'Ekev': The 10 Commandments
and the Tablets of the Law

Presented by David P. Stern 23 August 1997 in Greenbelt, Maryland


[* indicates where Hebrew text may be inserted]

      Today's Torah reading of Ekev continues the speech of Moses, exhorting the children of Israel to keep God's commandments and reminding them of all they had gone through during their 40 years in the desert. In last week's reading Moses recounted the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, in today's he continues with the story of the golden calf, the breaking of the first set of tablets and the making of the second set.

      But as it happens, this version of the commandments is not identical to the one written in the book of Exodus. Having two versions of the 10 commandments reminds one of the old saying:

  • if you have a watch, you know what the time is;
  • if you have two watches, you no longer do
Because, if the watches disagree (which is quite likely!), which of them do you trust?

      The differences between the two versions are small--but God's words, like the time of the day, are supposed to be perfect. So we may well wonder, what did God say--remember the day of Sabbath, or keep the day of Sabbath? The first is in Exodus, the second in this portion of Devarim.

      Thou shalt not be a lying witness against your fellow-man, or, a false witness? Thou shalt not covet your neighbor's house, or not desire your neighbor's house? And while both versions command "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife"--was she mentioned after your neighbor's house or before it?

      No one knows the answer, and maybe these are some of the things that will be cleared up by the prophet Elijah before the final day of judgement. One tradition concerning the day of Sabbath was that God uttered a single word, which meant both "keep"   *    and "remember"   *    , which is why on Friday night we sing in "Lecha Dodi"

    "Keep and remember in one divine word"         *

There is one major difference between the versions, and it also concerns the day of Sabbath. In Exodus--Ch. 20, v. 11--the 4th commandment is explained in these words


          "For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth,
         the sea and all that is in them,
    and He rested on the seventh day.
         Therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath and sanctified it."

          Very clear and explicit, but also quite different from what modern geology might tell. If it weren't for the words from Mt.Sinai--if the story of creation were only found at the beginning of the book of Genesis--one might argue that this was just a symbolic story, not to be taken literally.

          If however these are the very words of God, what is one to make of them?

          But wait! None of this appears in the second version! In Devarim, Ch. 5, v. 14, quite a different reason is given. Let me start at the end of verse 14:

      ...in order that thy man-slave and woman-slave
            may rest as well as thou.
      And thou shalt remember,
            that thou wast a slave in the land of Egypt,
      and the LORD thy God brought thee out of there,
            with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
      Therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep
            the Sabbath day.


    Quite a different reason: you were a slave in the land of Egypt, where slaves never got a day of rest. Now that you are free, you shall not do likewise, but shall keep the day of Sabbath, so that your slaves and animals can rest as well.

          I won't even try to reason out the difference. Let me just say, if you ever wondered why the Sabbath kiddush says (among other things) that we celebrate the day of rest

          *       "in memory of the exodus from Egypt"                
    then now you know--it came from these lines of the Torah.

          Now about the number of the commandments. We refer to them, of course, as the10 commandments, but no one is sure about how exactly they should divided up. Traditionally, they go

      1. I am the LORD; thou shalt not have any other Gods
      2. Thou shalt not make any image of me, bow to it or worship it
      3. Thou shalt not take thy LORD's name in vain.
      4. Keep (and remember!) the day of Sabbath
      5. Honor thy father and mother
      6. Thou shalt not murder
                        ("Thou shalt not kill" is an inaccurate translation)
      7. Thou shalt not commit adultery
      8. Thou shalt no steal
      9. Thou shalt not bear false witness
      10. Thou shalt not covet thy fellow-man's wife, house, or anything that is his.

    However, some people have divided the first and last in different ways. Notice also that after the first two commandments a subtle change occurs: in the first two God speaks in the first person--I am the LORD thy God--while after that He is only referred to in third person.

          In any case, in the Torah the number 10 is only mentioned as the number of the words inscribed by God Himself on the tablets.

          For instance, in Devarim, Ch. 10, v.4, you read

      .. The ten words which the LORD spoke unto you
      at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire.

