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July 8, 2015 / 21 Tammuz, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Ten Commandments’

Oldest Set of 10 Commandments Showing in Israel

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

Israel’s national museum has opened a rare exhibit that includes the world’s oldest copy of the Ten Commandments.

The exhibit presents objects from “pivotal moments in civilization.” Among the items is a 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scroll in which is inscribed a complete copy of the Ten Commandments.

This particular manuscript has never before been shown in Israel, and was only displayed briefly abroad.

The Dead Sea Scrolls comprise a collection of ancient Biblical manuscripts – some in fragments – discovered in a cave along the northern shores of the Dead Sea.

Squaring the Circle

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

There is a controversy over what the stone tablets on which the 10 Commandments were written actually looked like.

Artistically, the tablets are almost always drawn as two rectangles with McDonald’s-like arches on top.

But the Gemorah (Baba Batra 14a) describes the two tablets as rectangular, and doesn’t mention any arches, McDonald’s or otherwise.

Over the centuries, the Jews adopted the curved symbols, but there was no basis in tradition for it. It is believed the arches were adopted, in part, due to fear of Christian censorship and in part due to their commonly arched portrayal by artisans.

Gustave Dore's  Moses - 1865

Gustave Dore’s Moses – 1865

For years, the Israeli Rabbinate has received requests to rectify the misconception.

Now, in an attempt to align themselves with Rabbinic tradition, rather than art-history, the Rabbinate has modified their logo and want all Jewish organizations to do the same, according to a Chabad website.

The Rabbinate hopes to eventually correct the ingrained pubic misconception as to tablet’s design.

But are they right?

Making the question even more interesting is archaeologist Stephen G. Rosenberg, who has posited that the two tablets weren’t two stones at all, but rather two sides of the same stone.

In part he bases that on the choice of words used for describing the tablet(s) in Hebrew, Luchot, which is similar to another Biblically-used word, Lechi, or cheek in English.

Rosenberg’s theory is that half the commandments were written on one side (cheek) of the stone, and the other half were written on the opposite side (cheek) of the same stone, similar to how many other ancient codes of law were engraved onto stone, such as the Code of Hammurabi (which, incidentally, has a curved “fingernail” or arch, on the top of the stele).

Code of Hammurabi

The top of the Code of Hammurabi stele.

Rosenberg’s explanation also fits nicely with Pasuk the in Shemot (Exodus) 32:15:

“Now Moses turned and went down from the mountain [bearing] the two tablets (luchot) of the testimony in his hand, tablets inscribed from both their sides; on one side and on the other side they were inscribed.”

The Gemorah (Shabbat 104A) explains that the same text was miraculously visible from both sides of each stone, perhaps some sort of hologram.

In Rosenberg’s explanation, each side of the tablet (singular) had its own half of the engraved text, and that is why is could be read from both side.

Taking this theory into account, will the Rabbinate redo their logo with a single tablet, and possibly restore the arched top?

As the curved top of the Code of Hammurabi was specifically used for an engraved image, which is forbidden by the Torah (as per the Second Commandment, in fact), which reduces the likelihood that our tablet(s) had an arched top.

Teach Your Children About Eretz Yisrael

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Jewish parents should teach their children to live in the Land of Israel. How do I know? Because I’m a Jew and I take the Torah seriously. For me the Torah is real. It’s our guidebook for living.

In the Ten Commandments, it says, “Honor thy father and thy mother, in order that thy days be long upon the Land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” The Land mentioned in the verse isn’t America, nor Germany, nor South Africa, or even Canada. The Land means the Land of Israel.

What is the connection between honoring one’s parents and the Land of Israel? The verse promises that if you honor your parents, you will be rewarded with living in the Land of Israel? Why? What’s the connection? What does one thing have to do with the other? Because if you honor your parents by doing what they teach you, then you will live in the Land of Israel, because every Jewish parent has the duty to teach his children that they are supposed to live in the Land of Israel.

