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Marty Lockshin





Two Versions of the Decalogue: Ibn Ezra’s Non-Explanation





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Marty Lockshin





Two Versions of the Decalogue: Ibn Ezra’s Non-Explanation








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Two Versions of the Decalogue: Ibn Ezra’s Non-Explanation

Ibn Ezra gives a surprising non-explanation for why Deuteronomy’s version of the Decalogue differs from that of Exodus: Is it really such a problem if Moses changed the words a little as long as he got the point right?


Two Versions of the Decalogue: Ibn Ezra’s Non-Explanation

Moses and Ten Commandments, AI

The Decalogue in Deuteronomy (5:6–17) differs in both large and small ways from that of Exodus (20:1–13). As I discussed in my “The Existence of Two Versions of the Decalogue” (TheTorah.com 2015), these differences have been noted from ancient times until the present, and traditional commentators have explained them in a variety of ways.

The most detailed pre-modern treatment of the differences between the two versions of the Decalogue is by Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167), in his longer, or second commentary on Exodus. He begins by listing all the differences he sees, including ones that may appear trivial but are nevertheless present (for his full list, see appendix). 

Ibn Ezra’s Criticism of the Traditional Rabbinic Solution

A large part of ibn Ezra’s excursus is dedicated to pointing out the potential absurdities in the traditional rabbinic/midrashic solution that God said both at the same time:

וכאשר חפשנו בדברי חז”ל מה אמרו על ככה, מצאנו שאמרו זכור ושמור בדבור אחד נאמרו. וזה הדבור קשה מכל הקושיות שהיו לנו כאשר אפרש. וחלילה חלילה, שאומר שלא דברו נכונה, כי דעתינו נקלה כנגד דעתם. רק אנשי דורינו יחשבו כי דבריהם כמשמעם,  ואינו כן, כאשר אפרש בסוף, אחר שאזכיר הקושיות.
When we examined the words of the ancient rabbis to see how they related to this issue, we found that they said: “‘Remember’ and ‘Observe’ were said together.”  This line, as I shall explain, is even more difficult than all the problems that I listed above.  And God forbid, God forbid that I would say that the rabbis spoke incorrectly!  Our minds are nothing compared to theirs!  But the people of our generation insist on taking their comments literally, when that is not the case, as I shall explain in the continuation, after I explain the difficulties [involved in taking this statement literally].

Ibn Ezra is far from the first to claim that בדיבור אחד נאמרו need not mean that the words were literally pronounced by God at the same time.[1] But he chooses to attack the implications of a literal understanding of the phrase, listing a dozen reasons why it does not make sense.  Here are some of his arguments:

1. Why not both words?

למה לא נכתב בראשונה: זכור ושמור, גם כן בשנית.
[If the words were actually both pronounced at the same time,] why does the text not read “Remember and observe” both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy?

2. The Shabbat laws have different rationales.

יותר יש לתמוה: איך נאמרו במעשה נס פסוקים רבים בבת אחת, ואין טעמם שוה, משתי מלות שטעמם אחד, שוה, שתהיינה נאמרות בבת אחת.
[Instead of the rabbis addressing the issue of “remember” and “observe,”] two words that basically mean the same thing, and saying that they were said at the same time, it would have made more sense for them to ask how whole verses that do not have the same meaning as each other were miraculously said at the same time.

3. God quotes himself in the 3rd person.

ואיך יאמר השם: כאשר צוך י”י אלהיך
And how could God say [in third person] “as YHWH your God has commanded you”?

4. Missing phrases cannot be said at the same time.

והנה אין כתוב בראשונה: למען ייטב לך, אם כן, אמר זה ולא אמר זה.
In Exodus, the phrase “that you may live long” [which is found in Deut 5:16] is missing.  This would imply that [at one and the same time] God both said and did not say this phrase.

5. How could the Israelites understand two things at the same time?

ואם אמרנו אין דבור השם כדבור כל אדם, הנה איך הבינו כל ישראל דבור השם. כי האדם, אם ישמע זכור ושמור בבת אחת, לא יבין לא זה ולא זה.
Even if we say that [God is capable of saying two things at the same time] since God’s speech is not like human speech, still, how did all the Israelites understand God’s speech?  A person who hears both “remember” and “observe” pronounced at the same time understands neither word.

These problems make it impossible to believe that God said both versions of the Decalogue simultaneously, and thus ibn Ezra proceeds to explain the existence of two versions of the Decalogue in a different way.

