Ask your average Jew-on-the street (well educated or not) for the five most important or famous texts of the Torah, and she will certainly include the Ten Commandments. But if you thumb through the average siddur, you will find that the Ten Commandments are missing from the body of the prayer book. Other famous or important Torah passages are included, like the Shema and the Song of the Sea. Why then, aren't the Ten Commandments included? Surely we could use a daily or weekly reminder of their message.
As it turns out, the Ten Commandments were once included in the early Temple service as remembered by the rabbis (see Mishnah Tamid 5:1). But even in the Talmud we have indications that the Ten Commandments were being left out of the service. Listen to the voice in Berachot 12a: "They recited the Ten Commandments, the Shema and its blessings,the Avodah, and the priestly blessing.Outside the Temple people wanted to do the same [recite the Ten Commandments], but they were stopped on account of the insinuations of the Minim." They were stopped on account of the insinuations of the Minim? What does this mean and why were they stopped?
The Minim were the sectarians, those Jews who were already on the periphery of the Jewish community, about to become Christians. Their "insinuations" were that the legal, legislative part of Torah was no longer necessary; it was enough to believe in and follow the Ten Commandments. In order to distinguish the Jewish community from the sectarians, the rabbis removed the Ten Commandments from the service, lest the average Jew-on-the-street was to walk in during the rabbinic service, hear the Ten Commandments, and conclude: "Yes, indeed, the Ten Commandments are sufficient, I don't need anything else."
And indeed, the weekly parashah that follows directly on the heels of the Ten Commandments is Mishpatim, a portion of law after law after law. It reflects the fundamental Jewish view that principles are grand and magnificent, but they are not enough to live by. "You shall not murder" is OK, but what if someone is tunneling through your home at night? What if a murder is accidental? What if the death of a human being is committed by an animal? What if? Judaism acknowledges that if life were simple, its problems could be addressed by the grand gesture of great principles. But because life is complex, it requires an intricate and subtle system of laws that address its multi-layered complexity.
Many of the laws of Mishpatim have come under serious criticism, both recently and through the centuries. Some remain enigmatic: "He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death." (Exod. 21:15) Some were revolutionary (e.g., the attempts to humanize the institution of slavery). Some have made their way into our home customs: "And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them." (Exod. 20:22) This last example became transformed through the genius of the rabbinic tradition. When the Temple was destroyed, it was replaced not by other temples but by the home, later named a mikdash me'at, a "sanctuary in miniature." The rabbis established an extraordinary equivalency:
- Temple = home
- altar = table
- priests = us around the table
- sacrifice = bread
And because the altar could not be built from hewn stones (it would take a tool of violence to shape them), so, too, a tool of violence is not used to cut the bread on the Shabbat table. How many of you tear the challah with your hands at the Friday night dinner?
Just as the Temple had to be a place of peace and wholeness, it is our hope that our home will also be a place of peace, not a place of hurt, competition, or violence. We reinforce these wonderful principles not only through grand gestures and statements but also through the regular practice of law and ritual.
For further reading: The Jewish Expression, Moshe Greenberg, ed., Judah Goldin (UMI, 1976).
Shira Milgrom is rabbi at Kol Ami of White Plains, New York.