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Torah Sparks

February 10, 2007 – 22 Shevat 5767

Annual: Ex. 18:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial: Ex. 19:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 436; Hertz p. 290)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6:9:5-6 (Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Parashat Yitro features two sources of wisdom. The first source is Jethro – in Hebrew, Yitro – Moses’ father-in-law. The second source, showcased within our parashah, is the Almighty, giving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

Not long after the exodus from Egypt, Yitro visits Moses, bringing along Moses’ wife, Tziporah, and their two sons, who apparently had been staying with Yitro during the trying times of the plagues. Yitro observes Moses at work on a typical day. He notes that Moses spends his entire day on judicial and political matters, without delegating any of these tasks. Yitro tells his son-in-law that he will surely wear himself out by continuing in this manner, and that obviously will be harmful to Moses and ultimately not helpful to the Israelites. He makes specific recommendations about how Moses can delegate certain tasks, while still retaining the authority to do that which he is uniquely qualified to do. Moses adopts these recommendations.

At the start of Sivan, the third month since the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites entered the wilderness of Sinai. Now, in their seventh week since gaining freedom, they have yet to be imbued with a divinely ordained sense of purpose. God challenges the Israelites to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Moses directs the elders to prepare the people, over a period of three days, to receive the word of God. When the appointed day arrives, God appears amidst thunder and lightning, and Moses is called upon to ascend Mount Sinai.

God enunciates the Ten Commandments. The people, overwhelmed by this divine revelation, beseech Moses to mediate between them and God. The closing verses of our parashah impart some specifications for the altar that is to be constructed for divine worship.

Issue #1: The Centrality of the Ten Commandments

Most Jews recognize that the Ten Commandments have constituted one of the essential foundations of Judaism throughout the generations. Even in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, when Judaism was long on sacrifices and short on liturgy, the Ten Commandments were recited daily by the kohanim in the Temple.

The superintendent said to them [the kohanim], pronounce one blessing [one of the blessings before the Shema] and they did so: they then recited the Ten Commandments, and the first, second and third sections of the Shema… (Mishnah: Tamid 5:1)

That section likely sounds familiar; after the destruction of the Temple, the sparse liturgy of the Temple became the core around which our subsequent liturgy was built.

Yet it did not take long before the Ten Commandments were removed from the daily prayer service. It is even possible that this occurred while the Temple was still functioning – in other words, it is possible that the Ten Commandments could be recited only in the Temple, where ritual and its context were well-defined, not in outside locations, where a different spin might be applied to them.

The Talmud provides a list of the prayers that made up the liturgy of the morning service inside the Temple proper, as recited by the kohanim. As noted in Berakhot 12a, they recited the Ten Commandments, the declaration that is the Shema’s first paragraph, and the two other sections of the Shema that follow it, which begin “And it shall come to pass if ye diligently hearken” and “And the Lord said.” They continued with “True and firm,” the paragraph that follows the Shema; the Avodah, or sacrificial liturgy; and the priestly benediction, or birkat kohanim. The Talmud continues with this note:

Rab Judah said in the name of Samuel: Outside the Temple also people wanted to do the same, but they were stopped on account of the insinuations of the Minim [the sectarians].

Similarly it has been taught: R. Nathan says, They sought to do the same outside the Temple, but it had long been abolished on account of the insinuations of the Minim. Rabbah b. Bar Hanah had an idea of instituting this in Sura, but R. Hisda said to him, It had long been abolished on account of the insinuations of the Minim. Amemar had an idea of instituting it in Nehardea, but R. Ashi said to him, It had long been abolished on account of the insinuations of the Minim.”

This restriction on reciting the Ten Commandments was “due to the twisting of the sectarians.” It would appear that the sectarians – early Christians who after all were a group breaking away from mainstream Judaism – sought to portray the Ten Commandments as essential principles, to the exclusion of hundreds of other commandments.

Requests to revive the Ten Commandments as part of the daily liturgy resurfaced periodically, even as late as the middle ages, from earnest Jews loyal to tradition. A compromise response was that the Ten Commandments could be read, especially privately, as an introduction or a postscript to the service, but not as a central section of the service.

In those synagogues that follow a twentieth-century triennial cycle of Torah readings, an effort has been made to have the Ten Commandments read as part of Parashat Yitro more often than once every three years. A paper on this system is available here.

The Ten Commandments certainly are a central part of much legal discussion in our day. From classroom to courtroom, these few verses, or perhaps the parallel version in Deuteronomy, have been seen as representing the core of the American Judeo-Christian traditions. Yet it is fair to say that within the Jewish tradition, we do not give that kind of focus to the Ten Commandments.

Do you think that we should give even more prominence to the Ten Commandments within our synagogues and/or homes? Bearing in mind the historical reasons for our reluctance to showcase the Ten Commandments, what might be some appropriate ways to call attention to the commitments embodied within them?

With a great deal of secular society paying so much attention to the Ten Commandments, what kind of focus should we put on the study of the Ten Commandments? Is there a problem with the widespread display of biblical texts that we, too, hold sacred?

Issue #2: What Were They Thinking

Ever since the days when large numbers of Jews lived in Babylonia, there has been a system for reading through all five books of the Torah, congregationally, in a single year. We also know that there was an ancient three-year cycle among Jews living in Israel. In the twentieth century, Jews in America, knowing that tradition, began to experiment with a modified triennial cycle. For more information, click here.

We are also aware that Christians sometimes look at our Bible in a different way than we do. Even so, it is a bit surprising that a major English-language commentary on the Bible, Doubleday’s Anchor Bible, divided the book of Exodus into two volumes. The division point was in the middle of parashat Yitro. The first volume covers chapters 1 through 18, while the second volume covers chapters 19 through 40.

Because the two systems divide the book differently, it is only fair to ask of each system what internal logic motivated its choice:

  1. Why did the rabbis of ancient Babylonia choose to group Chapter 18 with Chapters 19 and 20, rather than connecting it to the previous chapters?
  2. Let us assume that the division of the volumes in the Anchor Bible was based on a philosophical rather than a book-binding decision. Why did the editors see Chapter 18 as belonging with the previous chapters, rather than as an introduction to Chapters 19 and 20?

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