After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE the early rabbis transformed the ‘first fruits’ Festival of Shavuot into z’man matan Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah.’ The congregation assembled as if standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, the heart of the morning service for Shavuot is the reading of Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the ‘Ten Utterances’, known as the Ten Commandments.
According to tradition, the Torah contains, not just ten, but 613 mitzvot – ‘commandments’. So what is the status of Aseret Ha-Dibrot among the 613? In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Makkot 23b, we find a fascinating passage that reveals that the sages were concerned to identify the key mitzvot – which, interestingly, do not include the ‘Ten Utterances’. We read:
R. Simlai expounded: Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were communicated to Moses; three hundred and sixty-five negative mitzvot corresponding to the number of days in a solar calendar year, and two hundred and forty-eight positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of limbs in the human body.… David came and reduced them to eleven – as it is written (in Psalm 15): ‘Eternal One, who shall sojourn in Your tent? Who shall dwell in Thy holy mountain? One who walks uprightly, and does what is right, and speaks the truth in their heart; who has no slander upon their tongue, nor does evil to their fellow, nor takes up a reproach against their neighbour; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honours them that fear the Eternal; who stands by their oath even to their own hurt; who does not lend money on interest, nor take a bribe against the innocent. One who does these things shall never be moved.’ Isaiah (33:15-16) came and reduced them to six, as it is written: ‘One who walks righteously, and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain from oppression; who waves away a bribe instead of grasping it; who stops his ears from listening to infamy; and shuts his eyes against looking at evil; such a one shall dwell on high…’ Micah (6:8) came and reduced them to three, as it is written: ‘[The Eternal] has told you, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’…Then came Isaiah (56:1) and reduced them to two, as it is said: ‘Thus says the Eternal: ‘Observe justice and do righteousness.’ Amos (5:4) came and reduced them to one, as it is said: ‘For thus says the Eternal to the house of Israel, Seek Me and live.’ … Habakkuk (2:4) then came and based them all on one [principle], as it is said: ‘But the righteous shall live by their faith.’
In Sifra, the halachic midrash on Leviticus, we find this telling comment in the section focussing on parashat K’doshim: “‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18) – Rabbi Akiva taught that this is the great principle of the Torah” (4:12). At the season of the giving of our Torah, may each one of us reflect on the Jewish teachings that we feel are most crucial for our lives.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah