Whatever Ever Happened to the Ten Commandments?

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

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Furthermore, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 include at least three small scrolls, which contain the Ten Commandments, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6 and 11) and other selected passages from Deuteronomy and Exodus. Esther Eshel, in an exhaustive study of one of those fragments, believes that they were collections of prayers recited at Qumran.

A more explicit reference is found in Mishnah Tamid 5:1, which states that the priests in the Temple used to recite every morning "the Ten Commandments, Shema (Deuteronomy 6), V'haya im shamoa (Deuteronomy 11)… Emet V'yatziv (the blessing after the Shema), the Avodah blessing (found today in the Amidah, the central prayer recited at all services), and the Priestly Blessing."

Similarly, in Sifrei Devarim the Sages discussed the possibility of including the Ten Commandments in the tefillin [phylacteries]. Furthermore, 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 C.E.) relates that the Ten Commandments were still included in the tefillin in his day. In his commentary to Ezekiel 24:17, he says that:

"The Hebrews say that the Sages of Babylon who observe the precepts surround their heads until today with the Ten  Commandments written on parchment, and these are what they were commanded to hang before their eyes on their foreheads…"

Why They Were Eliminated

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, fol. 3c: "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."

The Babylonian Talmud also 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.…" In other words, standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments gives the impression that certain parts of the Torah are holier than others.

Attempts to Restore Them

Despite this opposition, there were attempts to maintain the original custom or to renew it. Some Babylonian Amoraim [sages] tried to renew the custom in the cities of Sura and Nehardea, but other Amoraim objected (Bavli Berakhot ibid.). The members of the Palestinian synagogue in Fustat continued to recite the Ten Commandments on Shabbat and holidays before Shirat Hayam (The Song at the Sea) until the 13th century.

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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.