Pen Ultimate / Our Wishes, His Command

Shedding some new light on the Festival of Weeks


'Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law'
Rembrandt, 1659

Next week we will celebrate Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, on the seventh day of the seventh week following Passover. If we accept the fact that the world was created by God 5,760 years ago (that's a given, if we take the Torah's word for it ), the spectacle on Mount Sinai that is commemorated on Shavuot happened 3,323 years ago: The sages agree the Torah was given to the Israelites then. Indeed, we read that God descended upon Mount Sinai (which was "altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire," Exodus 19:18 ), and addressed the crowd, using the most advanced technology available - the equivalent of 3-D and quadraphonic sound (at the very least ). For as it says in the Book of Exodus (20:18 ): "And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking."

It is doubtful, with all the excitement, whether anyone present at this momentous event remembered anything of those commandments afterward, bar the initial phrase: "I am the Lord thy God." And the Almighty, well aware that oral instructions aren't worth the stone they're written on, wisely summons Moses to the mountain, keeping him there for 40 days and nights, adding amendments (described at length in the next 10 chapters of Exodus ): "He gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God" (Ex. 31:18 ).

There is no doubt about the author and inscriber of the commandments, or the creator of the tablets: Everything - phrasing, stonework, inscription - was God's idea and handiwork. This is very important, as upon descending from the mountain and seeing the Golden Calf, Moses smashes the precious tablets, thus destroying the only existing copy of an irreplaceable work of art. This was not the impetuous act of an outraged man, in the face of an upsetting unfolding scenario: God informed Moses earlier of what was happening on the ground and Moses had already negotiated a reprieve for the sinners. Thus, the smashing of the tablets was a planned and perhaps rehearsed outburst, calculated to impress the Israelite audience. To reinforce his point, Moses immediately comes out in support of violating the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," by ordering the arbitrary punitive measure of massacring some 3,000 "chosen" people.

Moses is then summoned to the mount again, to confer with God for another 40 days, and is charged with the task of producing a second copy of the commendments: "And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest" (Ex. 34:1 ). This is the perhaps the first-ever instance of a distinction being made between a book as a physical tangible object, a container or vessel, and its text - the book's spiritual, virtual content. A vessel may be created by anybody, but content, by contrast, requires an act of creation.

One should note, by the way, that there are discrepancies as to who actually wrote the text on the second set of tablets. Various parts of the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy say God was responsible, but it is also written: "And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments" (Ex. 34:27-28 ).

One way of resolving this issue is to agree that God "penned" the commandments only, and to ascribe authorship of the entire Pentateuch (of which the commandments are a small but essential part ), to the Israelite leader. Indeed, it is referred to as "the Five Books of Moses."

The new version of the Ten Commandments features prominently in Chapter 5 of Deuteronomy, which is generally accepted to be Moses' "autobiography," and is narrated in the first-person singular. For all we know, this may be a written version of God's recitation on Mount Sinai, but its text differs slightly from the one in Exodus' Chapter 20. It is customary to refer to the latter as the text inscribed on the first set of tablets, whereas the version mentioned in Deuteronomy was inscribed on the second set, in a slightly expanded edition that was later stowed away for posterity by Moses, upon God's instructions, in an ark.

The two versions of the commandments differ slightly in wording (in Exodus, we are instructed "to remember" the Sabbath, and in Deuteronomy "to keep" it; a minute alteration in the original Hebrew phrasing of the ninth commandment goes unnoticed in translations to Greek, Latin and English ), and there are two other content-related disparities. One, in the fourth commandment, concerns the Sabbath. The Exodus version mentions only that the day of rest should be observed to commemorate the fact that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and thus everyone should rest on the seventh day, slaves included. Deuteronomy repeats this, but adds: "And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day" (Deuteronomy 5:15 )

The second difference involves an additional phrase, in the fifth commandment. In Exodus (20:12 ), the Israelites are instructed there to "Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" - whereas in Deuteronomy (5:16 ) there is a postscript after "long": "and that it may go well with thee."

A more minor discrepancy is noticeable in the Hebrew versions of the commandments: The ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tet, is not used even once in the Exodus version, and is indeed the only letter thus omitted, whereas it appears twice in the Deuteronomy text - both times in the added passages mentioned above, in the fourth and fifth commandments.

Rashi points out that, according to Genesis (1:3 ), God in effect creates the world simply by uttering words ("And God said, Let there be light: and there was light" ) - a notion echoed in the Gospels ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"; John, 1:1 ). The reasoning goes that words were the original entities that God used to create the world, and letters were the basic building blocks from which words were made. Ergo, letters existed before the world was created. And indeed there is a long midrash in the Zohar in which, according to kabbalists, each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet appeal to God, from tav to aleph, demanding the right to be the first one mentioned in the Torah, in the opening story of the Creation.

The letter tet claims primacy because it is the first letter of the word tov - "good" - but God says it cannot be the very first to be mentioned in this world, because goodness is the most essential part of the next, and presumably better, world. Kabbalists suggest, however, that tet "knew," even before God and Moses did, that the first set of tablets with the commandments on it would anyway be smashed at some point, and therefore it made itself scarce in the first version only to reappear in the second, when it was safe.

In terms of the greater non-Jewish, universal nature of the commandments, one can make this observation: Humanity has been plagued almost since its inception by the fact that generations upon generations of people have devoutly observed the first three directives - demanding absolute obedience to a deity (or deities ), whose lofty authority and status preclude the existence of any alternative, and often acting on behalf of said deities, they have violated the remaining seven commandments. Not to mention ignoring the sixth one almost completely. Those are the actions of the creatures fashioned in God's image?