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Parashat Va'etchanan

Should We Stand During the Reading

of the Ten Commandments?

Prof. Eliezer Bashan

Department of Jewish History

In most congregations, it is customary to stand when the Ten Commandments are read. We also stand during the reading of the Song at the Sea (Shirat Hayam - Exodus 15:1-19), but the custom to do so during the reading of the Ten Commandments is more problematic. We will examine the sources of this practice, in an attempt to determine whether or not it should be observed.

During the Temple period the Ten Commandments were read daily in the Temple (Mishnah Tamid 5,1) and as Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro explains: "Since they are the essence of the Torah; and it would have been proper to read them each day, everywhere, but (this reading) was eliminated because of the claims of the heretics who said that they alone were given at Sinai and not the remainder of the Torah". [1] In Berachot 12a Rashi explains 'heretics'(minim) to mean 'gentiles' (acum). Rabbi Simchah of Vitry adds, "So that the disciples (of Jesus) would not say the remainder of the Torah is untrue" (Machzor Vitri, p.12). In contrast to Christian belief which believes that the Ten Commandments alone were given at Sinai, and in order to emphasize that the entire Torah was given at Sinai, we do not single out one portion of the Torah to read in the prayers.

The question of the daily recitation of the Ten Commandments arose again in Babylonia during the Gaonic period (Otzar Hagaonim, Megillah, p. 67) and also in Spain, where there was an initiative to re-instate their public reading. The Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet, 1235-1310) prohibits reciting the Ten Commandments (Responsa, part 1, §184; part 3, §289) as did later halachic authorities (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim, 1,5; Be'er Hetev and Mishnah Berurah: "because of the heretics of Israel who would say - only this is the Torah").

Arising for the reading of the Ten Commandments first appears, to the best of our knowledge, in a responsum of Maimonides which relates a dispute over this issue.

From the Query:In one community they were accustomed to stand during the reading, until a wise rabbi came there and annulled that custom, instructing them to sit when it was read and preventing them from standing ... and he[the rabbi]included in his reply that anyone who wishes to stand when the Ten Commandments are read from the Torah scroll should be reproached, because to do so is the way of heretics who believe that the Ten Commandments have more importance than the rest of the Torah, and whenever the heretics believe differently from our Rabbis, of blessed memory, we must distance ourselves from them.

Maimonides' reply: That which the late rabbi instituted, to sit, is proper and his proofs are correct... and there is nothing to add to them. And it would be proper to do this in every place where they are accustomed to stand; one should prevent them from doing so because of the possible damage to belief, as some people may imagine that there are various levels of Torah and that only some parts are exalted, and that is a very bad thing... The claim of the opposing sage that in Bagdad and several other cities they did this[i.e. stood for the Ten Commandments], is by no means a proof. For if there are sick people, we do not make the healthy sick in order to render them all equal, rather we would try to cure each sick person... The Rabbis have already taught us that there is no difference between one who denies the Divine nature of the entire Torah and one who claims that a single verse 'Moses authored on his own'. There were among the heretics(minim) those who believed that only the Ten Commandments were given from Heaven and the remainder of the Torah was said by Moses himself, therefore the daily reading of the Ten Commandments was eliminated. And it is strictly forbidden to treat part of the Torah as if more exalted than another part. (Responsa of Maimonides, Blau Edition, Jerusalem, 1960, § 263).

Despite Maimonides' unequivocal answer, popular custom prevailed and people continued to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments. For example, Rabbi Shmuel Abohav ( 1610 - 1694) was asked by the community in Reggio di Calabria, Italy, if it is correct to observe the custom of standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments. In his reply he states: "We rule to observe this custom which has spread over most of the congregations of Israel" . He justifies standing as an expression of honor and reverence, "As if we were welcoming the Holy Presence(Shechina) on this great and awesome occasion(of Matan Torah). In his opinion "there no longer exists the fear that the claims of heretics would affect believers the sons of believers". In other words, past objections to standing were no longer relevant. He sums up: "Wherever this custom is observed let people cling to the customs of their fathers since their intention is for the sake of Heaven" (D'var Shmuel, Venice, 1702, § 276).

Similarly, the Hida (Haim Yosef David Azulay, 1724 -1806) ruled: "Since all are now accustomed to stand during the Ten Commandments, it would seem that everyone must stand, for even though this is really not the law (she-eino min hadin) , since the entire community does so, it becomes obligatory for everyone. Otherwise, the masses will think that he who remains seated is doing so out of disrespect for the law, God forbid" (Tuv Ayin, #11, bound in one volume with Yosef Ometz, Leghorn, 1798). The conclusion of the Hida is that the custom to stand obligates every member of the congregation to stand, even though the law is otherwise.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef confronts the subject, aware that the popular custom was, and is, to stand, and that the later sages gave this custom halachic legitimacy. Despite all that, he takes issue with the aharonim (later halakhic authorities) and determines that one must follow the opinion of Maimonides quoted above:

There is still a danger of the claims of heretics. And in truth the holy eyes of those later Sages seem to have missed what our great Rabbi Maimonides wrote in the above mentioned responsum, that one should annul the custom of those who are accustomed to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments.

In his opinion, the authorities who permitted standing did not see Maimonides' responsum which prohibits it; had they seen it, they would not have permitted standing. His conclusion is: "One should protest against anyone who stands during the reading of the Ten Commandments and even more so in a place where Torah scholars remain seated, for then it seems as if those who stand are being overly righteous".

Since Rabbi Yosef is aware of the fact that the custom to stand is widespread, he permits standing when one's father or rabbi is called to the Torah for the reading of the Ten Commandments, in accord with the Sephardi custom to honor one's father or rabbi in this way, "since in that case it will be obvious that he is standing not especially for the Ten Commandments and therefore no problem exists". (Responsa Yechaveh Da'at, Second Edition, Jerusalem, 1977, part 1, §29). Clearly Rabbi Yosef opposes the existing popular custom of many generations to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments and wishes to return to the original custom as determined by Maimonides.

Still, the question remains open-- How should one behave when neither his father nor his rabbi are called to the Torah for the reading of the Ten Commandments and the entire congregation stands -- should he remain seated as the law requires and thus separate himself from the custom of the congregation?

Perhaps we may learn from a similar question which Maimonides answered: "The Rabbis said: 'A man should not stand among those who sit nor sit among those who stand' (Derech Eretz Zuta, 5). One must always follow the custom of the majority as long as it does not transgress an express prohibition" (Responsa, § 262). Moreover it is well known that anyone who separates himself from the custom of the majority transgresses the prohiof "you shall not form various sects"(lo titgodedu). [2]

Notes:

1. A special status for the Ten Commandments is mentioned in Masechet Sofrim, Higger Edition 12, 3, pp. 226-227: "Rabbi Simon was asked in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, nothing requires a blessing before it and after it except The Song at the Sea, the Ten Commandments and the curses in Torat Kohanim(Leviticus) and Mishneh Torah(Deuteronomy). Rabbi Abahu said: I never heard this, but it seems to be proper concerning the Ten Commandments".

2. On this subject see: D. Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael: Mekorot Vetoldot, vol.2, Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 108-113.

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