Shavuot: The Shnei Luchot HaBrit
Students explore a theory regarding the division of the Commandments onto two tablets.
Follow the instructions in bold below to adapt this lesson for a virtual classroom.
The Torah teaches us that the Ten Commandments were on two tablets (Luchot HaBrit). The Midrash offers two opinions as to what was written on each tablet. The commonly accepted opinion, as is evidenced by the way the Luchot are pictured in synagogues and textbooks, is that the first five commandments were written on one tablet and the second five were written on the other. The second opinion states that the Ten Commandments were written twice, ten on one tablet, and ten on the other.
In this lesson, we will examine this position and try to understand why the tablets may have been split up in this manner. Dr. Meshulam Margaliot of the Bar-Ilan University Bible Department has written an excellent article on this topic. It can be found here and will be referred to during the lesson.
This lesson does not try to argue that one opinion is correct; rather, it examines one of the theories to encourage critical and creative thinking on the part of the students.
The student will be able to:
1. List the Ten Commandments.
2. Describe the setup of the Commandments according to the Rabbis.
3. Describe the setup of the Commandments according to Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel.
4. Describe the thematic connection between parallel commandments, according to Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel’s approach.
The student will:
1. Analyze the text carefully.
The student will appreciate that:
1. There are shivim panim LaTorah (seventy faces of the Torah), i.e. that there is more than one interpretation of the text.
2. Man’s duties to his fellow man are on an equal pedestal to those of man’s duties to God.
Resources & Equipment needed
Worksheet (included in the appendix, or here) – printed and passed out to students or, for a virtual classroom, emailed to students in advance to print out and fill in throughout the class.
Source sheet for Hebrew readers (included in appendix) or here, for a virtual classroom.
Hand out or email the worksheet (included in the appendix below) and work through the questions below.
Suggested Answer for Question 1
The students will probably automatically assume that five commandments were written on each tablet. If this occurs, point out that they should ignore any prior knowledge they may have of this subject and make a decision based purely on what the verses say.
The purpose of this is to force the students to read and evaluate the verses without any biases. It is actually unclear from the verses (hence, the disagreement), how the tablets were laid out. The text merely says that the Ten Commandments were written down on the two tablets.
Suggested Answer for Question 2
This is a “do you think” question and therefore, any answer the students bring is correct, as long as they have thought about it. The purpose of this question is twofold. First, the students should realize that the commonly accepted opinion is not necessarily the correct one. You could point out that this controversy is argued in numerous other places in the Midrash, sometimes with different rabbis arguing each case. Note also that that none of the commentators actually imply that the popular opinion is correct.
Additionally, this is a good time to emphasize shivim panim la’Torah – the seventy faces of the Torah – Torah text can be interoperated in a variety of ways. You should go over the basic points of Dr. Margaliot’s lecture: even today it is standard procedure to write contracts (as the Ten Commandments were) in duplicate and to give a copy to each party. Each party then receives a copy. The Israelites put their copy into their holiest shrine, i.e. the Ark of the Covenant, while God’s copy was placed in His “home”, i.e. the Ark of the Covenant. Dr. Margaliot uses ancient sources from contemporary cultures to argue that the Rabbis’ opinion is indeed the correct opinion. Nevertheless, in this lesson, we will be examining the values that can be learned from popular opinion.
Suggested Answer for Question 3
You could spend a lot of time discussing each commandment. Be careful not to become too sidetracked. You should, however, mention that each commandment is merely a headline for all that it contains, a plethora of other commandments. Prepare an overhead projector and a slide with the answers, in advance of the lesson.
