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Va’etchanan 5771-2011

“The Ten Commandments: The Differences”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, Moses revisits the scriptural verses known as the “Decalogue” or the Ten Commandments, with the new generation of the people of Israel who were to soon enter the land of Canaan.

The first version of the Ten Commandments that was originally spoken at Sinai is found in Exodus 20:2-14. The fact that the Ten Commandments are repeated again in Deuteronomy 5:6-18 is not at all surprising, as these critical lessons needed to be mastered by the new generation. However, the fact that there are slight differences in the texts of the two versions raises significant questions. Making things worse is the authoritative statement in the Torah that appears after the Ten Commandments that are recorded in Deuteronomy, definitively declaring (Deuteronomy 5:18): “Eht ha’d’varim ha’ay’leh, dee’behr Hashem el kol k’hahl’chem, bah’har, mee’toch hah’aish, heh’ah’nahn v’hah’ah’rah’fehl, kohl gahdol v’loh yah’sahf,” These words, the L-rd spoke to the entire congregation on the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick cloud, a great voice, never to be repeated.

If “these words” of Deuteronomy 5 were the ones that were spoken at Sinai, what are we to make of the words in Exodus 20 that are measurably different?

Upon careful review, we find that most of the textual differences in the two versions of the Commandments are rather minor. The most profound differences are to be found in the Fourth Commandment, regarding the Sabbath. In Exodus 20:8-11, we are told, “Zachor eht yom ha’Shabbat l’kahd’shoh,” remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. The Torah then asserts that the reason for keeping the Sabbath is due to the fact that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Therefore, Jews may labor for six days, but are instructed to rest on the seventh.

However, in the second version of the Decalogue that appears in Deuteronomy, we are told, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, “Shamor eht yom ha’Shabbat l’kahd’shoh,” safeguard the Sabbath day to sanctify it. In this iteration, an entirely different reason is given for observing Shabbat. Jews are to keep the Sabbath because they were once slaves in the land of Egypt, and G-d liberated them, giving the people their freedom. Therefore, the Sabbath day must be faithfully observed.

In addition to this major discrepancy, there are also several additional words that appear in the Deuteronomy version of the Fifth Commandment, to honor one’s parents. The final commandment, of not coveting, is also slightly different. The list of items that are not to be coveted is slightly more comprehensive in Deuteronomy than in Exodus.

The Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew, 1525-1609, Rabbi of Prague, leading scholar, mystic and philosopher) makes light of the differences. Rabbi Loew attributes the differences to the fact that in Deuteronomy, Moses is retelling the Ten Commandments to the people in his own words, expressing himself in a way that would make the commandments more palatable to the new generation.

Tradition, however, explains that G-d spoke both versions of the Ten Commandments simultaneously. An allusion to this well known Midrash (Rosh Hashana 27a) is prominently found in the Friday night “Kabbalat Shabbat” service, in the words of the popular “Lecha Dodee,” hymn. The opening stanza begins with“Shamor v’zachor b’dee’boor echod,” positing that G-d spoke both “remember” the Sabbath day and “safeguard” the Sabbath day simultaneously.

The Midrash (Shabbat 88b) also states that G-d simultaneously spoke the Ten Commandments in seventy different languages so that all the nations of the world would understand them.

Longtime students of the Torah are aware of the fact that according to Tradition there are two “parts” to Torah, the Written Law and the Oral Law. The latter is at times referred to as the “rabbinic” interpretation of the Bible, also known as the “Talmud.” Not many people, however, are familiar with the fact that there are comprehensive rules that govern the interpretations of the Torah text. The best known compilation of these rules is known as “Rabbi Ishmael’s Thirteen Hermeneutic Principles” (Sifra, introduction). Much like scientific principles governing mathematics or physics, these principles are intended to insure the valid and consistent interpretation of the Torah. To emphasize their importance, the Thirteen Hermeneutic Principles are recited daily as part of the morning prayers after the recitation of the morning blessings.

The first of the Thirteen Principles called, “Kahl Va’choh’mer”–-states that inferences may be learned from a lenient law to a strict law, and visa-versa. So, for instance, if a certain act is forbidden on an ordinary festival, it must certainly be forbidden on Yom Kippur. A second governing principle known as “g’zay’rah shah’vah,” maintains that inferences may be drawn from identical words in two separate passages. So, for instance, when the expression “Hebrew servant” appears in Exodus 21:2, it is ambiguous. It may mean a non-Jewish servant owned by a Jew, or possibly, a servant who is himself a Jew. But since the same phrase “Hebrew servant” appears in Deuteronomy 15:12, where it says, “if your Hebrew brother is sold to you,” it is clear that the Torah is speaking of a Jewish servant, rather than a non-Jewish servant.

Due to the fact that the Decalogue appears twice in the Torah and in two distinct sections of the Bible, rather than written as a single version combining both concepts, it is possible for the rabbis to interpret these verses in a more comprehensive manner within the purview of the valid principles of interpretation.

The question then arises, why did the Al-mighty record the Ten Commandments separately rather than combine both versions, which would have made life much easier? From this we learn the very important principle that Torah is not given on a silver platter. The fact that the Torah is open to broad interpretation and that the human mind must labor rigorously in order to interpret the Torah properly is a fundamental principle of Jewish pedagogy.

The accumulation of Torah knowledge and Torah wisdom comes only through great effort. The more one labors, the more one understands. There are no free lunches in Judaism. It is through this rigorous Torah methodology that young Jewish minds are educated, shaped and trained to uncover the nuances of the text to discover new insights, by searching through the minutia and wrestling with the text, uncovering its true meaning.

This incredible intellectual legacy has shaped Jewish minds for centuries, resulting in an unparalleled gift of scholarship and inspiring many fertile young minds to constantly search for truth.

This gift, which is revealed in the deep recesses of the Ten Commandments, also underscores the likelihood of the Torah’s Divine authorship. Certainly no human editor would have left intact such blatant textual discrepancies that raise imponderable authorship questions. They undoubtedly would have edited out the differences, in order to create a united veneer, confirming a single author of the Torah.

The struggle for truth is what personifies the Jewish people. This search for truth and the resultant proper behavior is what Jews believe will undoubtedly usher in the Messianic era and lead to the rebuilding of the Temple, whose destruction we mourn during this dark period of the Jewish calendar.

Although we have no physical Temple today, the great edifice of Torah scholarship still stands strong and proud. And, as we study, each student of Torah becomes a “bricklayer,” contributing to the rebuilding of the Temple. May it come speedily in our day, Amen.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts at sunset on Monday, August 8th and continues through Tuesday night, August 9th, 2011. Have a meaningful fast.

Tu B’Av, the 15th day of Av, an ancient day of joy and matchmaking, is observed this year on Sunday evening, August 14th, and Monday, August 15th, 2011. Happy Tu B’Av.