Whatever Ever Happened to the Ten Commandments?

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

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Rabbi Shelomo ben Adret--the Rashba (Barcelona 1235-1310)--was asked if one could recite the Ten Commandments in the Shaharit (morning) service "because there are people who want to institute this in public." He replied that, even though this practice is supported by Mishnah Tamid (cited above), it was already abolished "because of the murmuring of the heretics" (Berakhot 12a cited above) and is therefore forbidden.

One generation later, R. Jacob ben Asher (Spain, died ca. 1340) reintroduced the Ten Commandments "through the back door." He says in the very first paragraph of Tur Orah Hayyim that "it is good to recite the Akedah (Genesis 21) and the story of the manna (Exodus 16) and the Ten Commandments…" before the Shaharit service.

This passage was quoted by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) in his Shulhah Arukh (Orah Hayyim 1:5). Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, 1525-1572) quickly adds in his Ashkenazic glosses that only an individual may do so, but it is forbidden to recite them in public, as the Rashba ruled.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Cracow 1510-1574), relates in his responsa (rabbinic ruling) that, in accordance with the Tur, he recites the Ten Commandments every morning before Barukh She'amar, one of the morning prayers.

Indeed, some modern prayer books include the Ten Commandments. Yitzhak Baer printed them in his classic Avodat Yisrael (Rodelheim, 1868) at the end of Shaharit after the Psalm for the Day, as did the ArtScroll siddur [prayerbook] in our day. In the Reform Gates of Prayer (New York, 1975), the Ten Commandments appear in the Special Themes section in the back.

It is difficult to choose sides in this debate. On the one hand, the Ten Commandments are very important to Judaism and it is good for Jews to recite them daily and to know them by heart. On the other hand, there is indeed a danger that people will think that "there are different levels in the Torah"; they will ignore the entire halakhic [Jewish law] system and observe only the Ten Commandments.

Therefore, it is good that our ancestors only required the reading of the Ten Commandments in public three times a year, but encouraged their recitation in private all year long. In this fashion, we emphasize their importance without turning them into the only important mitzvot [commandments].

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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.