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Marty Lockshin





The Existence of Two Versions of the Decalogue



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Marty Lockshin





The Existence of Two Versions of the Decalogue






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The Existence of Two Versions of the Decalogue

The Decalogue texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy have significant differences, a problem grappled with by the Talmudic sages and Medieval exegetes.


The Existence of Two Versions of the Decalogue

Two Sets of the Decalogue. AI

Shabbat as an Example of Two Versions of the Decalogue

The Decalogue, a central text of Judaism, appears in the Torah in both Exodus and in Deuteronomy, and the wording is not the same in the two books. This creates a significant problem for interpreters. For the most part, the differences are small, with little effect on the meaning. Only the section about the Sabbath is radically different:

The Opening

שמות כ:ח זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ.
Exod 20:8 Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.
דברים ה:יב שָׁמוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Deut 5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as YHWH your God has commanded you.

Command to Keep the Sabbath

שמות כ:ט שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ. כ:י וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ.
Exodus 20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 20:10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of YHWH your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.
דברים ה:יג שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּֿל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ. ה:יד וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְשׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרְךָ וְכָל בְּהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ כָּמוֹךָ.
Deut 5:13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 5:14 but the seventh day is a sabbath of your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.

The Reason Given

שמות כ:יא כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְ־הוָה אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ אֶת הַיָּם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל כֵּן בֵּרַךְ יְ־הוָה אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ.
Exod 20:11 For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore, YHWH blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
דברים ה:טו וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיֹּצִאֲךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה עַל כֵּן צִוְּךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת.
Deut 5:15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and YHWH your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, YHWH your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

Exodus asks that we “remember the Sabbath” while Deuteronomy asks that we “observe” it. More significantly, the purpose given in Exodus seems based on the principle of imitation dei, emulating God’s creation of the world; Deuteronomy’s reason is grounded in social justice – to benefit all members of society, even our slaves.

Acknowledging the Discrepancies: Chazal’s Approach

Near the beginning of the first millennium, the classical rabbis tried to harmonize the texts. In a famous midrash, they said, “‘Remember’ and ‘observe’ were said together (bedibbur ehad ne’emru).”

Many years ago, I learned from Nehama Leibowitz, the great Bible teacher, that this midrash appears in two very different forms in classical rabbinic literature.

Don’t Fear Contradictions: Mechilta

One formulation (Mechilta Ba-hodesh 7) says:

"זכור" ו"שמור" – שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד.
“Remember” and “observe” were said together.
"מחלליה מות יומת" (שמות לא:יד) "וביום השבת שני כבשים" (במדבר כח:ט) – שניהם בדיבור אחד נאמרו.
“Those who desecrate it [the Sabbath] shall surely die” (Exod 31:14) and “On the Sabbath day, [you should sacrifice] two yearling lambs” (Num 28:9) were said together.
"ערות אשת אחיך" (ויקרא יח:טז) "ויבמה יבא עליה" (דברים כה:ה) – שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד.
“Do not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife” (Lev 18:16) and “Her husband’s brother shall cohabit with her” (Deut 25:5) were said together.
"לא תלבש שעטנז" (ויקרא יט:יט) "וגדילים תעשה לך" (דברים כב:יא), שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד.
“You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen” (Deut 22:11) and “You shall make tassels”[1] (Deut 22:12) were said together.
מה שאי איפשר לאדם לומר כן, שנאמר "אחת דבר אלהים שתים זו שמענו", ואומר "הלא כה דברי כאש נאם ה'
A human being could not have said these things, as it says, “God spoke one thing and we heard two,” and it says, “Is not my word like fire? Says God.”

This formulation—בדיבור אחד נאמרו—makes a modest claim: Jews should not be disturbed by apparent contradictions in the Bible. The Bible tells us not to do “work on the Sabbath,” which likely includes slaughtering animals, yet it also commands that we offer animal sacrifices on that day; yet Jewish law manages to harmonize the contradiction. Similarly, Jewish law harmonizes the verse that prohibits a man from marrying his late brother’s widow with the verse that requires a brother-in-law to marry his late brother’s widow. In the same way, the “contradiction” between “remembering” and “observing” the Sabbath can be harmonized.

This formulation does not attempt to explain why a discrepancy exists between the two versions of the Decalogue, and certainly does not claim that both versions of the Decalogue were stated simultaneously by God.[2] It says only that this discrepancy, like others, is not a cause for concern.[3]

A Miraculous Revelation: Bavli

The other formulation of this saying (b. Rosh Hashanah 27a; b. Shavuot 20b) reads:

זכור ושמור בדיבור אחד נאמרו, מה שאין הפה יכולה לדבר ואין האוזן יכולה לשמוע
‘Remember’ and ‘observe’ were said together in a way that no [human] mouth is capable of pronouncing and no [human] ear is capable of hearing.

