Whatever Ever Happened to the Ten Commandments?

Why this central part of the Torah is not in our daily liturgy.

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Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

The Torah reading for Shavuot is the Ten Commandments. This is based on the opinion of one of the Tannaim (early Sages) found in three places in rabbinic literature (Tosefta Megillah 3:5, ed. Lieberman p. 354; Yerushalmi Megillah 3:7, fol. 74b; and Bavli Megillah 31a). This is, without a doubt, the result of the rabbinic belief that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot (Shabbat 86b).

Centrality of the Ten Commandments  

Even so, it is very surprising that we only read the Ten Commandments in public on Shavuot and as part of the weekly Torah portions of Yitro (Exodus 20) and Va'ethanan (Deuteronomy 5). After all, the Bible itself considered the Ten Commandments of seminal importance to the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments are also quoted or paraphrased by the Psalms (50:7, 18-19; 81:10-11), by the prophet Hosea (4:1-2), and by the prophet Jeremiah (7:9).

Furthermore, Philo of Alexandria (first century C.E.) 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, fol. 49d):

"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 hundred years later, Rav Saadia Gaon (888-942) wrote Azharot, or liturgical hymns, for Shavuot, in which all 613 commandments are distributed under the headings of each of the Ten Commandments.

A similar idea is found in Numbers Rabbah (13:15-16, ed. Mirkin, p. 71), edited in the 12th century. 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."

Furthermore, Rabbi Levi claimed that the Ten Commandments are included in other central biblical passages such as the Shema (a prayer recited twice daily) and Leviticus Chapter 19, the beginning of the Torah portion Kedoshim.

Earlier Customs

Therefore, given their centrality, why not read the Ten Commandments every day just as we read the Shema (which is comprised of Deuteronomy 6 and 11 and Numbers 15) 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, which was written in Egypt around 150 B.C.E. 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.

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.