A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
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Parshat Ki Thisa 5758-1998
What was Written on the Two Tablets?
Dr. Meshulam Margaliot
(Emeritus, Dept. of Bible)
This question seems superfluous, for the Torah explicitly says that [G-d] "wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments" (Ex. 34:28). Moreover, one has but to look at the embroidered designs and representations of the Tablets found in almost every synagogue, above the ark or on the ark curtain (parochet), to see precisely (although in abbreviated form) the first five commandments on one tablet (I am the Lord..., You shall have no other..., You shall not make..., You shall not swear..., Remember..., Honor...), and the next five on the second tablet (You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness..., You shall not covet). This division is very ancient and has appeared in Jewish art for centuries; its origins apparently stem from Midrash.
In the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate de-ba-Hodesh 5) we read: "How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet and five on the other. 'I am the Lord' written across from 'You shall not murder'... This is according to R. Hanina b. Gamaliel, but the Sages say ten on one tablet and ten on the other" (Horowitz-Rabin ed., p. 233, and parallel versions listed there). The second opinion, that of the Sages, essentially means that the Ten Commandments were given in double form. There we also find a tradition of the first commandment being juxtaposed to the sixth, the second to the seventh, etc. These two traditions are maintained in Midrash Rabbah on Exodus, sec. 47.6, where the same controversy is ascribed to the Amoraim, R. Judah (arguing for five on each) and R. Nehemiah (saying there were ten on each). It should be noted that in both these midrashim and in parallel versions, no exegetical explanation of the Biblical text is given in favor of one or the other arrangement of the Ten Commandments.
How do we resolve this issue and distinguish legend from fact, or peshat from derash? To get at the peshat, or simple meaning, we must take account of the historical context in which the Ten Commandments were given. According to Ex. 19, this was done in the course of establishing a covenant-- a berit-- between the Lord and Israel. Hence, we are dealing with the text of a covenant, a type of contract between two (or more) parties. For obvious reasons, it is customary for every written contract or agreement to be issued in duplicate, each party receiving a complete copy of the agreement, contract, or covenant.
This was also the practice in the ancient Near East. The most famous example of two copies of a diplomatic agreement between two kingdoms is the treaty containing the pact made between the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite King Hattusilis III, c. 1270 B.C.E. The Egyptian copy was found in Egypt, and the Hittite one in the capital of the Hittites, in eastern Turkey. The contents of both copies are identical.
It would be reasonable for the pact made at Sinai to be issued in two copies, one for the Lord, and one for the Israelites. This practice explains why one tablet did not suffice, rather two were needed. It is self-evident that the Lord's tablet had to be placed where the Divine Presence (shechina, Biblical Hebrew kavod) was found (see Ex. 29:43 and 40:34), in the Holy Ark made specifically for this purpose: "And deposit in the Ark the Pact which I will give you" (Ex. 25:16), "He took the Pact and placed it in the ark" (Ex. 40:20). "The Pact" [edut] is used as shorthand for the "two Tablets of the Pact" (Ex. 31:18), also called shnei luchot habberit, the "two Tablets of the Covenant" (Deut. 9:15).
But what about the Israelite's copy, on the second Tablet, where was that copy placed? Here we note a common practice in the ancient Near East. When a treaty was made between parties of unequal status, the lesser partner, or vassal, would place his copy of the pact in the temple of his god, the reason being that the vassal had then to take an oath in the name of his god to "the great king." (See Ez. 17:11-19. The reference here is to the king of the Hittites, who made treaties with the rulers of smaller kingdoms in northern Syria during the first half of the first millennium B.C.E. This custom, however, undoubtedly dates much further back.)
Depositing a copy in the temple of the vassal strengthened the vassal's obligation to the greater king. In addition, sanctity was ascribed to the treaty itself, because the gods of each side were witness to the agreement: Compare Laban's words to Jacob after striking a treaty: "May the G-d of Abraham and the god of Nahor" --their ancestral deities-- "judge between us." (Gen.31:53)
Since the Israelites had the status of vassal vis-à-vis G-d and were the lesser partners to the Covenant, it was reasonable for them to file their copy of the Pact in the Holy Ark of the Lord their G-d. Thus we conclude that both Tablets were placed together in the Ark in the Tabernacle, and later in Solomon's Temple: "There was nothing inside the Ark but the two tablets of stone which Moses placed there at Horeb, when the Lord made [a covenant] with the Israelites after their departure from the land of Egypt" (I Kings 8:9).
On the basis of the above, we may conclude that each of the two Tablets was inscribed with all of the Ten Commandments, otherwise another copy of the Pact would have been needed. Secondly, the artistic tradition of dividing the Ten Commandments, five on each tablet, apparently developed in the wake of the midrash that assumes such a division. This tradition dominates Jewish synagogue art and the use of this symbol outside the synagogue, to this very day. However, ancient Near Eastern traditions and the legal rationale of making duplicate copies of agreements between two parties support the view that each of the two Tablets bore all Ten Commandments.