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The Ten Comandments: Part II

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Last week, we studied the Torah portion dealing with the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, we learned that while only ten commandments were revealed, the people actually saw the entire Torah. When presented with the possibility of having God explain to them the Torah in detail, they failed to live up to the opportunity.

This week the people receive many more commandments, in fact the central torts of Jewish Law are presented in this week's Torah portion. At the end, Moses is invited to ascend the mountain in order to receive the content of the revelation:

God said to Moses, 'Ascend to me up the mountain, and be there, and I will give you the tablets of stone, the Torah, and the command, which I have written ...' [Exodus 24:12]

Rashi tells us that this happened after the giving of the Torah. An obvious question then arises: If Moses already witnessed the revelation what then was the purpose of his ascension?


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According to rabbinic understanding, when Moses goes up the mountain, he receives far more than the tablets of stone. Indeed, the verse cited above would indicate a much broader revelation. The term tablets of stone seems self evident -- obviously referring to the Ten Commandments, as etched in stone by God -- but what is the Torah or command, and what does the term which I have written refer to.

This verse is clearly pregnant with meaning. Aside from the problem of defining each term, there is the additional problem of a dangling participle -- the term which I have written seems disjointed from whatever it is supposed to be modifying.

In the Talmud we are told:

And Rav Levi bar Chama taught in the name of Rav Shimon ben Lakish: What does the verse mean? Tablets refers to the Ten Commandments. Torah is scripture, the Five Books of Moses. Command is Mishna. Which I have written are the works of the Prophets and other Writings. To instruct thereof is the Talmud. This teaches us that all [the above] were given to Moses from Sinai. [Brachot 5a]

According to this passage, the entire corpus of what we call Torah -- Written, Oral and all the Commentaries -- was given to Moses at Sinai.

While this teaching seems quite clear and straight forward, some obvious questions arise.

For one, Moses ascends to Sinai in the first couple months following the Exodus. But the Five Books of Moses contain narrative which will unfold over the next forty years. Of course, we could simply say that Moses was a prophet, and therefore was privy to all sorts of things which the average intellect is incapable of. But, while this is surely the case, some things don't add up.


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If Moses was aware of the disastrous results of sending the spies why would he send them? Or, if Moses was aware of the consequences, why would Moses strike the rock? And if we would posit that Moses had no choice, that he had to play out the script, then how could he be held responsible for his actions?

If Moses had to play out the script, then how could he be held responsible for his actions?

To put the question in different terms: the Torah consists of both narrative and law, how can we imagine that Moses received narrative of effects of disobeying the law -- effects which had not as yet transpired, and indeed, arguably did not have to transpire?

Had the Jews not sinned in the desert in the incident of the spies, then they would not have had to remain in the desert for 40 years, which would then call into question the necessity of the entire Book of Numbers (Bamidbar, In the Wilderness, in Hebrew).

Obviously the same question may be posed regarding the books of the Prophets and the other writings. Regarding the Mishna and Talmud, it is likewise difficult to understand how Moses could have received these documents in total, replete with names of later authorities, millennia before their birth.


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It is interesting to note that when Moses does descend from the mountain, the Torah describes the scene as follows:

He turned, and Moses descended from the mountain and the two tablets of testimony were in his hand, stones written on both sides, from this and that side they were written. And the tablets were the act of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. [Exodus 32:15-16]

Apparently no reference is made to anything else other than the tablets of stone.

Likewise, when Moses descends the second time, the description reads:

He was there with God for forty days and forty nights ... and he wrote on the tablets the word of the covenant, the Ten Statements. When Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and the two tablets of testimony were in Moses' hand, when he descended from the mount, Moses did not know that a his face shined with rays of light as a result of [God] speaking with him. [Exodus 34:28-29]

So again, Moses does not descend the mountain holding a Torah scroll.

However, it is worthwhile to note a subsequent passage in the text:

Afterward, the entire children of Israel came closer, and he (Moses) commanded them, all the things which God spoke with him on Mount Sinai. [Exodus 34:32]

This verse clearly indicates that while perhaps in written form all that Moses received was the Ten Commandments, there was other things taught to Moses, verbally, or orally.


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While until now we have been focusing on the school of thought that teaches that Moses received the entire corpus of Jewish knowledge on Mt. Sinai, there is another opinion expressed in the Midrash.