Ibn Ezra’s Resolution, Part 1: Moses Explains God’s Words

Ibn Ezra’s explanation of the differences between the two versions of the Decalogue can be divided into two parts: the ones that reflect different content and the ones that reflect trivial wording changes.[2]

For ibn Ezra, the Decalogue in Exodus represents God’s precise words:

עשרת הדברים הכתובים בפרשה הזאת הם דברי השם בלי תוספת ומגרעת, והם לבדם הכתובים[3] על לוחות הברית.
The Decalogue as it appears in this portion (Exodus 20) represents the words of God with no additions or deletions.  Only they [and not the words in Deuteronomy] are found on the tablets of the covenant [which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai].

When Moses retold their history to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, he reworded some of the commandments in the Decalogue to make them easier to understand. 

Ibn Ezra explains that rephrasing words spoken by another is common. For example, he compares what Isaac says to Esau and how Rebekah reports it:

Isaac to Esau (Gen 27:4)

בַּעֲבוּר תְּבָרֶכְךָ נַפְשִׁי בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת
so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die

Rebekah’s Report (Gen 27:7)

וַאֲבָרֶכְכָה לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לִפְנֵי מוֹתִי
that I may bless you before YHWH before I die

Rebekah added the words “before YHWH,” ibn Ezra suggests, in order to impress on Jacob the importance of this blessing.  But even if Isaac didn’t say so, he also felt that the blessing would be with God’s approval.

So also, ibn Ezra argues, Moses added a different explanation of the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy.  With the words, “as YHWH your God commanded you,”, Moses alluded to the reason for Sabbath observance found in the Decalogue in Exodus, namely, that God had rested on the seventh day after six days of creation. 

But according to ibn Ezra, Moses realized that it wasn’t clear why slaves were forbidden to do work on the Sabbath.  For that reason, Moses added the explanation in Deuteronomy (5:15), “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”

Ibn Ezra’s Resolution Part 2: Words Don’t Matter

However, ibn Ezra’s theory about Moses’ changes cannot explain most of the differences between the language of the Decalogue in Exodus and in Deuteronomy.  What purpose could Moses have, for example, in changing the word ושורו “and his ox” to שורו “his ox”?

With dramatic flair that is not unusual for him, ibn Ezra explains that his contemporaries’ mistaken notions compel him to explain something that he would rather not:

ולא אוכל לפרש לך כל אלה עד שאפרש לך מוסד לדרך לשון הקדש. והשם הוא עדי, יודע סודי, כי לולי שהוצרכתי לפרש אלו הקושיות, הייתי מחריש.
I am unable to resolve all these difficulties until I provide you with an introduction[4] to how the holy tongue works.  God, my witness, knows my hidden thoughts: If I didn’t have to explain these difficulties, I would remain silent.

Referring to himself in third person, ibn Ezra proudly adds: אמר אברהם המחבר, “here is what Abraham the author says”:

משפט אנשי לשון הקדש שפעם יבארו דבורם באר היטיב, ופעם יאמרו הצורך במלות קצרות, שיוכל השומע להבין טעמם
The standard pattern of people who use the holy tongue is that sometimes they explain their words at length, but sometimes they say what they have to say with few words, just enough so that the listener understands their meaning.

This assertion—that Hebrew speakers sometimes express an idea at length and sometimes in few words—appears inconsequential, especially after the grand build-up. In the continuation of this comment, ibn Ezra expands his principle, applying it to speakers and writers of other languages:

משפט החכמים בכל לשון שישמרו הטעמים, ואינם חוששים משנוי המלות, אחר שהם שוות בטעמים
The practice of wise people in any language is that they preserve the meaning [of any speech or text] and are unconcerned about changes in wording as long as the meaning stays the same.

But what makes ibn Ezra’s comment radical is that he applies it to biblical Hebrew writers, including Moses, even when they are passing on the words of God.   

This is very much opposed to the midrashic method, predominant among ibn Ezra‘s predecessors and contemporaries, which is based on very close reading of the language of the Bible, and which assumes that the default is that whenever the Torah can express an idea in fewer words, it does so. 

When superfluous words are found written in a biblical verse, the rabbis see them as the source for a new law or principle. (In fact, not only extra words are an occasion for rabbinic midrash; even the crowns on the letters of the text are.[5]) Much of the discussion of biblical verses in the Babylonian Talmud and the classical midrashim is predicated on this assumption.[6] For the rabbis, including ibn Ezra’s contemporaries, superfluous language and small variations of wording matter deeply.[7]

Ibn Ezra’s Exegetical Minimalism

In the continuation of his excursus on the Decalogue, ibn Ezra provides a number of examples of texts in the Torah that are repeated, but not verbatim. 

