Sedra – Va’etchanan

THIS WEEK is perhaps the best known of all Torah portions, containing the Shema and the 10 Commandments. Every Jew ought to know at least one verse by heart. It is what we first teach to children and converts – God is one and indivisible.

This principle in our value system is so important that it has transferred (with varying degrees of success) to our daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. The Christian notion that only a basic 10 commandments would now apply seems to fly in the face of their scripture. When asked what the most important mitzvah was, Jesus is said to have replied by quoting the Shema, saying: “Love your neighbour who is like you.” This is a highly-Jewish response.

How odd, too, that the fundamental obligations of Christianity begin: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the House of Slavery.” Is that really so? More curious still is the discussion in the Talmud (Berachot 12a): “They recited the 10 Commandments, the Shema” and other sections.

The passage continues: “Rab Judah said in the name of Samuel: ‘Outside the Temple also people wanted to do the same, but they were stopped on account of the insinuations of the Minim.’” The Minim are the Christians who emphasised the 10 over the 613 Commandments. The Talmud goes on to record other attempts to add the 10 Commandments to the Shema, again refuted on the same basis. The rabbis actually added words to saying the third paragraph to emphasise the 613 commandments over the 10.

The rationale is that the commandments are all obligatory on all Jews. The Jewish name for the 10 Commandments is the 10 Sayings – far less emphatic, in fact, implying that these are the ones which God spoke to Moses. You will still find the 10 Commandments in the siddur, usually after the morning service – but the one printed is that in Exodus, not the slightly different version given here.

In some of the siddurim, we find the Shema related to the 10 Commandments by superscript annotations on the text. This is to show that while we do not place all our emphasis on the 10 Commandments, we nonetheless feel that there is considerable significance in their having been spoken by God to Moses and Israel – and in their having been included in the Temple Shema.