The Oral Law and the Two Versions of Ten Commandments

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Oral Law and the Two Versions of Ten Commandments

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

The discrepancies between the Asseret Ha-dibberot (Ten Commandments) as presented in parashat Yitro and in parashat Va-etchanan raise two related questions:

  1. What message did God give Moshe on that momentous day at Sinai, a few months after the exodus from Egypt? Did He teach the first version, the second version, or some type of combination?
  2. Which version actually was inscribed on the tablets?

Chazal's famous statement that "Zakhor and Shamor were spoken together" (referring to the different formulations of the fourth commandment) addresses the first question but not the second. Relating to both questions may enable us to gain insight into the entire episode.

Before proceeding, let us review the most salient differences between the two accounts:

  1. In the earlier version, we are commanded to "Remember the Shabbat," while in the later version we are commanded to "Guard the Shabbat."
  2. In the first dibrot, the rationale for Shabbat is to remember the Divine creation; in the second, to commemorate the exodus from Egypt.
  3. In the second account, the mitzvot of Shabbat and honoring parents include the phrase, "as the Lord your God has commanded you," which is absent from the first account.
  4. The designation of a person who offers improper testimony changes from "eid sheker" to "eid shav."
  5. The prohibition against coveting a friend's possessions employs the phrase "lo tachmod" twice in Yitro but shifts once to "lo titaveh" in Va-etchanan.
  6. In the earlier version, not coveting your fellow's house comes first, while in the latter version, not coveting your fellow's wife appears first.

There are some other, more minor discrepancies, but this list should suffice for our purpose.

I believe that of all the differences, it is the third that holds the key to correct interpretation of the entire episode. The phrase "ka'asher tzivkha Hashem Elokekha" ("as the Lord your God has commanded you") implies that God is teaching mitzvot that were taught previously. If one assumes that the account in Va-etchanan represents the very message given on Sinai, then the mitzvot of Shabbat and honoring parents must have been commanded before that point in time. On the other hand, the phrase may reveal that the version from Va-etchanan reflects an event occurring later than the first teaching of the dibberot. Indeed, Rashi and Ibn Ezra disagree about this very point.

Rashi (Devarim 5:15) explains that both Shabbat and honoring parents were taught at Mara before the revelation at Sinai. The Torah there refers to God establishing "chok u-mishpat" (statute and ordinance, Shemot 15:25), which can plausibly be understood to include the mitzvot of Shabbat and honoring parents. If so, Rashi clearly understands that the account of the dibberot in Devarim refers to the initial event and not something that occurred later. This follows Chazal's tradition that Zakhor and Shamor were said together. This explanation still leaves open the question of what was written on the tablets; we shall return to this question.

Ibn Ezra (Shemot 20:1) understands that the version in Yitro is the exclusive message given on Har Sinai. The account in Va-etchanan is Moshe's explanation and interpretation of the dibberot, which takes place some forty years later. The fact that the phrase "as the Lord your God has commanded you" appears only in Va-etchanan supports Ibn Ezra's explanation. According to Rashi's view that both versions occurred simultaneously, there seems to be no logical reason why that phrase should appear in the second version and not the first.

According to Ibn Ezra, Moshe was not freely innovating new material, but rather teasing out the implications of the Divine message. As an example of this phenomenon, he cites the episode of Yitzchak blessing Yaakov. Yitzchak tells Eisav that he would like to bless his elder son before he dies. When Rivka repeats this to Yaakov, she adds the phrase, "before God." Ibn Ezra explains that Rivka understood that Yitzchak was a prophet and that the blessings would be performed under prophetic inspiration. If so, "before God" was truly implicit in Yitzchak's initial statement. Similarly, with regard to the dibberot, Moshe's additions uncover the implicit message of an earlier Divine command.

Zakhor (remember) implies that there is another component to the mitzva of Shabbat, because one remembers in order to do something. Thus, Moshe was able to explain that guarding was included in the original mandate of remembering. The change in the rationale for Shabbat can be explained in a similar fashion. God had taught that even slaves must rest on Shabbat. Since God had not offered an explanation for this law, Moshe explained that slaves rest because one aspect of Shabbat is remembering our freedom from the slavery in Egypt. In both of these examples, the first version of the dibberot left some aspects unclear, and Moshe clarified the matter when he retold the dibberot with added clarifications.

Ibn Ezra has an interesting explanation for the change in order of the items we are not to covet. God wanted to teach us the proper sequence in life: a man should acquire a house before he gets married. Moshe, however, focused on a youth's growing temptation to covet. Therefore, he placed the wife first, because young men are jealous of another's wife before they are jealous of another's house. In this last example, Moshe was not working out the implications of the earlier Divine message. Rather, he was making a different educational point.

