Va-Etchannan - 2

Devarim 5.1 - 6.25; 2nd Part of Triennial Cycle

Plaut: 1354; Eitz Hayim: 1015; Hertz:


Parashat Va-Etchannan gave the people who were designing the modern triennial cycle some problems.  As you may remember, the triennial cycle that was used in Biblical days was consecutive, so it took three years to get from Bereshit through Devarim, Genesis through Deuteronomy.  That approach had some logic but it meant that congregations on the annual cycle were totally out of phase with those on the triennial, and seasonal readings did not occur at the righ time.  Therefore, in its modern version, we read a third of the parashah each Shabbat, which allows us to stay in phase at the expense of somewhat jerky connections from one week to the next.


The problem with Parashat Va-Etchannan is that it contains two mportant sections:  Moses= repetition of the Ten Commandments, and the Shema.  Few people would want to read the first five commandments this year, and the other five next year.  One option was to read the entire parashah each year, as we do for a few parashiot, as with Ha-Azinu.  However, in this case they compromised with partial repetition.  Each year, we read all of the text on the Ten Commandments, and in the second and third years we read the text on the Shema.


So much for introduction.  For the rest of this d=var, I am going to focus on differences in wording of the Ten Commandments between the version that appears in Shemot (20:1-14) and the version that appears in Devarim_(5:1-18).  The order in the two versions is consistent, but specific numbering varies among traditions.  The entry in Wikepedia shows different numbering for Jewish and for four Christian traditions.  There are even different Jewish traditions (see Eitz Hayim, 1017, left column of commentary).  Most of the differences are found in the first couple of commandments, but everyone ends up with exactly ten, which is remarkable given that there are some 15 sentences that could be interpreted as commandments!


To get some context, remember that there are roughly 40 years between the original version and Moses= repetition.  The original version was presumably spoken by God, and might therefore be considered authoritative.  However, Nachmanides says that the people only heard the first two commandments, and the Talmud says that God was like the Torah reader and Moses was the translator and interpreter (Ber. 45a, as cited by Plaut, 1354).  Moses was no longer so young as he was standing with God at Sinai.  Maybe his memory failed him at times, or maybe, as with many of us who do a lot of writing, he could not resist editing the original text.  There is of course the possibility of two different sources of Jewish thought.  Think what you want.  Traditional commen-tators will have none of this sort of reasoning.  Both versions are, in their view, equally authoritative, which means that every variation is deliberate and has meaning that we have to extract.

The three sources for the rest of this dvar are three Chumashim: Hertz, Plaut, and Eitz Hayim.  None of these three cites all of the differences in wording between the version in Shemot and the version in Devarim, though they all overlap on the more important differences.  Let=s go through the commandments one by one, as conventionally numbered in Jewish sources.


The first and third commandments cause no problem.  They are identical in both versions.  In the second commandment, Hertz uniquely notes a tiny difference.  After the sentence, AYou shall not make for yourself any sculptured image,@[1] the version in Shemot has a vav before col (-,&) as if to connect the rest of the wording (Aany likeness . . . A) with the earlier part of the sentence.  The absence of that vav in Devarim makes the remainder a separate sentence, and Hertz suggests that this change strengthens the command-ment. He cites David Hoffman=s view that Moses made the change after the sin of the golden calf and that the revision Amakes it clearer that every >manner of likeness= comes within the category of >graven image,= and therefore of idolatry@ (Hertz 766).  Plaut ignores this minor difference in wording, and he would likely dismiss Hertz= argument inasmuch as he argues strongly that sculptured images per se are not prohibited, only those to which we bow down or treat as symbols of God.


It is with the fourth commandment that we get into real trouble.  In Shemot we are told to observe (9&/:) the Sabbath, but in Devarim we are told to remember (9&,') the Sabbath.  This is probably the most significant difference in the two versions of the Ten Commandments.  Tradition has it that both words were miraculously said and heard simultaneously.  Interpretation suggests that Aobserve@ refers to the negative rules associated with Shabbat, and Aremember@ to the positive ones.  Happily, the two are grammatically identical; both verbs are infinitives absolute, which gives them the power of imperatives.  Another difference is the addition in Devarim of a phrase Aso that your male and female slave may rest as you do.@  This remarkable insertion may Arepresent a later stage of Israelite society, which thought of the slave as a fellow human being, halfway between a hired hand and a member of the family@ (Eitz Hayim, 1020).  Whatever the origin, it is a remarkable statement.  Still another difference is that the rationale given in Shemot for the institution of Shabbat is the story in Bereshit (Genesis) about God ceasing work on the seventh day, whereas in Devarim the rationale is Israel=s experience of being rescued by God from slavery in Egypt.  So far as Hertz is concerned, AThis is the most important divergence between the two versions@ (767), and it has also evoked a great deal of commentary. Finally, one minor difference:  The version in Devarim adds the phrase, Aas the Lord your God has commanded you.@  Hertz posits that this insertion is just a rhetorical amplification by Moses, and it is reasonable to accept his view.

