Traditional Jews often get dismissive or indignant when they hear people speak about the "ten commandments." We are quick to retort that there are far more than ten commandments in the Torah—according to the standard enumeration there are 613 of them!
In fact, the concept of Ten Commandments (or Ten Words, or Ten Statements—also known as the “Decalogue”) is found in the Torah itself, in texts like Exodus 34:28 “And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”
The privileged status of the Ten Commandments was a source of controversy in ancient Judaism. Although they are not currently included as a mandatory text in most versions of the Jewish liturgy, this was not always the case. The Mishnah reports that the priests in the Jerusalem Temple would recite them before the Shema‘, the classic declaration of monotheistic faith, as part of their daily morning prayers, and this is confirmed by ancient documents like the “Nash papyrus” (from the second century B.C.E.) and the Septuagint Greek translation in which the Ten Commandments were grouped together with the Shema‘. Indeed, Rabbi Levi in the Talmud demonstrated ingeniously how all ten of the commandments are implicit in the words of the Shema‘.
Several of the tefillin parchments that were unearthed among the Dead Sea Scrolls also include the Ten Commandments. Talmudic tradition records that the old practice of reciting the Ten Commandments with the Shema‘ was discontinued “because of the claims of heretics” that only those ten were revealed by the Almighty at Sinai. Scholars have been unsuccessful at identifying a specific heretical sect that is being referred to. Although it is tempting to see this as an allusion to the Christian antipathy to the Law of Moses, we know of no particular ancient Christian group that professed a distinction between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah; and the Talmud’s heretics might well have been some other group of Hellenistic Jews (such as the “radical allegorists” criticized by Philo of Alexandria) who were opposed to the literal observance of religious precepts.
Over the generations there were attempts to bring the Decalogue back into the daily service. Such an initiative is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, and in medieval Egypt one synagogue would take out a special scroll from which to read it. Authorities like Rav Hai Ga’on and Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret expressed their opposition to similar developments in some Jewish communities.
However we may choose to interpret the exceptional status of the Ten Commandments, its most conspicuous visible manifestation is probably in the position of the listeners while it is being read in the synagogue, whether as part of the sequential readings of the Torah for Exodus and Deuteronomy or as the designated reading for the festival of Shavu’ot which is celebrated as the anniversary of the revelation at Mount Sinai. In most Jewish communities where I have attended services, it has been the custom for the worshippers, who normally remain seated during the chanting from scripture, to stand for Ten Commandments.
In previous centuries, however, there was considerable diversity in this matter. Some congregations were motivated by a desire to relive the original experience of the Israelites at Mount Sinai where the text says that “they stood beneath the mountain.” As one ancient Midrash put it when it prescribed the reading of that passage on Shavu‘ot: “My children, if you read this section every year, then I shall consider it as if you yourselves were standing before Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah.” It follows that a faithful reenactment of that occasion can only be achieved while we—like our ancestors—are reverently on our feet.
Other authorities were vehemently opposed to any practice that suggested that some sections of the Torah are holier or more important than others. As long as people ordinarily remain seated during the reading, then standing for the Decalogue could be perceived as casting aspersions on the genuineness of the rest of the Torah.
And so it happened that the Jewish world came to be split between the Standers and the Sitters.
This controversy underlies a question that was posed to Maimonides. The inquirers dwelled in a town that had not established its own scholarly credentials, and was therefore accustomed to consult rabbis from elsewhere, who tended to impose their own customs and practices. In the present instance, the community’s original practice had been to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments—until Rabbi A arrived and introduced (among several other reforms) an enactment that forbade standing. This enactment, for which the community still possessed the original document bearing the rabbi’s own signature, equated the Standers with the ancient heretics who were denounced in the Talmud for denying the authority of the rest of the Torah. Rabbi A’s ruling became entrenched for several generation, and the community aligned itself clearly with the Sitters.
But eventually the town was visited by Rabbi B (the inquirer had no doubt that this interloper was the intellectual inferior of Rabbi A) who hailed from a community of Standers, and succeeded in persuading several of the local citizenry to follow his approach—which was the prevailing practice in Baghdad and other prominent Jewish centres.
It was at this point that the perplexed citizenry were impelled to turn to Maimonides for guidance.
I suspect that the inquirers knew well what to expect from the great sage. Maimonides had already gone on record in the eighth of his “Thirteen Fundamental Principles” with his insistence that it is heretical to make distinctions in the authenticity, authority or significance of different sections of the Torah. Here as well, he put his unwavering support behind the Sitters. He even stigmatized the Standers with the taint of the most prominent heresy in his own time: Karaism; since followers of that anti-talmudic Jewish ideology generally stood during their Torah readings (albeit for the entire reading and not just for particular passages).
When a similar question was directed to Rabbi Ḥaim Yosef David Azulai (the “Ḥida”) in the eighteenth century (Maimonides’ responsum was not printed until the twentieth century), he defended the Standers. As regards the Talmud’s concern about heretics, it was clear to him that it applied only if the Decalogue was recited separately and inserted into the mandatory liturgy; however when incorporated into the ongoing sequential reading of the complete Torah “it is obvious that the whole Torah is being acknowledged as true. It is just that they are standing for the Ten Commandments in recognition of their being the foundation of the Torah, and inscribed on the tablets. The Holy One proclaimed them to all of Israel, and the people trembled when the Holy One uttered them. Therefore, by standing during their recitation they wish to commemorate that occasion in some way.”
Insofar as standing was the dominant practice in most communities, Rabbi Azulai insisted that no exceptions should be tolerated in those congregations, since compliance with the established customs is itself a pivotal value in Jewish law. (Maimonides, on the other hand, was adamant that upholders of the truth should never concede to the errors of the majority).
Rabbinic tradition looked back longingly to the rare unity of purpose that characterized Israel’s assembly before Mount Sinai on that first Shavu‘ot.
I wonder how long it took before that single-minded community managed to divide itself into factions of Sitters and Standers.