The Ten Commandments

What are the most important words in the Torah? Some would say the Shema, which became known in certain circles as “the watchword of our faith.” Others might assert the Golden Rule, which proclaims “love your neighbor as yourself.” I think that it is neither of these but rather the 10 commandments.[1] For one we stand for its recitation (just as we do for the Song of the Sea). Also there is a special trope arrangement, known as Ta’am Elyon,[2] that is used in its recitation. I look forward to each reading of these magisterial commandments.

A challenge to my assertion of their importance is that we only read the 10 commandments three times a year. If they are so important, wouldn’t we read them every day of the week? The 10 commandments are listed in several Orthodox Siddurim, including Artscroll, as readings following the Shacharit service, yet why aren’t they part and parcel of our service?

Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, taught a class on this topic at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention. He referenced Mishnah Tamid, which states the texts which were recited on a daily basis.[3] The first one listed is the Ten Commandments, recited each morning prior to the Shema. Why is this no longer done today? For this we turn to the Jerusalem Talmud,[4] where Rabbis Matana and Shmuel bar Nahman state that reciting the Ten Commandments every day would lead to the heretics claiming that only these commandments were recited at Mount Sinai, as opposed to all 613.

The heretics being referenced here are Jews who turned against our tradition, using their knowledge to refute aspects of Judaism. An example given by the Midrash is that of Korach. When it states that Korach and his people “gathered against Moses and Aaron” one of the reasons they gather is to challenge the laws that Moses and Aaron were giving. After all, they said, ‘we were children at Sinai and we only were given the 10 commandments; we were given nothing about Terumah, Maaser and Tzitzit. Those do not come from G-d but rather from you.’[5] This powerful Midrash demonstrates that even one generation later the divine origin of the 613 commandments was being challenged by our own people.

Why are we so concerned about what the heretics think? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do what is our tradition rather than excise the Ten Commandments from our liturgy? A responsum about this was shared with the Rashba[6] asking whether it was permissible for those who wished to recite The Ten Commandments as part of their Shachait service. The answer from Rashba begins “It is forbidden to do this; even though it is listed in Tractate Tamid…it’s already been nullified because of the grievances of the heretics (תרעומת המינים.(” According to Rashba, once a tradition is nullified, it cannot be reinstated, so we can no longer recite the Ten Commandments in Shacharit.

Not all agree with the Rashba, however. The Maharshal[7] said it is a מצוה גדולה, a great commandments, to recite them, following the opinion of the Tur that it is good to say them,[8] and he added them in next to Baruch Sheamar.

What do we do today regarding the Ten Commandments? Do we recite them or don’t we? It makes sense for us to follow the tradition not to say them as a formal, fixed part of the liturgy, especially since they are not found as such in our synagogue’s prayerbooks. However, to say them after the service, or as an additional prayer every once in awhile, makes sense. There is something powerful to these statements which is enhanced by our not reciting them every day but only on special occasions, such as the Torah portions in which they fall and Shavuot, when we publicly gather to receive the Torah.

While it can be easy to lose sight of the import of the other 603 commandments if we solely focus on these 10, it would not be if we follow a teaching I learned from Rabbi Robert Eisen of Tucson. He asserts that the 613 commandments are all reflected in the 10 because 6 + 1 + 3 = 10. Similarly, the 10 commandments are all reflected in the guiding principle that there is 1 G-d, for 1 + 0 = 1. What I take from this is that our focus should not be on the number of commandments as much as it should be on what the commandments represent: the importance of following the Divine Way. If we do not lose sight of this, we do not need to recite the Ten Commandments (or any commandment) on a daily basis. What we need to do instead is to keep in the forefront of our mind what G-d wants from us and how we are going to fulfill the Divine will each and every day. In so doing, we will truly demonstrate that we accept the Torah on this זמן מתן תורתנו, the day on which the Torah was given to us.

[1] While I am referring to them as such, a better translation of the term עשרת הדברות is “ten statements” rather than the Ten Commandments.

[2] Literally “the elevated trope”

[3] Chapter 5 Mishnah 1. Tamid means “always” and focuses on the daily worship service.

[4] Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 1:5; Babylonian Talmud Berachot 9 a-b

[5] Yalkut Shimoni Korach, paragraph 752

[6] Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet of 14th century Spain

[7] Rabbi Shlomo Luria of 16th century Poland

[8] Rabbi Jacob ben Asher of 13-14 century Ashkenaz. The Shulchan Aruch is based off his work and also says, in Orach Hayim 1:5, that it is good to say the Ten Commandments.

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