- Belief in God
- Forbidding Murder
- Forbidding Idol Worship
- Forbidding Adultery
- Forbidding Blasphemy
- Forbidding Theft
- Observing Shabbat
- Forbidding Perjury
- Honoring Parents
- Forbidding Jealousy
Suggested Answer for Question 4
This is another “Why do you think” question and therefore any suggestion the students give can be correct as long as they justify it properly. Ask the students to be creative in their responses. A natural division of the Ten Commandments, according to the Hertz commentary, is into man’s duties towards God and man’s duties to his fellow man. Students may question why “Honoring Parents” appears in man’s duties towards God section. You could merely say that honoring one’s parents “is among the Commandments engraved on the first tablet, the laws of piety towards God because parents stand in the place of God, so far as their children are concerned” (Hertz on Shemot 20:12).
(If you feel that you need to go over it in more detail, you could show them the following source: “We have learned: There are three partners in the creation of a fetus in its mother’s womb: the Holy One, blessed be He, the father and the mother. The father fertilizes the egg with white cells that form the brain, the fingers the whites of the eye, the bones, and the ligaments. The mother fertilizes it with red cells, which form the blood, the skin, the flesh, the hair, and the black of the eyes. Then God gives it the ten following things: a spirit, a soul, the shape of the face, the looks, the audio ability, the power of speech, the hands and feet motor movements, wisdom, understanding, perception, knowledge, and strength….” Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet Chapter 5)
This division explains why the first five commandments all have a rationale for the commandment. The second five commandments need no explanation for it is obvious that murder, adultery, etc are forbidden. By inscribing them on separate tablets adjacent to each other, the Torah is placing man’s duties to his fellow man on an equal pedestal to those of man’s duties towards God. The commandment forbidding murder is not commandment number six, but number one, on an equal footing as “I am the Lord your God”. This division proclaims that the duties between Man and his fellow Man are of equal importance as to those duties between Man and God.
Suggested Answer for Question 5
The Midrash explains that the adjacent commandments are related to each other. In brief, keeping the laws between Man and God will have a positive effect on one’s relationships with one’s fellow Man and vice versa, while breaking either type of law will have a negative effect on the other.
Suggested Answer for Question 6
The following explains the relationship between each adjacent commandment. The explanations are based on the Midrash but may not fit in exactly with the explanations that the Midrash brought. Some of these explanations may also be hard to justify. You could remind the students that this explanation was offered by Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel and that it provides us with some interesting parallels. However, if they cannot come to terms with it, they may prefer the Rabbis’ opinion.
(i): Belief in God– Corresponds to –(vi): Murder. Man was made in the Image of God, hence someone who defiles another person, is in effect, also defiling God. So too, someone who shows no respect for God’s authority might also show no respect for the authority of Man.
(ii) Forbidding Idol Worship– Corresponds to –(vii) Forbidding Adultery. Both these commandments are related to loyalty and betrayal. Betraying God is as “hurtful” to God, as a betrayal of one’s spouse is to the spouse.
(iii): Forbidding Blasphemy– Corresponds to — (viii): Forbidding Theft. The connection between these two commandments is less obvious than those of the other. Attacking God’s name is akin to attacking His reputation, i.e. what belongs to Him, His property. Therefore, one must respect what belongs to others, i.e. their property.
(iv): Keeping Shabbat– Corresponds to— (ix) Forbidding Perjury. Keeping Shabbat is giving testimony and showing faith that God created the world. Breaking Shabbat is, therefore, tantamount to bringing false testimony.
(v): Honoring Parents — Corresponds to — (x): Forbidding Jealousy. It is very difficult for people not to be even slightly jealous of another’s success. However, parents always delight in their offspring’s success and dream of them being even more successful than they were. Just as parents are delighted in their children’s success, so too, must be delighted in the success of others. Students may ask why jealousy is forbidden when God proclaims Himself to be a Jealous God (2nd Commandment). Concerning that type of jealousy, the Torah uses the root “kna” whilst here the root is “hmd”. Jealousy that spurs a striving to be better, i.e. “kna” is a positive use of this energy. However, “hmd” just causes bitterness and is a negative use of this trait.
This question is for summary purposes alone, to ensure that the students have understood the lesson.