Synonymous Language: Cain’s Complaint

One example is from the story of Cain and Abel:

והנה אתן לך דמיונות. אמר השם לקין ארור אתה מן האדמה, כי תעבוד את האדמה לא תוסף תת כחה לך, נע ונד תהיה בארץ. וקין אמר הן גרשת אותי היום מעל פני האדמה. ומי הוא שאין לו לב שיחשוב כי הטעם אינו שוה בעבור שנוי המלות.
Let me give you examples: God said to Cain, “You are accursed from the earth.  If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you.  You shall become a wanderer on the earth” (Gen 4:11–12).  Cain then said [to God], “You have banished me today from the face of the earth.”  Who is so mindless as to think that the meaning changes because of this change in wording?

Ibn Ezra’s claim that Cain’s specific paraphrase here of God’s words lacks significance can surely be disputed.  God only said that Cain would become a wanderer.  Cain’s paraphrase, “You have banished me today from the face of the earth,” sounds stubborn and petulant, and perhaps that is what the biblical author wants us to conclude when we read the texts side by side.

But even if one accepts ibn Ezra’s reading, neither this example from the story of Cain and Abel, nor any of the others that ibn Ezra cites, relate to Torah law. When dealing with biblical narrative, the claim that extraneous language lacks significance[8] is less controversial than it would be with verses, like the Decalogue, from which Jewish law is derived. 

Irrelevant Orthography

Ibn Ezra also belittles another aspect of the midrashic method, the willingness to ascribe meaning to orthography, specifically whether a word is or is not written with the letter vav serving as a marker of the vowel o or u, i.e. whether the spelling is plene (כתיב מלא) or defective (כתיב חסר):

והנה בני הדור יבקשו טעם גם למלא גם לחסר. ואילו היו מבקשים טעם לאחד מהם, שהמנהג היה לכתב הכל על דרך אחד, הייתי מחריש.
In our generation, people ascribe meaning both to plene spelling and to defective spelling.  If they only ascribed meaning to one of them, and saw the other one as the default, I would remain silent.

Spelling in a “Love Letter”

To make sure his point is entirely understood, ibn Ezra chooses a hypothetical example, namely, does it matter how one spells in a love letter:

הנה אתן לך משל: אמר לי אדם: כתוב לי כתב לרעי, וזה כתב: אני פלני אהבך לעלם. והנה כתבתי: פלני בלא ו”ו, ואהבך, גם כן לעלם.
Let me give you an example: Someone says to me, “Write a letter to my friend on my behalf.” So I write: אני פלני אהבך לעלם “I, so-and-so, love you forever,” happening to use defective spelling for פלני, without the vav, and for אהבך and for [9]לעלם.
ובא ראובן ושאלני: למה כתבת חסר. ואני אין לי צורך לכתוב רק מה שאמר לי, ואין לי חפץ להיותם מלאים או חסרים. אולי יבא לוי ויודיעני איך אכתוב.
Then a second person comes and asks me, “Why did you choose to use defective spelling?”   But all I was trying to do was to write what the first person asked me to write; I had no desire to take a stand between plene and defective spelling.  Maybe some third person should come along and tell me which spelling to use.
ולא ארצה להאריך, רק המשכיל יבין.
I do not want to belabor this point, but let the wise person understand.[10]

In ibn Ezra’s opinion—at least when he can’t think of a better explanation—words do not amount to much.  As he puts it,

דע כי הטעמים הם שמורות לא המלות
Know that meaning must be preserved, but not wording.

As long as Moses conveyed the message of the Decalogue accurately, any stylistic changes that he made in the text of the Decalogue are inconsequential, and the intelligent reader should pay no attention to them.

Notably, ibn Ezra’s Torah commentary has remained popular, even venerated, over the centuries. Apparently traditional Judaism tolerates exegetical variety, at least to some extent, even ibn Ezra’s type of exegesis that potentially undermines basic principles of the midrashic method.


One Difference Too Many?

One of the differences ibn Ezra notes in the final commandment is surprising, because it doesn‘t exist in our text of the Bible:

בראשונה עבדו ואמתו קודם שורו וחמורו, ובשנית שורו וחמורו לפני עבדו ואמתו.
The first version lists [not coveting your neighbor’s] “male or female slave” before “his ox or his donkey,’ but the second version lists “his ox or his donkey” before “his male or female slave.”