All Jewish parents, for all time, in all generations, no matter where they live, are to teach their children that they should live in the Land of Israel. That’s what the Torah is telling us in this verse, and the instructions of the Torah are forever. In order to keep the Torah in the way it is meant to be kept, you have to live in the Land of Israel.

The Torah is the Constitution of the Nation of Israel, a Nation with religious laws that cover all aspects of life, both the private, and the national, including laws of government, judicial laws, military laws, economic laws, agricultural laws, laws of war, and laws for the king. You can’t have a Jewish army, and Jewish government, and Jewish agricultural laws which only apply to the Land of Israel in Canada, America, or France. So Jewish parents are to teach their children that they should live in the Land of Israel, and Jewish children are to honor their parents and perform the commandments which they are taught, and that way they will fulfill the intention of the Torah that the Jewish People live in the Land of Israel and not anywhere else.

So parents, if you’re Jewish, and if you want to follow the Torah, then tell your children to live in the Land of Israel.

And children, if you want to honor your parents, then live in the Land of Israel. That’s what the Torah is saying.

The Wisdom within the Law

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

The Torah portion of Mishpatim deals primarily with the civil laws that govern communal interaction. The fact that these decrees are given at this point – directly after the Hebrew tribes receive the Ten Commandments – shows a clear distinction between Western religions and Israel’s Torah. In truth, the Jewish nation has no such concept as “religion” in the formal sense of the term, as we reject the notion of anything lying outside the realm of HaShem. It is Israel’s mission to elevate every sphere of Creation by infusing it with kedusha and bringing it to its highest potential in our world.

Western civilization generally views religious observance as something limited to an individual’s private sphere of ritual and prayer. This erroneous perception constructs a false division between private service to G-D and the way a person treats his fellow man. The Torah recognizes no such distinction as all areas of life are intertwined and holiness derives from ethical business dealings and proper military conduct no less than from piety in matters of Torah study and prayer. The Sages teach that a Jew wishing to be live a pious life should be scrupulous in matters of civil law (Baba Kamma 30a). From this it is derived that the seat of the Sanhedrin should be on the Temple Mount, for both the Temple and the Sanhedrin are expressions of HaShem’s Ideal in this world. A judge who rules properly is considered a partner in Creation while one who judges corruptly is called a destroyer of G-D’s world. It is therefore appropriate that immediately after carrying Am Yisrael through the recognition of HaShem’s power, the miracles of the Sea and the revelation at Sinai, the Torah commences with precepts that seem almost mundane in character but are in fact no less expressions of HaShem’s greater Ideal than is the first of the Ten Commandments proclaiming His existence and sovereignty over all.

In the book of Melachim I (Kings 1), the Queen of Sheba visits the Israeli Kingdom of Shlomo. At the commencement of her visit, she expresses great skepticism regarding international rumors of the monarch’s wisdom. But after observing the way in which the Hebrew society functioned, the visiting queen is astounded. She immediately begins to praise Shlomo’s wisdom and HaShem’s supremacy, recognizing kedusha not merely in how Israelis observed Shabbat or brought korbanot to the Temple, but also in the way the realm functioned day-to-day. She expressed immense admiration for every aspect of the Hebrew Kingdom, down to the way in which the servants were dressed. Sheba discovered that Israel’s Torah encompasses all of national and even international existence, including the most seemingly mundane aspects of life.

The Divine Ideal of Am Yisrael existing as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation necessitates the sanctification of every aspect of individual and national life, revealing the unity of HaShem as encompassing all. While any gentile can be a righteous and holy individual, only Israel has the potential to be a holy nation, expressing kedusha in every facet of nationhood. Only through establishing such a holy kingdom can the Jewish people fulfill our collective mission of bringing Creation to its ultimate goal of total perfection and awareness of HaShem.

Communicating With A Teenager

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

For both parents and teenagers alike, adolescence can be a very hard time. Unfortunately, when family life gets rough, communication tends to break down. And when it does, parents need to restore their ability to relate to their teenagers by learning about the rules of communication.


Without question, parents find it hard to deal with teenagers who are unpleasant to talk to or who limit their communication to grunts or short answers that stop abruptly at “yes” or “no.”


One of the most difficult breakdowns in communication I have ever seen was between a twelfth grade student, Rachel, and her parents. When Rachel came home after school and walked through the door, terror entered with her.  Her parents explained to me that Rachel often avoided communicating with them altogether, but when she did speak, she was insulting and would respond rudely to innocent questions such as, “How was your day?” or “What would you like for dinner?”  This pattern of behavior would enrage Rachel’s parents so much that they found themselves constantly screaming at and insulting their daughter. Unfortunately the situation got so bad that lately Rachel was staying in her room, locking her door and screaming at her parents when they tried to enter.


When I first saw Rachel’s parents, they were very pessimistic about their daughter’s future. For years they had tried to calm her anger by buying her presents and clothing.  They even offered her rewards just for talking to them, but nothing seemed to work.


Clearly this serious communication problem needed to be resolved. After finding out more about Rachel’s background and relationships, I began to speak to her parents about some of the key principles of relationships and I suggested that they begin to practice the Ten Commandments of Communication.


The Ten Commandments of Communication

Although they are not etched in stone, the Ten Commandments of Communication form the basis of relationship-centered communication with a teenager.


This is how it works. On one tablet are five “Thou Shalt Nots,” and on the other tablet, five “Thou Shalts.”Both sides are equally important.  The Thou Shalt Nots represent the types of words that tend to destroy a relationship, whereas the Thou Shalts can improve the relationship and bring teenagers and parents closer together.


Thou Shalt Not                                             Thou Shalt

Insult                                                     Compliment

Judge                                                        Accept

Blame                                                     Encourage

Insinuate                                                    Empathize

Embarrass                                                Find the Good

The Ten Commandments Of Communication



In Rachel’s case, I suggested that her parents work very hard to not use the Thou Shalt Nots.  When they talked to Rachel, they needed to avoid all forms of criticism and control.  The goal was to bring Rachel closer and not push her away through negative language.  Although their daughter may be insulting and often use the ThouShalts Nots, Rachel’s parents should not respond in kind.  Rather, they should focus primarily on the Thou Shalts and try to empathize with her.


It’s a fact of life that the Thou Shalt Nots are bound to distance people from one another.  No one enjoys being criticized, blamed or belittled for their behavior.  Worse, parents who rely on pressure tactics to force their teenagers to change often create a negative environment that breeds more mistrust and anger in their teens. However, when parents follow the Thou Shalts and use words that are caring and compassionate, they can create a warmer and friendlier relationship.


Take a moment to review your relationship with your teenager.  Are your words accepting, friendly, compassionate and understanding?  Or are they critical, aggressive, insulting or belittling?


By looking at the Ten Commandments, you can evaluate whether you are transgressing the Thou Shalt Nots or fulfilling the Thou Shalts of communication. If the content and tone of the conversations you are having are angry, critical and confrontational, then it’s up to you to move over to the positive commandments and to improve the tone and content of your words.  I would suggest that the ratio of positive to negative words should always remain four to one.  As we learned earlier, the relationship parents can build is like a wise investment.  Each positive word is one more coin in a parent’s emotional savings account with their teenager.


Also, always measure your words before they are spoken.  Strive to convey this positive inner message: “I love you and care about you and I want to deepen our relationship,” and evaluate whether what you are about to say will push your child further away or bring him or her closer.


For about two months, I worked with Rachel’s family to reduce their use of criticism and to have them compliment her whenever they had a chance.  At first, changing their style of communication seem awkward to them, but slowly they began to see that without criticism, Rachel was more willing to talk.


Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in marriage counseling and teens at risk. He is the author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” To order a copy, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com. For an appointment call 646-428-4723.

‘America Is Better Served By A Religiously Vibrant Christianity’ An Interview with Rabbi Daniel Lapin

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

   To some non-Jews, he is simply “America’s rabbi.” Rabbi Daniel Lapin — great-nephew of the widely revered mussar personality, Reb Elya Lapian — lectures across America to audiences both Jewish and Christian, produces audio CDs on such issues as marriage, the Ten Commandments, and the ill effects of vulgar speech, and disseminates a weekly e-mail called Thought Tools.


      The South African-born rabbi, who received semicha from England’s Gateshead yeshiva, Israel’s Kfar Chassidim yeshiva, and Ner Yisroel’s Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, also hosts a weekly TV and radio show and has authored several books, including Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language and Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money.


      He currently heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians.


      The Jewish Press recently interviewed him after he returned home from the Second Annual Torah Home Education Conference in Baltimore. He and his wife home-schooled all seven of their children.


      The Jewish Press: How did you get started lecturing to mostly Christian audiences about Torah values and modern-day society?


      Rabbi Lapin: When I arrived in the United States in 1973, I was intrigued by the number of places with biblical names – Salem, Hebron, Bethlehem, etc.


      So I started studying the founding of America and discovered that the Bible used in colonial churches quoted Jewish sources like Rashi and Rambam in their notes about a third of the time. I also discovered the widespread intimate knowledge of Hebrew among the founders and their love of the Old Testament. Ezra Styles, who was the president of Yale University, referred to Yale as “our New England beit midrash,” which is remarkable.


      Then, as the years went by, I realized that most Christians in America were deeply baffled how the people who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai could be the same people aggressively promoting such matters as abortion, homosexual marriage and the widespread growth of pornography. I realized that somebody needed to help them see a difference between Jewish values and the things that many Jews do. That’s how I got started.


      In your speeches and writings you promote a more religious American society and culture. What do you say to people who worry that a more religious America would pose a danger to Jews, who historically have been targets of Christian fanaticism?


      I think America has provided the most tranquil, prosperous, and durable haven for Jews in the last 2,000 years because it is a [religious] Protestant country, not in spite of it.


      Many Jews are not familiar with the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. They need to understand that there’s never been a Protestant pogrom in the history of the world. It’s also important to understand the difference between European Christianity and American Christianity.


      In general, I also think it’s helpful for Jews to recognize that the only reliable group of friends we have in America, or in the world, right now are American Evangelicals. The main threat today is [radical Islam], and the one group standing alongside Jews and supporting the State of Israel is American Evangelicals.


      Why do you focus the majority of your speaking and literary efforts on the broader American society rather than solely the Jewish community?


      Everyone has their own area of contribution. If I had the ability to give an advanced shiur in a yeshiva three times a day, I’d probably do that, but this happens to be what I think I was created to do at this point in time.


      More generally, though, I think we should recognize that we have a stake in America. To not care about broader society is a lot like sitting in a lifeboat while somebody’s drilling a hole in the floor of the boat a few seats down, and you say, “Well, as long as my seat’s okay, everything’s fine.” I think it requires a certain cultural and social maturity to recognize that the chalav yisrael pizza parlors and glatt kosher restaurants will go down the tubes if America fails.


      What do you mean by America failing?


      That it loses its economic, military-defense, and moral defense capabilities. All those three things slide down in a declining culture, and history shows that those sorts of circumstances jeopardize the survival of the Jewish community.


      [America is becoming increasingly more secular and] I think Europe is an extremely good model of what happens when secularism wins. Anti-Semitism is an inevitable accompaniment of secularism, and Nazism and communism are essentially the ultimate expressions of liberalism .


      I think America is better served by a religiously vibrant Christianity and that means that we have to be as ardent about fighting anti-Christianism as we expect Christians to be in fighting anti-Semitism.


      You’ve written that Jews should wish Christians a “Merry Christmas” on December 25 rather than “Happy Holidays.” Why?


      Because Christians see “Happy Holidays” as the dominance of the secular culture forcing them to treat the word Christmas as if it’s an obscenity. What does it hurt us to be friendly and supportive on that? Is there some halacha that allowing the word Christmas to pass your lips means you have to go to the mikveh?


      I don’t see why Jews have to rear up like startled horses at the sight of any Christian symbolism. You have to understand that Christians don’t know the difference between various Jewish groups any more than Jews know the difference between various Christian groups. They see Chabad erecting menorahs in public places and then they see lawsuits filed by, what they believe to be, the Jewish ACLU every time a Nativity scene is put up in a public place. You can understand that that would lead to resentment.


      You’re also on record praising Pope Pius XII as a righteous Christian, even though many Jews vilify him for his alleged indifference to saving Jews during the Holocaust. Why?


      Because I know some of the background of the vilification campaign. I know who Ralph Hochhuth was and how his [1963] play, “The Deputy,” dramatically changed public perception in a direction that was completely improper.


      I also know that in spite of the fact that there were substantial and strong and viable Jewish communities in the United States during the time of the Mormon massacres in the middle of the 19th century, no Jew or synagogue is on record as having stepped forward to try and save Mormons from enraged lynch mobs. As such we’ve got to be a little careful before we castigate people for not having saved Jews. I’m not sure our record’s so wonderful on this.


      Why did you write Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money? Isn’t  it strange for a rabbi to write about this topic?


      The whole point of that book is to analyze, from a Torah perspective, God’s attitude to money. Did money just get invented by vicious, greedy, corrupt human beings while God’s attention was distracted elsewhere, or was money intended as part of God’s plan for humanity? I argue in the book that it was very much part of His plan.


      It certainly is not an accident that throughout the Talmud wealth is seen as an enormous blessing, even to the extent of a definitive statement [in the Talmud] that God’s prophetic powers don’t rest on anyone who doesn’t have wealth. I would associate the idea of “poverty equals virtue” as being Christian, not Jewish.


      Why is wealth good in your view?


      Because within a transparent and virtuous market place, the only way to create wealth is to supply the goods and services that other human beings want. There’s an incredible network of cooperating human beings who, as Adam Smith said, [provide for each other’s needs by looking out for their own best interest].


      So, in other words, the CEO of Ford may want to make millions of dollars for himself, but in doing so, he’s also providing a living for tens of thousands of employees while also providing cars for millions of people.


      Yes. I’m not sure that if he were running a non-profit, for instance, or serving in government, that he’d be doing more good for more people than he’s doing right now.


      Switching topics, why did you and your wife home-school your children?


      Because we regard them as our most precious investment. We felt nobody else would be as concerned with them as we were, and we relished the opportunity to imprint our values on them.


      What kind of Jews attended the Torah Home Education Conference in Baltimore last month, and what was their motivation in home-schooling their children?


      It was the most fascinating and delightful gathering of Judaism. I saw people dressed in full chassidic regalia and people who were Modern Orthodox.


      As to their motivations, it’s difficult to say for sure, but I think economics played a major part because day school tuition is out of control. In addition, many parents who spoke to me at the conference indicated that they weren’t happy with the hashkafos their children were getting in school. They didn’t feel their children were getting a comprehensive worldview in which Torah values were integrated with life in general, and in which respect for all people, including non-Jews, was instilled.


      Some people worry that home-schooled children will grow up to be socially inept adults. What is your reaction?


      First of all, home-schooled children meet regularly, often several times a week, with other home-schooled children in various groups.


      Second, there’s a myth that somehow there’s an advantage in allowing your children to socialize only with people of the same age group and academic level. Home-schooled children get on very well with older people and with all kinds of groups.


      Is home-schooling a growing phenomenon in the Orthodox community?


      Definitely. The conference was more than twice as big as it was the previous year.


      I should say, though, that I’m not on a home-schooling crusade. It was wonderful for our family, and I think many more people could do it than realize they could. But it’s not right for everybody.

Is There A Jewish Tradition About The Shape Of The Tablets Of The Ten Commandments?

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/is-there-a-jewish-tradition-about-the-shape-of-the-tablets-of-the-ten-commandments/2010/04/21/

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