The Status of the Decalogue
The Halachic Attitude toward the Decalogue
There is one central touchstone for the view that all parts of the Torah are equal in status: the halakhic attitude toward the passages that include the revelation at Sinai and the Decalogue. With regard to this section of the Torah in particular, someposkim articulated concern about customs that express a special attitude towards these chapters. When Maimonides was asked about the practice of standing when the Decalogue is read, he issued the following responsum (Responsa of Maimonides, “Laws of Prayer and the Priestly Blessing,” ch. 12):
Wherever there is a custom to stand [during the reading of the Decalogue], one should stop people from doing this,lest there result a loss of faith, when they come to believe that parts of the Torah are greater than others, and this is very grave, and one should close off any possible opening to this bad belief…. And the sectarians are those for whom the fundamentals of our holy Torah are confused, and among them is one who says that the Torah is not from heaven. [The rabbis] already explained that there is no difference between one who repudiates the entire Torah and one who repudiates one verse, saying that Moses said it himself. There are sectarians who believe that none of the Torah is from heaven except the Decalogue and that the rest of the Torah was spoken by Moses himself, and it is because of this that the daily recitation [of the Decalogue] was abolished. And one should not under any circumstances assign greater status to one part of the Torah over others. You may investigate our words on this subject in the commentary on the Mishnah in Perek Chelek.—This is the writing of of Moses [Maimonides].
Maimonides took the position that one should not stand during the reading of the Decalogue in opposition to the view of the sectarians who rejected the heavenly origin of the rest of the Torah. Maimonides’ position is based on the Talmudic passage that we will see presently, but it goes beyond its plain meaning and states that all verses of the Torah are fully equal. It is likely that Maimonides made this strong statement as a polemic against heretical sects and that it does not reflect his precise opinion. The source of his words is found in the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Berakhot (12a):
They recited the Decalogue, the Shema, “It shall come to pass if you listen” (vehaya im shamoa), “And the Lord said” (vayomer),“True and firm” (emet ve-yatsiv), theAvodah, and the priestly blessing. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Samuel: “Outside the Temple people wanted to do the same, but [the recitation of the Decalogue] had already been abolished on account of the contentions of the sectarians.” Similarly, it has been taught: Rabbi Nathan says, “they sought to do the same outside the Temple, but [the recitation of the Decalogue] had already been abolished on account of the contentions of the sectarians.” Rabba b. bar Chanah thought to institute it in Sura, but Rav Chisda said to him: “It has already been abolished on account of the contentions of the sectarians.” Amemar thought to institute it in Nehardea, but Rav Ashi said to him: “They already abolished it on account of the contentions of the sectarians.”
The Jerusalem Talmud has a parallel passage:
Rabbi Matana and Rabbi Samuel b. Nachman both say: “By law one should read the Decalogue every day. Why is it not read? On account of the claims of the sectarians, lest they say: ‘These alone were given to Moses at Sinai.’” (j.Berachot 1:3).
There is a difference between these two passages in that the Babylonian Talmud relates the attempts to establish the recitation of the Decalogue outside the Temple as part of the Shema service as was customary in the Temple, while in the Jerusalem Talmud there is a basic presumption that one should recite the Decalogue every day. But in any case, many commentators equated the passages and understood, rightly, that the rabbis mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud wished to establish the recitation of the Decalogue because it should have been given a meaningful place if not for the claims of the sectarians. In other words: according to the classical interpretation, the passages recognize the superior status of the Decalogue but are concerned about the position of the sectarians who want to entirely invalidate the status of the other commandments.
This stance continued to be expressed in subsequent rulings but the debate was reopened after the Talmudic period because Jews in later generations sought to express the special status of the Decalogue. In response to this desire, Rabbi Shlomo b. Aderet (Rashba, 1235-1310) entirely prohibited the communal recitation of the Decalogue (Responsa Rashba, 1:184, 289), relying on the statement of Samuel, even though the original statement relates directly only to the abolition of their recitation in the Shema service. Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575), in the Shulchan Arukh, recognized the unique status of the Decalogue and other portions of the Torah, and he recommended reciting them every day. R. Moses Isserles (Rema, 1520-1572) also recognized their uniqueness, but he noted that it is prohibited to recite the Decalogue in public according to Rashba’s responsum:
[Karo:] It is good to recite the passage about the binding of Isaac, the passage about the manna, the Decalogue, the meal offering, the wellbeing offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering. Gloss [Rema]: It is specifically in private that it is permitted to recite the Decalogue every day, but it is prohibited to recite it in public (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 1:5).
