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 a significant difference between the commandments.
The Ten Commandments start off with relations “between man and God”—the duty to recognize God’s very existence (“I am the Lord your God…”), the prohibition of worshiping other gods, and so forth. But then they move on to relations “between one person and another,” including the prohibitions of murder, adultery, and so on. Both dimensions, “between man and God” and “between one person and another,” are vital, since together they comprise all of human existence, its vertical axis and its horizontal one. So, to emphasize this point, 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, honoring one’s parents, could somehow be moved into the “between 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 Jewish 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)
In this way, the symmetry of five-and-five was preserved.
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 that 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.Too bad! If only it had come to 613, that would have matched exactly the number of commandments in the Torah.
But perhaps this was the whole point. People long ago had 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 “trembled and stood at a distance” (Exod 20:15). They went to Moses and demanded, “You be the one to speak to us, but don’t let God speak to us, or else we will 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 , to be passed on to Jacob’s descendants.”
Incidentally, this same phrase, “trembled and stood at a distance,” has been evoked to explain two different postures of prayer in Judaism. Some people shake and gyrate when they say the Amidah (also called the Shemoneh Esreh) while others stand still. Which is proper? Apparently, both are all right, since at Mount Sinai some people “trembled,” while others “stood.”