The verse in question, which the Midrash focuses on, precedes the golden calf episode:

And [God] gave to Moses, when He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of the Lord. [Exodus 31:18]

The Midrash attaches a great deal of import to the word finished :

Did Moses [finish] learning the entire Torah? It says in (describing) the Torah (in Job 11) that it is longer than land and broader than the sea. Did Moses learn all this in forty days? Rather God taught Moses principles. This is what the verse means by finished. (Midrash Raba 41:6)

This Midrash paints a radically different picture than the previous teaching. Instead of implying that Moses learnt all of the torah in a literal sense, it suggests that Moses learnt only the principles.

However, we must ask: are these two opinions really contradictory? One might easily posit that they are complementary.

Perhaps Moses indeed learned the entire corpus of Jewish knowledge, but not in the detailed form. For example, the question that we raised above regarding, foreknowledge of events, perhaps Moses only knew the principles of theological truth, which those narratives teach, without having had specific knowledge of the details of future events.

It is an axiom in Torah that all teachings must conform with the teachings of Moses.

It is an axiom in Torah that all teachings must conform with the teachings of Moses. If any later prophet were to contradict Moses that teaching would be invalid, and therefore heretical. All later teachings which are accurate are in accordance with the principles which God taught Moses at Sinai. Surely when it comes to practical law, God taught Moses many details, but this Midrash is teaching that in some instances God taught Moses principles without going into every application of law which could result at some time in the future.


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This insight will help us understand a statement by Maimonides in his introduction to the Mishna Torah:

All the commandments which were given to Moses at Sinai were given with explanations, as it says 'I will give you, the tablets of stone, the Torah, and the command, which I have written to instruct thereof.' Torah is the Oral Torah. Command is the explanation. We are commanded to fulfill the Torah according to the command; this command is called the Oral Torah. The entire Torah was written by Moses Our Teacher, prior to his death, by his hand. A copy was given to each tribe, and a copy was placed in the ark ... The command, the explanation, was not written, rather it was taught to the elders, Joshua, and the rest of Israel. [Introduction, Mishna Torah]

Maimonides is clearly conceptualizing the Talmudic passage cited above. According to him, Moses indeed received far more than the Ten Commandments. He received the entire Oral Tradition! But what is fascinating in this line of thought is that Moses receives the Oral Tradition at Sinai, even though the written Torah was not written until the just before his death.


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The written Torah in the form which we know today was produced before the death of Moses on the east bank of the Jordan River, not at Sinai. The oral Torah, which is obviously interconnected with written Torah, was given to Moses at an earlier juncture.

The oral Torah, which is interconnected with written Torah, was given to Moses at an earlier juncture.

The nature of the inter-relationship of the written and oral is a topic which transcends this piece. Nonetheless we have seen that Moses when descending the Mountain had in hand only the tablets of stone, yet when invited to ascend the mountain Moses was promised much more.

The Beis Halevi [Drasha 18] gives us an incredible interpretation. He states that the original tablets written by the hand of God indeed contained far more information than the subsequent set. Had it not been for the sin of the golden calf there never would have been a distinction between the Oral Torah and the written Torah.


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The Midrash recounts that when Moses came down and saw the golden calf, the letters of the tablets floated heavenward.

As we saw above, the second set of tablets is written by Moses instead of by the finger of God.

Once the second set of tablets were given, there was created a distinction between the Oral Torah and the written Torah.

After writing the second set of tablets, we read that Moses begins to glow.

According to the Yalkut Shimoni, the glow on Moses was from the leftover ink in his quill.

The Beit Halevi explains that the leftover ink refers to that which was included in the first set of tablets but which was missing from the second, namely the Oral Torah.


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Now we can also understand the dangling participle of the passage we noted earlier:

'I will give you, the tablets of stone, the Torah, and the command, which I have written ... '

In truth God had indeed written all of those things, the problem is that we never received it in that form.

If we recall the teaching which we learned last week, that God had wished to give the people the entire Torah at Sinai including all 613 Commandments, but the people flinched and did not seize the moment, we see a repetition of the same theme here.

God wished to directly give the people the entire Torah, but again they weren't ready.

Interestingly, we refer in the liturgy of Shavuot to the day on which the Torah was given, rather than the day on which the Torah was received.

According to the Midrash, the real day of receiving the Torah is the day when Moses came down from the mountain the second time, which was of course none other than Yom Kippur.

The day that Jews accept the Torah is the day of massive forgiveness on the part of God.

The day that Jews accept the Torah is the day of massive forgiveness on the part of God.

Of course every day can and should be for us a day of receiving the Torah. The Midrash teaches that we are always to remember Sinai and view everyday as if it was the day that the Torah was given. Moreover we should see everyday as if on that day the Torah will be received by us.

That was the original intention of God -- that He give us the entire Torah, and that we receive it, and live it.

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