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   by Jacob Solomon

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The Ten Commandments open with:

G-d spoke all these statements, saying: "I am the Lord your G-d, Who has taken you out from the Land of Egypt..." (20:1-2)

What exactly did the Israelites hear from G-d?

The Midrash (Mechilta 20:1) brings the tradition that G-d recited all the Ten Commandments in one instant, implying that the Israelites heard all ten from G-d. However the Talmud (Makkot 24a) states that they heard only the first two directly. G-d communicated the remaining eight through Moses.

Rashi shows how the Midrashic and Talmudic traditions may be reconciled. G-d's initial instant presentation of the Ten Commandments was heard, but not understood. His subsequent declaration of the first two Commandments was clear and unambiguous to the Israelites. The whole experience, however, was so spiritually charged and intense that they begged to hear the rest from Moses: They said to Moses, "You speak to us and we will listen: let not G-d speak to us, less we will die" (20:16).

The Kli Yakar emphasizes that the first two commandments are in the first and second person: "I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out from the Land of Egypt… You shall not recognize the gods of others…" (20:2-3). The third commandment switches into the third person. "G-d will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain" (20:6), is in place of "I will not absolve". That suggests the finish of direct communication from G-d, and the start G-d communicating through His Messenger.

The Kli Yakar offers the following explanation for G-d communicating the first two commandments to the Israelites directly rather than indirectly. He compares the first two commandments to seeing the face of the king. Once a person sees the king in person, he recognizes his rule and becomes ready to accept his instructions whether they are communicated directly by him, or indirectly through his messengers. First, however comes recognizing the sender, and only second comes recognizing the messenger.

Thus the first two commandments were communicated so that they could experience G-d at first hand. After that, they would be able to fit subsequent words communicated by Moses, His Messenger into the context of their own first hand experience of G-d.

As Moses explained when the Israelites pleaded with him to communicate G-d's words rather than have G-d to speak to them directly: "G-d came to raise you" (20:17), in a spiritual sense, to allow you to directly experience the Source from where the Commandments come from. And that happened so that you might observe all the Torah whether directly from G-d or through His messenger: "in order that His awe shall be on your faces, so that you do not sin" (ibid). Perhaps this helps to explain the idea that the Torah is acquired by shimush chachamim, serving those deeply learned in Torah (Avot 6:6). Observing "cleave to Him" (Deut. 11:22) Rashi explains, is fulfilled by connecting with talmidei chachamim, those deeply possessed of Torah learning and behavior. It is therefore vital for people to create and use opportunities to personally interact with those who are closest to Torah tradition, which cannot be fully replaced by the mere printed word - however attractively produced.

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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