    Why 10 words, when the commandments contain many more? The same number of words, by the way, is also mentioned in Exodus Ch. 17, v. 28. Of course, one can argue that nowhere does it say that God spoke only those 10 words. So perhaps the tablets carried one word per commandment--just a reminder of the full text, you might say. That, at least, is the way the tablets are usually drawn in synagogue art. These days, they too are abbreviated to the 10 first letters aleph... yod, which in ancient Hebrew doubled as the numbers 1... 10.

    And what happened to those tablets? You remember there were two sets--the first one which Moses broke, and the second which was placed in the ark of the covenant.

          The first set was very special, because, as the scripture stated, it was not just inscribed by God's hand, but also made by God--according to the Saying of the Fathers ("Pirkey Avot" in the Mishnah), one of last ten items in the creation of the world, late at the end of the first Friday. So, were these broken tablets left on the mountain? According to tradition, no, they too were kept in the ark, and one tradition even claimed that they had an ark of their own.

          The second set of tablets, cut by Moses but inscribed by God, was certainly placed in the holy ark. We meet them again in the haftarah of Pikudey--from the 1st book of Kings, Ch. 8, v. 9. That haftarah describes the dedication of Solomon's temple, which incidentally took place on Sukkot. The ark was brought into the temple, and verse 9 then states:      


      "There was nothing in the ark save the two tablets of stone, which Moses put there at Chorev, when the LORD made a covenant with the children of Israel when they came out of the land of Egypt."


    And after that? Of course, all of you who have seen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" remember the end of that movie, where the crate containing the ark is stashed away in some huge storehouse of the US Government, the kind of place few things come out of again. A fanciful fate indeed.

          As we know, the temple where the ark was kept was destroyed by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE, but according to Jewish tradition, by that time the tablets were already gone.

          That is also suggested by a rather strange passage in Jeremiah, Chapter 3, verse 16. It is part of a passage about an ideal time in the future, and is not easy to translate. Let me read here the translation in the bible of the Jewish Publication Society, which is as good as any:      

            And it shall come to pass
      when ye are multiplied and increased in the land
      In those days, saith the LORD
      they shall say no more
      "The ark of the covenant of the LORD"
      neither shall it come to mind
      neither shall they make mention of it
      neither shall they miss it
      neither shall it be made any more.

          It isn't completely clear what these words mean, but apparently the ark of the covenant was already missing in those days.

          Where did it go? We know from the 1st Book of Kings (ch. 14, v 25) that one generation after Solomon, during the reign of his son Rekhov'am, Pharaoh Shishak of Egypt (Shoshenk in Egyptian records) captured Jerusalem and looted the temple. The bible does not say whether his loot included the ark, but if it did, that certainly could explain why Indiana Jones in the movie searches for it in Egypt, and finds it there. It's not just because ancient Egyptian tombs make such striking movie settings, though to the moviemakers that probably was the main reason.

    Talmudic tradition, however, says that it was hidden by king Josiah, the last king who was faithful to God. Josiah died 23 years before the destruction of the temple, and according to the book of Chronicles, was mourned by Jeremiah.

          But why would the king have hidden them? Because 60 or 70 years earlier, in the days of King Hezekiah, the prophet Isaiah predicted that a day would come, a few generations in the future, when the Babylonians would capture the city and carry away all the king's possessions. Quoting the book of Kings:      

            "Behold, days are coming when all that is in your house, all that your fathers have laid up in store to this very day, shall be carried to Babylon--nothing shall be left. "

    Hezekiah was old by that time, and only replied "at least it won't be in my lifetime." But Josiah was worried, and he asked a prophet once more--in this case, a woman, the prophetess Khuldah. She told him--she was sorry, but God's decision could not be changed, although because of the king's good deeds, the calamity would not come during his lifetime.

          And tradition tells us that Josiah then hid the ark, so that the Babylonians would never find it and carry it away.

          Presumably, the hiding place was somewhere around the temple. A legend from the time of the 2nd temple tells of two priests of the temple who were cleaning wood to be used on the altar, chopping away rotten limbs. One of them dropped his axe, and fire came out of the ground where it fell and consumed it.

          But where that might have been no one knows, and the tablets remain hidden to this day.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 10 June 2002