‍This is an extraordinary supernatural explanation of why the Torah contains two different commands: both are original. God recited the Decalogue miraculously and unimaginably, pronouncing two texts at once. Since it is impossible to write two different texts at once, one was recorded in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy.[4]

Addressing the Discrepancies: The Approach of the Pashtanim

The peshat-oriented exegetes of the Middle Ages looked for solutions to textual problems within the text and did not rely on midrashic solutions. How then did they deal with the problem of the doubled text of the Decalogue and its variant readings?


Sadly, we have lost the comment on this issue from the great peshat master, Rashbam (c. 1080 -c. 1160). In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Rashbam writes, “I already explained why the text reads ‘Remember’ in Exodus and ‘Observe’ in Deuteronomy,” apparently directing us to his commentary on Exodus. But there is no comment on the issue in the sole manuscript of his Exodus commentary that survived to modern times.

We may, however, be able to reconstruct part of Rashbam’s thinking on the question of the double Decalogue. In his commentary to Deuteronomy (5:12), Rashbam writes that the text of the Sabbath section in Deuteronomy adds the words “as YHWH your God has commanded you,” since the speaker in Deuteronomy is alluding to the text of Exodus, and is saying that we should consider what was written in Exodus, and then read what was written in Deuteronomy.[5] Rashbam believes that Moses is the speaker in Deuteronomy, while Exodus narrates God’s original words. In other words, Rashbam believes that Deuteronomy is Moses’ reworking of the original Exodus text.[6] Still, we do not have Rashbam’s explanation of why Moses would change God’s words.

Ibn Ezra

Rashbam’s younger contemporary, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), dedicates an excursus to this issue in his longer commentary on Exodus. He outlines the differences between the two versions of the Decalogue and then cites the midrash that we have seen—that the Decalogue was actually pronounced in two different ways at the same time. He comments that this “solution” is even more troubling than the problem of the variations in the biblical text.[7] He notes the physical impossibility of pronouncing two different things at once, and points out that sometimes a word is present in one version and absent in the other. How can someone both pronounce and not pronounce a word at the same time?[8]

Ibn Ezra’s radical solution begins with the same premise as Rashbam, that the version of the Decalogue found in Exodus is the real one.[9] Moses changed the words when he delivered his speech in Deuteronomy.[10] Why? Because, ibn Ezra insists, words don’t matter; only meaning does. “The practice of wise people in any language is that they preserve the meaning [of any text] and are unconcerned about changes in wording as long as the meaning stays the same.”[11]

He adds that words are like the body, while meaning is like the soul. In ibn Ezra’s neo-Platonic world view, as long as the soul stays unharmed, changes to the body are inconsequential. Ibn Ezra does note that the differences in the presentation of the law of Shabbat do seem consequential, and he tries his best to deal with this problem, but it is, admittedly, an uphill battle. That said, his main point is to suggest that rational students of the Bible need not pay attention to issues of this nature.

Pushing Back Against Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra’s unconventional explanation attracted criticism. Nahmanides (1194-1270), who can be harsh in his criticism of ibn Ezra, writes here that והטעם הזה לא יסבול אותו אלא מי שאינו רגיל בתלמוד, “an explanation like this could only be tolerated by someone who is inexpert in Talmud,” a significant insult. Rabbinic exegesis is based on the premise that wording changes in the Torah are highly significant. Halakhot are derived from the precise words, not just the spirit, of the text. Nahmanides even held that every spelling difference between two forms of the same word carries deep mystical significance. How, then, he avers, could ibn Ezra say that words do not matter?

Four hundred years after ibn Ezra, the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew; c. 1525-1609) was still perturbed by ibn Ezra’s explanation, dedicating an entire chapter of his book Tiferet Yisrael (ch. 43) to challenging it. Ibn Ezra, Maharal says, “gathered up wind [= came up with nothing] in his hands” (an allusion to Proverbs 30:4).

Living with Contradictions

While some modern readers will appreciate the beauty of the idea that revelation took place in a miraculous way, others will prefer a less extraordinary view of revelation and feel more comfortable with the position of ibn Ezra. Although his way of explaining the contradictions may not be satisfying to the modern reader, what is important is his daring in suggesting that contradictions in the Torah, even in the Decalogue, should not overly trouble us.


February 2, 2015


Last Updated

April 9, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.