Why Some Jews Stand for the Ten Commandments and Others Sit

On the first day of the holiday of Shavuot, which begins Tuesday evening, the passage in the book of Exodus that includes the Decalogue will be read in synagogues. While in many communities it is customary for the congregation to stand when the Ten Commandments are declaimed, ancient and modern rabbis have objected to this practice. Gil Student explains why:

At one point, some Jews had a custom of reciting the Ten Commandments as part of their daily prayers. Sectarians claimed this indicated a preference for this particular passage and a rejection of others as originating from a human rather than a divine author. In Israel [and Babylonia] during the 3rd century . . . this practice was rejected [by the talmudic sages] because of their concern over this sectarian argument against the sanctity of the [entire] Torah. . . . .

Who were the sectarians who believed that the Ten Commandments came from God but not the rest of the Torah? The great historian [of ancient Judaism] Geza Vermes suggests that they were Jewish Gnostics. Another scholar suggested to me that they were Marcionites, an early Christian sect who rejected the Hebrew Bible. Even in later centuries, after the Jewish Gnostics and the Marcionites were merely a footnote in history, the prohibition [against standing] remained in effect.

The same rationale was applied by later rabbinic authorities to discourage the practice of standing for the reading of the Decalogue. Arguing that it is worthwhile to follow this ruling even after its polemical purpose has become moot, Student notes that it is not only a reaction to heresy but a way of underscoring the fundamental dictum that all the Torah’s verses are equally holy, even—to use the Talmud’s example—the obscure genealogies found in the book of Genesis.

Read more at Torah Musings

More about: Halakhah, Heresy, Religion & Holidays, Shavuot, Ten Commandments

On Thanksgiving, Remember the Exodus from Egypt

Nov. 27 2020

When asked to design a Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed a depiction of Moses at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness after departing Egypt. These proposals, writes Ed Simon, tapped into a venerable American tradition:

The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World with the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture with their own narratives and experiences. . . .

For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. . . . American Puritans and pilgrims like John Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, . . . and many others placed the Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. . . . [Thus the] Exodus . . . has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories. . . .

We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Sea of Reeds. . . . We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogroms and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?

Read more at Tablet

More about: American founding, American Religion, Exodus, History & Ideas, Thanksgiving, Thomas Jefferson