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P A R A S H A - P A G E
by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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We read publicly the dramatic episode in which the Torah records the Giving of the Ten Commandments three times a year: on the Shabbatot of Parashat Yitro and Parashat Va'etchanan, and on Shavuot. Numerous customary practices (Minhagim) have developed over the ages regarding this Torah reading. Perhaps the most noticeable and well-known is the custom for the congregation to stand while the reader recounts these basic tenets of Judaism. A number of explanations have been suggested for this custom:

(1) The CHIDA ("Tov Ayin," as quoted by Likutei Maharich, Keriyot, Parashat Yitro) tells us that it is done in order to commemorate the historic events of which we are reading, during which "the people... *stood* from afar" (Shmot 20:14).

It may be added that when the Jews received the Torah, they did not stand simply for a lack of chairs. The Gemara (Megillah 21a) tells us that when Hashem taught Moshe the Torah on Mt. Sinai, he was instructed to *stand* while receiving the Torah. By standing, we are reenacting the Giving of the Torah.

(2) HARAV MOSHE FEINSTEIN ("Igros Moshe," O.C. 4:22) explains that we stand to accent the import that the events of which we are reading carry for the Jewish nation. On this occasion, every member of the nation was elevated to the status of the greatest of prophets. Each and every Jew heard the holy word of Hashem as He gave us the Torah.

We can lend support to this suggestion by observing that there is one other Torah reading for which it has become customary to stand -- the Song of the Crossing of the Sea ("Az Yashir") in Parashat Beshalach. Of that occasion we are told that "a maid-servant that crossed the Red Sea saw more than the prophet Yechezkel [who caught a glimpse of the Divine Chariot of Hashem]" (see Rashi, Shmot 15:2). Interestingly, the revelation at Mt. Sinai was also one of the Divine Chariot of Hashem (see Parasha-Page, Bamidbar 5756), which is why we read the story of Yechezkel's vision after reading the Ten Commandments on Shavuot (Levush, OC 494:1).

(3) A third reason may be suggested. The Gemara (Berachot 22a) teaches us that we must learn Torah "in the manner that it was originally given... with reverence, awe, trembling and quivering." When we read the Torah portion describing the Giving of the Torah, we remind ourselves of the great sense of awe that overcame us at that time and we stand in reverence.


As benign as this custom sounds, it has faced strong opposition by some of the most prominent Halachists. The Gemara (Berachot 12a) informs us that an attempt to institute the daily reading of the Ten Commandments in the Shema Yisrael prayer was blocked because of "the resentment of the non-believers." The Rabbis feared that idolaters would mislead the less learned G-d-fearing Jews by telling them, "See here -- you Jews are reading the Ten Commandments daily because that is *all* that you heard from the Mouth of G-d. If so, the rest of your Torah is not authentic!"

The RAMBAM (Maimonides) writes in response to a question sent to him (Teshuvot Harambam #46, Jerusalem edition), that for this very reason we should take care not to attribute *any* special status to the reading of the Ten Commandments. If we stand for only that portion of the Torah reading, the same resentful antagonism will be aroused. Although in many areas it has become customary to stand, the Rambam writes, the custom should be discontinued!

As we mentioned, the Rambam's ruling on this issue has not been adopted by most congregations. Various explanations have been offered to defend today's custom.


(a) TESHUVOT BEIT YAKOV (#125) tells us that, in his days, it was the custom of many synagogues for the person reading the Torah on Shavuot to pause before reading the Ten Commandments. The entire congregation would then read the Commandments for themselves, after which the reader would read it out loud from the Torah scroll. Why do we attribute this special status to the reading of the Ten Commandments, asks the Beit Yakov? Won't it give people an opportunity to deny the Torah's authenticity?

The Beit Yakov answers that the manner in which we read the Decalogue on the day of Shavuot cannot possibly be used to support the perverted arguments of non-believers. If we would give unique status to the Ten Commandments any other day of the year, perhaps it would show that we consider that section of the Torah to be more important than any other. But what we do while reading them on Shavuot, the very day that the Torah was given to us, cannot be mistaken for anything but a commemorative act (as we explained in three different ways in section I).

This argument, however, cannot be used to defend the custom of standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments this coming Shabbat.

(b) HARAV DOVID FEINSTEIN (quoted in Igros Moshe, ibid.) points out that it has become customary to stand for other Torah readings also (such as the the Az Yashir reading, mentioned above) and not just for the reading of the Ten Commandments. One can no longer claim that the Ten Commandments are being conferred unique status based on the fact that we stand while they are being read.

Following a similar line of reasoning, Harav Moshe Feinstein (ibid.) and Harav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvot Vehanhagot, 1:144) suggest that in order to avoid a clash with the Rambam's ruling not to stand for the Ten Commandments, one may rise *before* the reader reaches that portion. In this manner, he will both stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments, yet not afford it a different status than the rest of the reading.

(c) Another approach to this issue (MATEH YEHUDAH 1:6; CHIDA ibid.; HARAV MOSHE FEINSTEIN ibid.) is that we cannot compare reading the Ten Commandments whene other portions are not read *at all* (such as during Shema, which the Gemara prohibited), to reading it in a *different manner* than other Torah portions (such as standing during their reading, which is permitted). The latter will not be enough to inspire the vicious arguments of those who reject the Torah.


(d) I once heard that HARAV YOSEF DOV SOLOVEITCHIK (the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University) suggested a brilliant approach to this matter, exonerating both our custom and that of the Rambam.

In most Hebrew prints of the Bible (Chumashim), a note appears before the Decalogue advising us to read it in public using the "upper set of cantillations (Ta'amei Hamikra)." The Mesorah provided us with two different ways of cantillating the Ten Commandments. Instead of setting each verse apart from the following one, as the lower set of cantillations do, the upper set of cantillations set each of the Ten Commandments apart from each other. In doing so, they group a string of verses into one long pseudo-verse (in the case of the commandment to observe the Shabbat) or divide a verse into many tiny pseudo-verses (in the case of the verse beginning with Lo Tirtzach -- see Bi'ur Halachah to O.C. 494 who discusses the technical differences between the two at length).

The custom of reading the Ten Commandments with the upper set of cantillations is quite ancient and is mentioned in the early Torah commentaries. However, there is disagreement as to exactly *when* the upper set is to be used. The Magen Avraham (494:0) counts the score: CHIZKUNI (Shmot 20:14) and MAS'AT BINYAMIN (#6) assert that they are only to be used on Shavuot; the lower set of cantillations are to be used for the Shabbat readings of Parashiot Yitro and Va'etchanan. On the other hand, OHR TORAH and HAKOTEV (Ein Yakov, Yerushalmi Shekalim Ch.7) tell us to read even the Shabbat readings using the upper set of cantillations and to use the lower set only when reading the Torah in private. Present day practice (in most synagogues) is in accordance with the latter opinion.

When read with the upper set of cantillations, Rav Soloveitchik explained, it is clear from the very *manner in which the verses are read* (i.e. as Ten Commandments, not as individual verses) that we are commemorating an event rather than simply reading a portion of the Torah. It is thus justified to stand during this Torah reading since standing is a commemorative act (see above, section I) which cannot be mistaken as a show of preferential treatment for one part of the Torah. Where the Rambam lived, however, the Ten Commandments were apparently read using the lower set of cantillations (- or perhaps the Rambam was only discussing the Shabbat Torah readings of Parashiot Yitro and Va'etchanan, which he read using the lower set of cantillations). When read in such a manner, it is not clear that we are commemorating an event and standing indeed attributes a unique status to the Ten Commandments among the other Torah-readings!

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