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Temple Israel of Scranton

Temple Israel of Scranton

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Yitro 5781

Posted on February 5, 2021

From the Rabbi’s Desk

Lest anyone go through a whole day without studying any Torah, there is a tradition that a little bit of Torah study is inserted into the very early part of the morning service. You might think that if we were to choose only one section of Torah to read on a daily basis, it would be the Ten Commandments that we read from Parashat Yitro this week.  And, in fact, it seems that once upon a time, that was indeed the case. The Ten Commandments were apparently read on a regular basis in the Temple, the Ten Commandments appear to have been among the prayers recited by the Jews at Qumran, and they were part of the liturgy of other early Jews as well. There is even a discussion among the sages about whether the Ten Commandments should be among the passages included in the tefillin boxes, along with the Shema!

So why do we not find the Ten Commandments as part of our daily – or even Shabbat – liturgy in most places today?  The most common answer, given in different words in different places in rabbinic literature, is that there were people — “heretics”– who were claiming that only the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai and therefore the other mitzvot did not need to be observed. In other words, it is because of their importance that we do not say them every day.  The Rabbis feared that if the Ten Commandments were highlighted in the service every day, people would think that they are the most important commandments and would neglect the others. (Of course, it could be argued that even if the Ten Commandments are not read every day, people will think of them as the most important mitzvot and will neglect the others, but the rabbis were trying to prevent that.) 

Rambam (Maimonides) took this position one step further when he argued against standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments. Rambam said:  “…and they think that the Torah contains different levels and some parts are better than others, and this is very bad.…” Rambam was against standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments because he did not want to give the impression that certain parts of the Torah are holier than others.

But Rambam lost that argument. To the best of my knowledge, standing for the recitation of the Ten Commandments is a universal Jewish custom, practiced across the denominational spectrum and the geographic spectrum.  At the same time, most siddurim do not include the Ten Commandments among the sections of Torah that are read in the early part of the service. 

This is an example of the juggle between emphasis and over-emphasis, between importance and singularity. It is a lesson that we keep in mind in many aspects of our lives. 

We will rise and read the Ten Commandments tomorrow morning. We will also be announcing the new month of Adar, in which the holiday of Purim arrives. 

My sermon this evening is called “The 10th Commandment: Maintaining the Social Status Quo?”