Thus far, we have seen two basic approaches. Ibn Ezra holds that the message given to Moshe at Sinai and written on the tablets was the version in Yitro. The account in Va-etchanan is Moshe's later version, which adds his interpretations and elaborations. In contrast, Rashi views both versions as stemming from the same historical event. We shall now explore Rashi's position in greater depth. According to his view, what was written on the tablets?

Ibn Ezra cites Rav Saadia Gaon's opinion that each tablet contained one version of the dibberot. We usually assume that five dibberot appeared on each tablet, but Rav Saadia maintains that the version in Yitro appeared on one tablet and the version in Va-etchanan appeared on the other. His view removes all distinctions between the status of the two versions. Both versions were spoken and written at the same point in Jewish history.

Ramban suggests a different possibility. Although the commandments as spoken may have contained both accounts, the written tablets incorporated only the version in Yitro, and Moshe explained to the people that an oral tradition (the version in Va-etchanan) accompanied the written message. If so, the two versions do in fact differ in status: the first is written Torah, while the latter constitutes a kind of oral Torah. Of course, the latter oral tradition became written Torah when it was incorporated into sefer Devarim. Yet its initial status was oral Torah in relation to the written word on the tablets.

Employing a different model, R. Yaakov Kaminetsky (Emet Le-Yaakov, Va-etchanan) views the relationship between the two versions as "keri u-ketiv:" one version presents what was written in the tablets, and the other presents the way it was pronounced. Although he makes a suggestion as to which was written and which pronounced, R. Yaakov does not think that one can conclusively determine this issue. His position lies somewhere between that of Rav Saadia and that of Ramban. He differs from Ramban in opining that both accounts are in some way part of the written text, and he differs from Rav Saadia in maintaining that only one version actually appeared on the tablets.

The Netziv (Devarim 5:19) offers one last explanation. He agrees with Ramban that Moshe heard both versions and that only the Yitroversion appeared on the tablets when first given. However, he argues that the after Moshe broke the first tablets, the second set of tablets contained the version appearing in Va-etchanan. He proves his thesis from a gemara in Bava Kama (55a). The gemara explains that the word "tov" appears in the dibberot in Va-etchanan and not in the dibberot in Yitro because the first tablets were destined to break. This gemara clearly identifies the account in Va-etchanan with the second set of tablets.

We have now seen a number of approaches to our initial questions. According to Rav Saadia, both versions appeared on the tablets. According to R. Yaakov Kaminetsky, one version was written and the other was how the words were read. Ramban thinks that the account in sefer Devarim was an oral tradition that went along with the written words in parashat Yitro. The Netziv thinks that this oral account was written on the second set of tablets. Finally, Ibn Ezra holds that the later account was not even taught orally, but rather represented Moshe's understanding of the original message.

A common theme emerges from the approaches of Ramban, Netziv and Ibn Ezra: Torah she-be'al peh, the Oral Law. Although one can subdivide the Oral Law in many ways, we can say in general that the Oral Law includes two broad categories. First, the Written Torah was given together with a distinct and specific body of additional Torah. Secondly, the Oral Law includes principles which enable human beings to explain, expand, elaborate and elucidate the Written Law. With regard to the first category, the Sages transmit what they learned. With regard to the second category, the Sages employ traditional methodology to create new material.

Ramban and Ibn Ezra divide neatly into these two categories. According to Ramban, the written tablets were accompanied by oral additions, and it is these additions that appear in Va-etchanan. Ibn Ezra utilizes the other kind of Torah she-be'al peh, as he sees the later dibberot as Moshe's interpretation of the written tablets. Thus, both commentaries agree that the first giving of the tablets already initiated the process of the Oral Law.

Netziv's interpretation fits in with this theme, since he views the second tablets as symbolizing the human component in Torah (see his commentary to Shemot 34:1). This is highlighted by the fact that God makes the former set of tablets, while Moshe personally carves out the latter. If so, the choice to write the original oral message on the second tablets is perfect: one of the original components of oral law is inscribed on the tablets that represent the oral law.

Finally, the placement of the second version in sefer Devarim also coheres beautifully. Indeed, all of Devarim is Moshe's explanations and elaborations of earlier parts of Torah. To be sure, it was God who decided to incorporate this material into the Torah. Yet it remains true that Devarim includes a greater human element than the other sections of Chumash. Rav Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Bereishit, page 41) refers to Devarim as the "shoresh" (root) of Torah she-be'al peh. It emerges that the second version of the dibberot is placed exactly where it belongs: in the section of Chumash which most reflects the human component of the oral law.

The above highlights the centrality of the Oral Law in Judaism. Even before God had finished teaching the Torah, the Oral Law was a necessary part of the Halakha. The Asseret Ha-dibberot came with their own oral tradition, and also generated the human search for comprehension and understanding.




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