But the order of items in the final verse of the Decalogue is the same both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy in our biblical texts: ועבדו ואמתו (ו)שורו וחמורו—his male and female slave, his ox or his donkey.[11]

Supercommentators on ibn Ezra are puzzled. Yehudah Leib Krinski (late 19th and early 20th century) quotes a number of 19th-century scholars who were convinced that ibn Ezra could not have made such an error; they proposed the unsatisfying explanation that the commentary we have was not really written by ibn Ezra but was collected by his students.  Apparently they felt that attributing such an error to a student was legitimate, but the master should not be suspected of such carelessness.[12] 

Asher Weiser (1904–1982) calls ibn Ezra’s misstatement a טעות מצערת—an unfortunate error, but also points out that this is not the only time that ibn Ezra misquotes a biblical verse.[13]  In fact, almost all medieval Bible commentators misquote biblical verses from time to time, sometimes because they were quoting from memory and sometimes because they were using biblical texts that differed from ours.[14]


Ibn Ezra’s List of Differences

Commandments 1–3

  • Worship of YHWH alone, no bowing to idols, no taking YHWH’s name in vain.
והנה ראינו, כי מתחלת אנכי ועד סוף את אשר ישא את שמו לשוא, אין שנוי בין שתי הפרשיות. ומתחלת זכור עד סוף עשרת הדברים, שנוי בכל מקום.
We have found that from the beginning of the first commandment until the end of the third there are no differences between the versions. However, from the fourth commandment on, there are many differences.

Commandment 4

  • Shabbat: Shamor vs. zakhor
בראשונה זכור, ובשנית שמור,
The first version [Exodus] says “Remember [the Sabbath],” while the second [Deuteronomy] says “Observe [the Sabbath].”
  • As God commanded
גם שם באחרונה תוספת כאשר צוך ה’ אלהיך.
The second version also adds “as YHWH your God commanded you.”
  • Specific animals
בראשונה ובהמתך, ובשניה תוספת ושורך וחמורך.
The first version says [that] your animal [should cease working on the Sabbath]; the second adds the words “your ox and your donkey.”
  • Creation vs. slavery in Egypt
והקשה מכל אלה, כי בראשונה כתוב טעם שבת, כי ששת ימים עשה ה’ את השמים ואת הארץ, ואמר עוד, על כן ברך ה’ את יום השבת. ואלה הפסוקים אינם כתובים בשנית, רק טעם אחר, וזכרת כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים, ואמר באחרונה, על כן צוך ה’ אלהיך לעשות את יום השבת.
Even more difficult is that the first version says the reason for the Sabbath is “For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth … that is why YHWH blessed the Sabbath day.”  These verses are missing in the second version, which offers a different reason [for observing the Sabbath], “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt… therefore YHWH your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

Commandment 5

  • Honoring parents
בראשונה כתוב שכר כבוד אב ואם, שהוא למען יאריכון ימיך, וכן בשני, רק הוסיף ולמען ייטב לך, גם הוסיף בכבוד אב ואם, כאשר צוך ה’ אלהיך.
The first version describes the reward for honoring parents, “that you may live long.”  So also in the second version which adds “and that you may fare well.”  Also, the second version adds “as YHWH your God has commanded you” in the commandment about honoring parents.

Commandments 6–9

  • Murder, adultery, theft, false testimony
בראשונה כתוב לא תרצח, לא תנאף, לא תגנוב, לא תענה, בשניה כתוב לא תרצח, ולא תנאף, ולא תגנוב, ולא תענה.
The first version reads “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear [false witness against your neighbor],” while the second reads, “You shall not murder and you shall not commit adultery and you shall not steal and you shall not bear…”

Commandment 9

  • Lying vs. false
בראשונה כתוב עד שקר, ובשנית עד שוא.
The first version refers to a lying [shaqer] witness and the second to a “false [shav] witness.”

Commandment 10

  • Coveting wife or house
בראשונה: לא תחמוד בית רעך, ובשנית: לא תחמד אשת רעך, ובמקומו בשנית כתוב: ולא תתאוה בית רעך.
The first version has “do not covet your neighbor’s house” and the second has “do not covet your neighbor’s wife” and afterwards it says “and do not desire your neighbor’s house.”
  • Field or no field
בראשונה אין כתוב: שדהו, ובשנית כתוב: שדהו.
The first version does not list “his field” while the second lists “his field.”
  • “Male or female slave” before or after “ox or donkey”
בראשונה: עבדו ואמתו לפני שורו וחמורו, ובשנית: שורו וחמורו לפני עבדו ואמתו.
The first version lists [not coveting your neighbor’s] “male or female slave” before “his ox or his donkey,’ but the second version lists “his ox or his donkey” before “his male or female slave.”


August 14, 2019


Last Updated

June 22, 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.