? There were two complete copies of the 10 Commandments. One was God’s copy for deposit in His mishkan or tabernacle and the other was our copy for deposit in our mishkan or tabernacle, which are of course the same facility. And both were placed in the aron habrit, the ark of the covenant, both in the time of the tabernacle and in the time of King Solomon in the first temple period.

I am not suggesting that we should redesign all of the 10 Commandments in the world. That would be a rather expensive proposition. But the simple meaning of this story as proven by archaeology is that one of the purposes of the 10 Commandments was to cement the   covenant between God and the Jewish people.

We no longer have the two copies of the 10 Commandments. They were lost thousands of years ago, but I would suggest that as we read the 10 Commandments this coming Shabbat, we should be reminded of the brit, the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, not only on this coming Shabbat, but throughout the year.

 Shavua Tov from Schechter.



David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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