The Decalogue in Rabbinic Literature

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dr. Malka Simkovich

This week’s parsha features a passage that in many ways, is the most central document in Israelite history. This passage, Exodus 20:1–13, is known as the Decalogue, or The Ten Commandments (although some of these commandments are actually statements). In the centuries following the dramatic moment of divine revelation at Sinai, the Decalogue took hold as the central articulation of Israelite theology.  Its contents, along with the ethical injunctions in Vayikra 19, were paraphrased and referenced in many passages preserved in biblical prophetic literature. And by the Second Temple period, the Decalogue was not only a central idea, but a liturgical document.  Despite its importance in the biblical and late Second Temple periods, the Decalogue is not preserved in rabbinic liturgy. Nor is it of central theological interest in rabbinic literature. While its verses have retained an important place in Jewish tradition, they have also been eclipsed by a different statement, one uttered not by God,  but by Moshe. This passage is, of course, the Shema (Deut 6:4–9). In order to understand why the Shema came to replace the Decalogue, it is helpful to explore how Jews and early Christians living during this period related to this text.

In the Second Temple period, the Decalogue had pride of place in Jewish thought and liturgy. Tefillen discovered at Qumran, the archaeological site adjacent to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, contain parchment that records both the Shema and the Decalogue. These tefillen were likely used in the first century BCE or first century CE, when the Qumran sect flourished. Other Jewish documents written during these two centuries also mention the Decalogue. The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a wisdom text that was written in Greek by a Jew who probably lived in Alexandria, Egypt, opens with a paraphrasing of the Decalogue: the writer mentions every injunction of the ten commandments except the proscription to keep the Sabbath (Pseudo-Phocylides, 1–18).  A second document, which is part of a twelve-book collection probably written and assembled by Jews in the late Second Temple period called The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, also paraphrases the Decalogue (Testament of Issachar 5:1-5). Even the great first century CE Jewish Philosopher Philo of Alexandria was fascinated with the Decalogue: he wrote an entire treatise devoted to interpreting it.

Early Christian documents whose authors had not fully severed their ties to Judaism referred to the Decalogue as an authoritative text that was foundational to their faith. The early Christian text written in Greek known as the Didache, was written in the late first or second century, cites the twelve apostles of Jesus as paraphrasing the Decalogue to their students. Likewise, the third century Christian document called the Didascalia, which also purports to record the teachings of the apostles, does the same (Didache 2:1–3; Didascalia 26:9–10).

But by the early rabbinic period, the Decalogue was falling out of favor in some Jewish circles. Even as Christians were making reference to the Decalogue, Jews were disputing whether to recite it regularly in their synagogues.

The decision to stop reciting the Decalogue after the Shema is well documented. The Bavli explains that the daily liturgy used to comprise the Decalogue, the Shema, and the Amidah, but the recitation of the Decalogue was abolished because of the heretics (minim) (b. Berakhot 12a). Perhaps the concern was that the heretics would argue that the recitation of the Decalogue proved that only the portions of the Torah that the Israelites heard directly from God were true (Rashi on Berakhot 12a). Or perhaps the rabbinic concern was that reading the Decalogue would affirm sectarian claims that only the Written Law was authoritative, whereas the Oral Law was not. But these explanations do not explain why the Shema continued to be recited. After all, the Shema is part of the Written Law as well.

Perhaps the reason why the Decalogue fell out of favor in lieu of the Shema is that for the most part, the Decalogue comprises ethical instructions that, with the exception of the injunction to keep the Sabbath, all of humankind are expected to observe, whereas the Shema is a theological statement that affirms the election of Israel by God. By the early rabbinic period, the seven Noahide laws had taken form  which included some of the statements of the Decalogue (t.Abodah Zara 9:4; b.Sanhedrin 56a; earlier articulations of these laws in the second century BCE document Jubilees 7:20–21, as well as Sibylline Oracle 4:24–39, a document probably composed in the late Second Temple period). This led towards a sense that the Decalogue had universalist elements in it.

Even the mention of the Sabbath in the Decalogue would not have necessarily been viewed by the rabbis as particularistic. In the Roman period, many Gentiles observed the Sabbath without converting to Judaism. These people were called God-fearers (see, for instance, Juvenal, Satires, 14.96–106). The Decalogue, then, may have been viewed as potentially applicable to all of humankind from start to finish.

A second difference between the Decalogue and the Shema is that the Decalogue is a document that was spoken by God, whereas the Shema was spoken by Moshe. The Shema, then, represents the affirmation of all Israelites to commit themselves to a covenantal relationship, whereas the Decalogue represents the divine injunction to do so.

Given the fact that the Decalogue has been subjugated to the Shema, how might we appreciate its importance in our tradition today?

I believe that both the Decalogue and the Shema are foundational to Jewish thought. At the moment that the Israelites were leaving Egypt and making the transition from slavery to freedom, they needed to hear a universalist message: a message that while they were chosen by the One True God to be His elect people, this same God that had just chosen them had jurisdiction over the entire world. Indeed, the major trope of the Exodus story is that God controls the entire earth (see, among others, Exodus 8:6, 8:18, 9:14, 9:29, 10:2, 14:1, 14:18). Forty years later, a new generation of Israelites on the cusp of entering into Israel needed to hear a different message: As they entered the an unknown land, aware that they were embarking on inevitable military conflicts and the loss of their main conduit to God, Moshe, the Israelites needed to hear that God was committed to a relationship with them that, while it could include suffering as punishment for sins, would endure for perpetuity.

The community of Israelites who entered the land of Israel and their descendants held fast to the idea that God was committed to an eternal relationship with them. This relationship was reflected in the relational text of the Shema, in which the Israelites affirmed that God was our God, rather than the Decalogue, which affirmed that God was the God—the God who had taken the Israelites out of Egypt. Since the Decalogue was spoken by God and the Shema was spoken by Moshe, the Shema represented the Israelite side of the covenantal relationship—the side that required the Israelites to continually affirm their identities in light of their connection to God.  

The rabbis understood that the Decalogue and the Shema were given at different turning points in Israelite history, bore different theological messages, and reflected two different voices. Aware that non-rabbinic communities were espousing views that they regarded as heretical, and that these same communities were laying claim to their holy texts, the rabbis turned to the document that they believed represented their own voice, and their own commitment to serving God, rather than the voice of God that proscribed them to do so.

Shabbat shalom!

Dr. Malka Simkovich (SBM 2006) is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.



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