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On our anti-biblical streak

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, includes both the Shema and the Ten Commandments. As your mind inevitably wanders off at some point this morning, see if you can remember what all ten of those commandments are. It is not particularly easy for a Jew to do, and I would argue that this is because of a fundamentally anti-biblical streak within the way we are Jewish. Christians tend to be much better at remembering Bible than we are, and that is not just because they have better memories. We will return to that shortly, but first let me try to shatter an image:

When we imagine the Ten Commandments, and Moses carrying the two tablets down the mountain, the picture is clear and vivid: held aloft, one in the right hand, one in the left, with five written on one side and five on the other. But of course, one of the rabbis had to disagree: Rabbi Hanina ben Gamliel said that there were “ten on one side and ten on the other”, that is to say that they were duplicates, similar to a contract, in which a copy was made for each party. Why do we thrive on multiple interpretations like this? It is very much a Jewish game of shattering assumptions and adding another way of seeing things wherever we can find one. It means, let’s say, that nothing can be written in stone…

Who can remember reading the Ten Commandments in synagogue? Careful, that’s really going to date you. The Mishnah (Tamid 5.1) states that the Ten Commandments were recited between the Barchu and the Shema each morning and evening. They may even at that stage have been one of the texts included in the tefillin as well. But at a certain point they faded from grace, although certain prayer books have resurrected them in recent years (e.g. the British Reform prayer book, with which I grew up, added them to the build-up of the Torah service, between Eyn Kamocha and Ki Mitzion). For the longest period the Ten Commandments have only been read three times a year, and each time from the Torah: twice in the weekly Torah readings (as you know there are two versions, one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy, and there are slight but significant differences between the two), and once at Shavuot.

And why did they fall from prominence? Both Talmuds record the answer: they were dropped because of the claims and rebellion of the heretics (minim in Hebrew). The Yerushalmi says (Berachot 3c) that the minim (probably an early Christian sect) claimed that the Ten Commandments were read in shul because they were the only part of the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This, you understand, immediately relegated the rest of the Torah to a secondary status, and thereby lessened the importance of the other 603 commandments that are found in the Torah.

Similarly the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 12a) records the same argumentation, and also shows how attempts to bring it back in several cities were refuted by the very same response:

“Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: Even in the outlying areas, outside the Temple, they sought to recite the Ten Commandments in this manner every day, as they are the basis of the Torah, but they had already abolished recitation of the Ten Commandments due to the grievance of the heretics, who argued that the entire Torah, with the exception of the Ten Commandments, did not emanate from God. If the Ten Commandments were recited daily, that would lend credence to their claim, so their recitation was expunged from the daily prayers.

That was also taught in a baraita that Rabbi Natan says: In the outlying areas, they sought to recite the Ten Commandments in this manner, but they had already abolished their recitation due to the grievance of the heretics.

The Gemara relates that several Sages sought to reinstitute recitation of the Ten Commandments, as Rabba bar bar Ḥana thought to institute this in the city of Sura, but Rav Ḥisda said to him: They already abolished them due to the grievance of the heretics.

So too, Ameimar thought to institute this in the city of Neharde’a. Rav Ashi, the most prominent of the Sages in that generation, said to him: They already abolished them due to the grievance of the heretics.”

(So if Dina or Kevin - or any of you - wish to add the Ten Commandments to our morning Shacharit prayers, we must say to them: “they already abolished them due to the grievance of the heretics!”)

Going a little further, this Jewish approach contrasts very much with Christianity, which records Jesus as teaching his disciples to follow the ten commandments (e.g. Matthew 19.17-19): “Why do you ask Me about what is good?” Jesus replied, “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” the man asked. Jesus answered, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honour your father and mother, and love your neighbour as yourself.’”… that last one, of course, is not in the Ten Commandments, although it’s the golden rule familiar to many religions, including our own (Leviticus 19.18).

We almost lost the Shema to Christianity as well. In the book of Mark (12.28-31), when a scribe asked, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Again the golden rule is added on to the teaching.

However the rabbis could not let the Shema go the same way as the Ten Commandments. The Shema instructs us in its very words to repeat it morning and evening, when we lie down and when we rise up. Rather the rabbis faced the task to ensure it became an exclusively Jewish text, and not one that Christians could share as well.

Hence in the compilation of the Mishnah, between about 100 and 200 CE, the very first tractate of the Mishnah, Berachot, begins with the question, “From when do we start reciting the Shema in the evening?” (Berachot 1.1) But the one who rescued the Shema above all others, was Rabbi Akiva, who was martyred by the Romans with the words of the Shema on his lips:

“When they took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of Shema. And they were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students said to him: Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by the verse: With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged his uttering of the word: One, until his soul left his body as he uttered his final word: One. A voice descended from heaven and said: Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your soul left your body as you uttered: One.”

Berachot 61b

Thus, in bald terms, did Rabbi Akiva ensure that the Shema stayed Jewish. Those of you who prefer a little more nuance in the inter-connectedness of the development of martyrdom traditions in early Judaism and Christianity should go and read “Dying for God” by Daniel Boyarin. But in the meantime, the Shema twice a day, and the Ten Commandments thrice a year, it should be.

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