With the fifth commandment, we are back on safe ground.  The wording about honouring your father and mother is almost identical in Shemot and Devarim; the order is the same, and they both end with the statement that those who do so honour will Along endure@ in the promised land.  Almost identical but not quite.  In Devarim, two additional phrases are added.  The first repeats the phrase, Aas the Lord your God has commanded you,@ and again we can put this down to Moses= rhetoric. The second amplifies the phrase that those who follow the commandment will Along endure@ by saying that they will also fare well.  There is not much commentary on this addition.  Hertz suggests Athat a sound national life can only result fro m a sound family life within the State@ (767).  Perhaps as well Moses was beginning to think of a settled rather than a nomadic lifestyle.


Commandments six, seven and eight, forbidding respectively murder, adultery and theft, are identical in the two texts.  With Commandment Nine, we again run into a problem.  The final Hebrew word in the Commandment not to bear false witness against your neighbour is Ashaker@ (98:) in Shemot and Ashav@ in Devarim (!&:).  Plaut dismisses this difference as just stylistic, but Eitz Hayim suggests that there is a subtle difference.  AShaker@ can be translated as lying, but Ashav@ as empty or in vain as well as false.  Citing Ramban, Eitz Hayim says that the reference here is to a worthless witness and that Athe wording forbids testimony that is misleading though not technically untrue.@  One can add that, having by this time sat as a judge on innumerable occasions, Moses has learned something about human nature.


With the famous Tenth Commandment, not to covet, we again come to several differences.  The pattern of the two is the same: an initial sentence saying do not covet with one object mentioned, followed by a second sentence that says do not covet with a list of other objects.  (In the Catholic and Lutheran traditions, they are two separate commandments.)  In Shemot the word for covet is Aachmod@($/(;) and it is used as the verb in both sentences; in Devarim Atachmod@is used in the first sentence but in the second the verb becomes Atitaveh@ (%&!;;), which is closer to crave.  Again Plaut treats these differences as stylistic and Eitz Hayim mere says that the former refers to action and the latter to an emotional state, and then, in a strained extension, suggests that tachmod Apermits the interpretation >seize by force=@ (1021).  More importantly, the first sentence in the two versions may be parallel, but the objects are different.  In Shemot, we are told first not to covet your neighbour=s house, or perhaps household; in Devarim, we are told first not to covet your neighbour=s wife.  This is the second most important difference between the two versions, and it cannot be just stylistic.  All sorts of explanations have been made.  Eitz Hayim suggests that Moses is distinguishing between family and property.  Another possibility is that out there in the wilderness, even with tents whose openings did not face one another, one was more likely to want to possess a nearby wife than a nearby tent.  Finally, though the list of other items in the second sentences is nearly the same, in Devarim, your neighbour=s field is added, and this is almost universally attributed to the forthcoming period in which people will be settled, and in which wealth will no longer be defined mainly by oxen and donkeys and serving people, but also by holdings in land.

Those are the specific differences in the Ten Commandments between what was revealed at Sinai some weeks after leaving Egypt and what was stated by Moses some weeks before entering Cana=an.  Before concluding I want to add a few words on the structure of the commandments on the tablets.  It is widely acknowledged that the five on the right tablet represent our duties to God, whereas the five on the left tablet represent our duties to one another. (One can hold an interesting discussion about why honouring father and mother is a duty to God, but we do not have time for that today.)  In addition, according to Eitz Hayim (1017), AWithin each group, the commandments are arranged in descending order, according to the gravity of the prohibited offense.@  This view is not so widely accepted, particularly as some commentators suggest that the sin of coveting is the source of the other sins.  I have to leave the subject open for your thoughts.  Just to offer an intriguing thought, should the right tablet be read from top to bottom, and the left tablet from bottom to top?


Shabbat Shalom,



David B. Brooks

1 - 202 Flora Street

Ottawa, ON, Canada


[1]  All English translations are from Eitz Hayim.