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Torah Sparks

February 14, 2004 – 22 Sh’vat 5764

Annual: Ex. 18:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 432 ; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial Cycle 3: Ex. 19:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim p. 436; Hertz p. 290)
Haftarah (a) Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6 (s) Isaiah 6:1-13

Prepared by Kenneth S. Goldrich, Esq.
Author of the USCJ/RA Luah and Yad LaTorah

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


18:1-12 – Moses' father-in-law Jethro (Hebrew, Yitro), the Midianite priest, hears of the exodus and brings Moses' wife, Tsiporah, and their sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to join Moses. After hearing all that God did for the Israelites, Jethro blesses God.

18:13-27 – Jethro sees that Moses is overworked judging “from morning to night.” He advises Moses to delegate certain responsibilities by appointing officers and judges to help him, thus creating a workable leadership (judicial and political) structure.

19:1-6 – In the third month after leaving Egypt (i.e., Sivan, the month of Shavuot), the people prepare to accept the covenant and receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, where they will become a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

19:7-15 – Moses tells the elders to prepare the people for the revelation. The people prepare for three days.

19:16-25 – Dramatic phenomena accompany God's manifestation at Mount Sinai. Moses ascends alone as the people remain at the base of the mountain.

20:1-14 – The Ten Commandments are given.

20:15-18 – The people are terrified by God's power, and they beg Moses to mediate between them and God.

20:19-23 – Additional prohibitions on making idols, and commandments regarding the construction of the mizbeah, or altar.

Selected Text

Remember the Sabbath day to make it kadosh (holy). Six days you shall labor and do all of your work; but the seventh day shall be a day of shabbat (rest/cessation) dedicated to the Lord your God. You shall not do any work, you and your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, your beast, and your stranger within your gates; because in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything in them and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it kadosh. (The Fourth Commandment - Exodus 20:8-11)

Discussion – Kiddush, I Won't Stand For It!

“As much as the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” So noted Ahad Ha’am (pen name of the author Asher Ginzberg). The importance of Shabbat to Jews cannot be underestimated. An entire tractate of the Talmud and volumes upon volumes of rabbinic literature, both halakhah (law) and aggadah (lore), are devoted to the intricacies of Shabbat observance. Perhaps, however, no single source is as well known as the Fourth of the Aseret haDibrot (popularly referred to as the Ten Commandments).

Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah has 613 mitzvot. How many of these mitzvot are contained in what we refer to as the Fourth Commandment? One would be excused for thinking that only one mitzvah is set forth – i.e., remembering the Sabbath by refraining from melakhah (work). Yet the rabbis teach that there are two mitzvot contained within the Fourth Commandment, our Selected Text. The second (which we will not be focusing on) is the mitzvat lo ta’aseh, the negative mitzvah to refrain from melakahah on Shabbat. The first mitzvah is zakhor et yom ha’Shabbat, to remember the Sabbath day. How do we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering Shabbat? The Talmud (Pesahim 106a) teaches that we remember Shabbat by making kiddush. Here is a summary of the mitzvah from the Sefer ha’Hinukh:

“#31 (of 613) The Mitzvah to make Shabbat kadosh with words. To speak words on the Sabbath day as it enters and as it ends, by which there is a remembrance of the greatness of the day and its elevated status, and how it is set apart for praise from the other days before and after, as it is said (in the Torah) ‘Remember the Sabbath day to make it kadosh(Ex. 20:8), that is to say, remember it by recalling its kedushah and greatness. The explanation given to us by our sages is that we are commanded to say these words over wine …” [Sefer ha’Hinkukh]

Thus, the seemingly simple act of making kiddush at our Friday evening meal, as recited by Jews for thousands of years, is the fulfillment of one of the mitzvot that was inscribed on one of the shnei luhot ha’brit, the two tablets Moses brought down from Sinai. There is an interesting divergence of practice regarding the recitation of Kiddush: do we sit or stand? The following is the explanation provided by the Sefardic Rabbi Yosef Karo in the classic code, the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 271:10, with glosses reflecting Ashkenazic practice by Rabbi Moses Isserles (“Rema”):

“(The paragraph beginning) Vayekhulu (Gen. 2:1-3) is said while standing and, after, recite (the brakhah) borei pri ha’gafen and the kiddush (i.e., the paragraph ending with m’kadesh ha’shabbat). [Rema: One can stand while making kiddush but it is preferable to sit. The custom is to sit even while saying (the introductory paragraph) vayekhulu, except that, at the very beginning we stand very briefly in honor of the Name (of God), which appears as an acronym in the initial letters (of the first four words) [Yom Hashishi Vayekhlul Hashamayim (YHVH)].”

The commentary of the Mishnah Berurah (Rabbi Israel Meir haCohen, a/k/a the Hafetz Hayyim) explains that thosewho stand do so because the act of reciting the introductory paragraph of Vayekhulu (Gen.2:1-3) is a form of giving testimony to God’s creation of the heavens and the earth and the practice, in a Jewish court, is for testimony to be given while standing. The Mishnah Berurah also explains the custom of those who sit. They do so because (as it is set forth in the Talmud, Pesahim 101a) we do not make kiddush except where the meal is eaten and, since we eat our meal seated and kiddush is part of the meal, we recite kiddush seated as well. The Vilna Gaon offers another reason for remaining seated; since it is common practice for the head of the household to make kiddush and recite on (be motzei) the others at the table who have fulfilled their obligation (been yotzei) through the head of the household, this is only possible when they are engaged in a common enterprise – i.e., the meal which they eat seated.

Thus, whether our minhag, custom, is (i) to stand, or (ii) to sit, or (iii) to stand briefly and then sit, there is not only a basis for each practice but real meaning.

Sparks for Further Discussion

  1. In what ways does Shabbat “keep the Jewish people”? What impact does the observance of Shabbat have on the Jewish family? The Jewish community? How can we strengthen Shabbat observance in our families and community?
  2. The phrase Aseret ha’Dibrot, commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments, is more accurately translated as the Ten Utterances or Ten Sayings. How many of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot can you count in the Aseret ha’Dibrot? Look at both Jewish and non-Jewish sources to see how the identification of the so-called Ten Commandments differs.
  3. The rabbis suggest that each of the commandments on the first tablet (1-5) corresponds in some manner to the commandments on the second tablet (6-10) such that #4, to remember Shabbat, is paired with #9, not to give false testimony. How does this correspondence help explain the importance of making kiddush? How does this relate to the issue of sitting or standing during the kiddush?
  4. Some sit, some stand. What other family customs do you have? Do you know the basis for those customs?

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