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September 2, 2015 / 18 Elul, 5775
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Is There A Jewish Tradition About The Shape Of The Tablets Of The Ten Commandments?

Nearly six and a half centuries before McDonald’s first introduced its iconic logo designed by Jim Schindler, artists had already invented the double-humped shape. The Flemish painter Michiel van der Borch’s 1332 manuscript illustration “Moses receives the Tables of the Law” shows a haloed prophet, his hair twisted into horns, carrying his staff and wearing a red robe as he reaches out to receive the Ten Commandments from God. Hundreds of medieval manuscript illuminations, as well as dozens of paintings by Chagall, feature the same rounded layout.


But when Ghiberti sculpted Moses receiving the tablets of the law for the bronze Gates of Paradise for the eastern door of the Florence Baptistery (1425-52), the Italian artist depicted Moses receiving two unconnected rectangular tablets from God, surrounded by angels. Moses is poised to accept one tablet in each hand; Ghiberti has captured the exact moment where the tablets are still firmly in God’s hands and Moses is just reaching for them.


Lorenzo Ghiberti. Gates of Paradise;

Left Door. Florence Baptistery. 1425-1452



With the holiday of Shavuot on the horizon, it is important to ask: Is there a uniquely Jewish aesthetic tradition for the depiction of the tablets? Were they connected or separate stones? Were they rectangular or rounded?


Biblical and rabbinic texts seem to have avoided the question of the shape of the tablets for the most part. There are discussions about how the stones miraculously read properly from both sides (Exodus 32:15), since the letters were carved straight through the stone. There are event sources that say that some letters – like the somach – were miraculously suspended in midair. But the shape of the tablets does not seem to have made a tremendous impression on the biblical commentators.


The midrash in Exodus Rabbah (section 41:8) clearly states that the tablets were two separate stones to symbolize a variety of things including: heaven and earth, bride and groom, this world and the World to Come. The tablets were also made of sapphire, the midrash states, to remind those assembled at Sinai that if they did not obey the laws they would be subject to the death penalty of stoning with rocks as hard as the sapphire tablets.


Moses receiving the law. Sarajevo Haggadah. C. 1350



The depiction of the giving of the law at Sinai in the Sarajevo Haggadah (c. 1350) shows Moses, dressed like a medieval monk (though Richard McBee has called the “hooded gowns” a “characteristic of Barcelonan Jewry”), standing on a short hill surrounded by the Jewish people. A man, who seems to be reading a book and standing halfway up the hill closest to Moses is probably Joshua. Moses, still partially engulfed by the divine cloud, holds two attached tablets which have slight humps. One could make the argument that the tablets are rectangular and the artist has overcompensated in the perspective and shading but the more natural position is that the tablets are rounded.


Moses with tablets of the law. Alba Bible. Toledo Museum of Art. 1422-30



The Alba Bible, a 1430 translation from Hebrew to Castilian, shows a bearded Moses in a striped tunic playing a Jewish version of Atlas. Instead of bearing the weight of the world, the Alba Moses holds up two enormous, rectangular tablets for the Jews at the foot of the mountain to inspect. The tablets seem positioned to squash Moses’ head, and if one examines them carefully, one notices that the text – which is not carved into the rock, but painted on top of it – sometimes overflows the allotted space and hangs midair, particularly in the third commandment. It is almost tempting to read the white space surrounding the letters as empty space, in which case the artist has interpreted the forms of the letters as all being miraculously suspended.


Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai. C. 1320. Tripartite Maḥzor 



The c. 1320 German Tripartite Machzor shows Moses receiving a rectangular, singular tablet from God as Aaron and the Jewish people look on (the women looking like birds and cats). Trumpets and shofars can be seen above, setting the mood, and the French symbol of the monarchy, the fleur-de-lis, can be seen throughout the image. The Ten Commandments are depicted as compartments on a larger metallic frame, though, strangely, there are slots for 12 rather than 10 commandments. The Tripartite Moses seems to have received the framed version of the commandments, perhaps ready to hang on the wall of his tent.


During one of my family’s sedarim, I observed that the depiction of the tablets in our Haggadah (illustrated by a Moroccan painter), which resembled the McDonald’s logo, was a Christian rather than Jewish interpretation of the scene. What should be clear by now is that I was wrong about there being such a clean separation of the Jewish and Christian traditions.


There are many different versions of the commandments in Christian art as well. In a 1408-1410 work, Italian painter Lorenzo Monaco (Piero di Giovanni) shows Moses bearing two separate rectangular tablets, inscribed with pseudo-Hebrew. Moses also has two pseudo-Hebraic rectangular slabs in Cosimo Rosselli’s 1481-83 “Scenes from the Life of Moses.” Francesco Bassano II’s bizarre 1576 painting “Autumn (Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law)” shows Moses kneeling in the top left corner of the painting receiving two pointy tablets. The foreground is occupied by peasants going about their daily chores, oblivious to the monumental scene occurring in the distance.


Moses gets two separate but humped tablets, with true Hebrew, but an unnatural composition, in Guido Reni’s 1624-5 “Moses with the Tablets of the Law.” Several early 13th-century Psalters show Moses with a singular, humped tablet, but the illuminators made a point of painting the tablets small enough that they could be carried in one hand. A sculpture attached to an 1170 Gothic column shows Moses carrying a single tablet which is rounded on the top, while a 6th- or 7th-century woodcut depicts Moses with a single (seemingly rectangular) tablet and a basket of manna. The Master of Echternach’s c. 990 carved ivory Moses bears two rectangular tablets and a 15th-century woodcut seems to show a rectangular set of tablets attached but folded almost like a diptych. A 526 mosaic in Italy shows Moses receiving a scroll (the Torah?) rather than stone tablets at all and though the mosaic may be the first such interpretation, the scroll surfaces in several medieval manuscripts such as the Grandval Bible (c. 840), and in a mosaic at San Vitale (c. 547). More than a millennium later, Rembrandt, known for collaborating with biblical scholar Menasseh ben Israel, showed Moses carrying two separate, rounded tablets.


            Perhaps most inventively, the Begensburg Pentateuch (c. 1300, true Hebrew) shows Moses receiving two separate (rectangular) tablets and then attaching the two as he descends from Sinai. In fact, the Divine Hand gives the first tablet to Moses atop Sinai; Moses hands the first tablet to another Moses, who stands midway up the mountain; Moses II receives the first tablet from Moses I and hands tablet two to Moses III, at the foot of the mountain; and Moses III hands the joined tablets to Moses IV, who stands with the Jewish people. (Alternatively, Moses IV could be a different figure, like Joshua, as he wears a different color, but Moses IV and Moses I seem to have the same attire). One would expect the progression to go the other way – for Moses to receive the tablets whole, and then to dash them on the foot of the mountain upon discovering the Golden Calf – but the artist chose to reverse the process.


This is by no means an exhaustive (or scholarly) approach to the question of what shape Jewish tradition records for the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But it should be clear that the claim Jews envision the tablets in the rectangular while Christians hold them to have been rounded does not stand. For the most part, Jewish artists do seem to have followed the grammar of the biblical phrase luchot avanim (tablets of stone) or luchot ha’brit (tablets of the law), which is always presented in the plural, while many Christian artists attached the two tablets to each other. Surely, more work can be done on whether there are theological implications to these aesthetic decisions.


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.  He lives in Washington, D.C.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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