The commentators on the Shulchan Arukh follow Rashi’s commentary on the passage in Berachot, according to which the ruling recognizes the uniqueness of the Decalogue but struggles with the position of the surrounding sectarians, who maintain that only the Decalogue is true, which leads to the prohibition of its communal recitation. The Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, 1635-1682) explains (ad loc.):
In public: Because of the sectarians who say “there is no Torah except this”…
The Taz (R. David HaLevi Segal, 1586-1667) makes the same point (ad loc.):
“Specifically in private, etc.”: Because at first they would recite it in public, as it says in chapter 5 of Tamid, and the end of the first chapter of Berachot maintains that it was abolished on account of the contentions of the sectarians who would say that the rest of the Torah was not true. This applies in public, but in private there are no contentions.
It is important to note that the Magen Avraham and the Tazare not referring to the question of the revelation at Sinai but rather to the fundamental dispute with the sectarians over whether the Torah is true, divine, and binding.
Based on the Shulchan Aruch’s determination that it is good to recite the Decalogue every day, Rema’s student, Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe (1530-1612), author of the Levushim, suggested that the Decalogue recalls the special revelation at Sinai (ad loc.):
One recites the Decalogue in order to recall the revelation at Sinai every day and in order to strengthen one’s faith in the Torah. [One does this] even though it says at the end of the first chapter of Berakhot that they abolished it on account of the contentions of the sectarians. Rashi explained, lest the sectarians say to the gentiles that the rest of the Torah is not true and that we recite only what was spoken by God* and heard from Him at Sinai. This is specifically in public, but in private, because there is no concern about the contentions of the sectarians, it is good to recite them, so that by means of this one recalls the revelation at Sinai and one’s faith in the Torah is strengthened.
The Unique Status of the Decalogue
From all the words of the poskim (halachic decisors) it is clear that the Decalogue has a superior status, whether because of its content or because it was given in a special revelation. In fact, it is this special status that leads to the risk of people thinking that only the Decalogue is true. This is very far from the spirit of Maimonides’ position in his commentary on Sanhedrin and in the responsum cited above, in which he is unwilling to acknowledge any difference in status among verses of the Torah.
The view of the poskim that the revelation at Sinai and the Decalogue have unique status is well grounded in rabbinic literature. There are countless stories discussing the uniqueness of the Decalogue and the revelation at Sinai. For example, the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Yitro, “debechodesh” 4) distinguishes between the divine utterance at Sinai and utterances in the rest of the Torah:
All the words (Exodus 20): This teaches that He spoke the Decalogue in one utterance, which is impossible for a human being to do, as it says: ‘God spoke all these words, saying…’If so, why does it say ‘I am the Lord your God… You shall not have…?’ Rather, it teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke the Decalogue in one utterance and then went back and enumerated them individually on His own. One might think that all the other utterances in the Torah were also spoken in one utterance. Therefore it says ‘these’: these words were spoken in one utterance, and all the other utterances in the Torah were spoken individually.
An additional example of recognition of the importance and gravity of the Decalogue is found in the midrash Lamentations Rabba (1), which interprets the first verse of the book of Lamentations and explains the background of the book in terms of abandonment of the Decalogue:
‘Alas! She sits alone’(Lamentations 1:1): Alone from those who abide by the Decalogue, which you abandoned. [This is derived from the fact that] the numerical value of BaDaD,“alone,” is ten.
Similarly, Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (2) explains the payment of the half-shekel (which was equivalent to ten gera), that saved the Israelites from the plague, as a ransom for abandoning the Decalogue:
‘This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay, etc.’ (Exodus 30:13): Rabbi Joshua b. Rabbi Nehemiah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakai: “Because the Israelites transgressed the Decalogue, each of them must give ten gera.”
It is significant that the rabbinic approach that views the Sinai revelation as a special, one-time event and the Decalogue as a fundamental, supremely important divine utterance was accepted completely by the poskim. Of course, they believed that the rest of the Torah was also divine truth, but it did not occur to them that a verse such as ‘And the sons of Ham were Kush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan’ or ‘And the name of his wife was Mehetabel daughter of Matred’ was equal to ‘I am the Lord’. Moreover, it seems that the question of the nature of the transmission of the rest of the Torah did not trouble them, and they did not seek a description of the dictation of the entire Torah at Sinai as Maimonides did.
The important place of the Sinai revelation and the Decalogue in tradition points to a recognition of different levels of revelation and of the importance of certain verses relative to others, against the view professed today. The section of the Torah on the revelation at Sinai and the receiving of the Decalogue is not the only section that merits special treatment; we will now see several sources in rabbinic literature in which additional parts of the Torah merit similar treatment.
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May 14, 2014
October 6, 2019
Rabbi David Bigman has been the Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995. Before becoming Rosh HaYeshiva at YMG, he served as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa, and as the Rosh HaYeshiva in Yeshivat haKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim. He was one of the founders of Midreshet haBanot b’Ein Hanatziv.
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