The Two Shabbats of the Decalogue
שמור וזכור בדבור אחד
Observe” and “Remember” in one act of speech, the One and Only God made us hear.” In these words of the favorite Friday night hymn Lecha Dodi (לכה דודי) we hear the Rabbis’ response (Mekhilta 20:8) to a question that must have puzzled readers ever since the Torah was read. How is it, if the Torah is a perfect record of what took place, that the Ten Commandments are reported in Exodus 20 in different words from those in Deuteronomy 5, or that Exodus places the revelation at Sinai and Deuteronomy places it at Horeb (the same mountain according to the rabbis in Shemot Rabbah 2:6, with 5 different names)? What actual words did God say? If God proclaimed one version, where does the other come from?
The traditional rabbinic answer is that God proclaimed both versions simultaneously (like musical chords), but in human words they have to be separated out (into different sets of musical notes that comprise the chords). This is at least a recognition of the problematic nature of the repetition of the Decalogue in two different forms, but it doesn’t account in detail for the discrepancies, nor does it tell us why each version is placed where it is.
The two versions have a variety of differences; the most extensive is in the Shabbat commandment. In Exodus it is a reminder of creation, in Deuteronomy it is a reminder of the exodus. Maimonides (Guide 2:31) suggests this is because Exodus focuses on the day itself, honored because God “rested” on it; whereas Deuteronomy tells us why God gave Israel the commandment, viz. because we had been slaves and were forced to labor. In observing the Shabbat we both confirm the truth of Creation and render thanks for being freed of the burdens of Egypt.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his Commentary on the Prayer Book, sees זכור, “remember” (verbal expression, homage to creator, kiddush) in Exodus as complementing שמור , “observe” (physical demonstration, cessation from work) in Deuteronomy; their intimate connection symbolizes the need for the intellectual/spiritual always to be expressed in physical form. The many additional traditional attempts to draw inferences from the differences between the two formulations teach about the complementary aspects of Shabbat, but do not explain the placement of the versions, or indeed why they had to be separated at all.
Reading Exodus and Deuteronomy Separately
A historical approach to the texts brings out their significance even more plainly, adding a new dimension. Exodus 20:8-11, like Genesis 2:1-3 and Exodus 31:17, is considered to belong to the Priestly Source, which focuses on the mythic and sacral; we re-enact God’s rest after Creation. Deuteronomy, with a theology that rejects the anthropomorphic notion of God “resting” (see similarly Isaiah 40:28), and uses the story of Israel’s bondage in Egypt and God’s freeing them from their bondage, as the reason behind the Shabbat laws.
With a deep social concern, Deuteronomy abandons zakhor, the sacral re-enactment, and develops the social aspect: “That your manservant and maidservant shall rest.” In similar vein, Deuteronomy (15:4) ‘socializes’ the sabbatical year, whereas Leviticus 26:34-5 treats it sacrally. This approach puts Israel, the people, firmly in the driver’s seat.
We should not think, as some Bible scholars do, of an obscure “priest” or “Deuteronomist” writing away in isolation, but rather of how our forebears in Israel actually lived these commandments. The “Priestly source” is the written expression of what the Shabbat meant to generations of Israelites in their sacred re-enactment of Creation; the “Deuteronomist” articulates the social meaning of the Shabbat, inspired, in part, by the prophets of Israel. This is how the Shabbat in its fullness of meaning came to be—and we can now appreciate both aspects of the Shabbat, which are in the same book, the Torah, and according to the rabbis are fundamentally intertwined.
By appreciating the differences between Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the different socio-religious setting they evoke, we learn to appreciate the Torah as not merely words received from on high, but as the living embodiment of those words through the generations. We have not only been given the Torah; we have actively received it and made it our own. The sacral and the social indeed emanate from One God; yet two distinct human contexts are involved, hence two distinct versions of the commandment, each in its own context.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
July 8, 2013
August 8, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven.
Essays on Related Topics: