Ancient readers asked a question about the Ten Commandments, one that occurs to few people nowadays: Why did they need to be written on two stone tablets? One rectangular tablet certainly would have been sufficient—in fact, archaeologists have uncovered lots of tablets with quite a bit more writing on them than would be necessary for the Ten Commandments.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 6:1) suggests that there were actually two copies of all Ten Commandments, one set on each tablet. But the more common view holds that two tablets were used in order to highlight some significant difference between the commandments. For example, some commentators noticed the fact that, while the name of God appears in all of the first five commandments, it is altogether lacking in the last five. A whimsical midrashic comment explains why:

[The Roman emperor Hadrian said to R. Joshua b. Hannaniah:] “Come and travel with me to my provinces.” Everywhere that he brought him he saw that his [the emperor’s] portrait had been put up. He said, “What’s that?” He answered, “My portrait.” Finally, he [the emperor] brought him to an outhouse. He said to him, “Your Majesty, I can see that you are the ruler of this whole province, and that your portrait is put up everywhere, but in this place it is not put up.” He said to him: “Are you supposed to be the wisest of the Jews? Would it be an honor for the king to have his portrait put up in such a lowly place as this, in such a filthy and despised place?” He answered: “So [with regard to the last five commandments,] would it be to God’s glory to have His name connected with murderers and adulterers and thieves?” (Pesiqta Rabbati 21)

Another thematic explanation for the necessity of two tablets centered on the fact that, while the Ten Commandments start with commandments covering relations “between man and God,” they conclude with commandments governing behavior between one person and another. Both categories were important, so each was accorded its own tablet.

But this division potentially posed the problem of asymmetry: the first tablet would have only the first four commandments on it, while the second tablet, starting with the commandment to honor one’s parents, would include the last six. It would be nice if that fifth commandment, to honor one’s parents, could somehow be moved into the “man and God” column. Numerous commentators have suggested, therefore, that the fifth commandment really belongs with the first four, because there is something Godlike in parenthood. Here, for example, is what Philo of Alexandria, the first-century commentator and philosopher, said about the five-and-five division:

One set of enactments begins with God, the father and maker of all, and ends with parents, who copy His nature by begetting individual people. The other set contains all the prohibitions, namely, adultery, murder, theft, false witness, [and] covetousness. (The Decalogue, 50-51)

The Ten Commandments were, of course, only the beginning of the great revelation of divine law. Ultimately, the Torah was found to contain a total of 613 commandments, and these were intended to guide Israel throughout their generations. A later verse highlights this theme of continuity: “Moses charged us with [the laws of the] Torah, to be passed on to Jacob’s descendants” (Deut 33:4).

The more ancient interpreters considered this verse, however, the more puzzling it seemed. Surely God had commanded the Jewish people to keep the laws of the Torah; Moses was just the one to transmit them to Israel.

At a certain point, rabbinic sages considered the word “torah” itself. As is well known, every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has, by tradition, a numerical value (since the so-called Arabic numerals, 1, 2, 3, and so forth, were not yet in use to designate numbers). The first letter of torah, the letter tav, has the numerical value of 400. The next letter, vav, designates the number 6; resh, the third letter, stands for 200, and hei, the last letter, equals five. Altogether this makes for a total of 611.

Which was too bad! If only it had come to 613, that would have matched exactly the number of commandments in the Torah. But then our sages noticed something interesting about the Ten Commandments. In the first two commandments, God speaks in the first person, using the words “I” and “Me”: “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt…” “You shall have no other gods before Me…” and so forth. But after that second commandment, God is spoken of in the third person, “He” and “His.” Why the switch?

As the Torah relates, after God had begun speaking at Sinai, the people went to Moses in a panic. “You be the one to speak to us,” they said, “but don’t let God speak to us, or else we may die.” Moses tried to reassure them, but they wouldn’t listen: “So the people stood off at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud, where God was” (Exod 20:16-18). If so, then the verse “Moses charged us with torah, to be passed on to Jacob’s descendants” suddenly made sense: The word torah was being used to hint at its numerical value of 611: God gave us the first two commandments directly, speaking to all the people gathered at Mount Sinai. But because the people were afraid, God thereafter spoke only to Moses, and it was thus Moses who “charged us with torah [611], to be passed on to Jacob’s descendants.” Shabbat shalom.

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