Ask any child to draw you a picture of the tablets with the ten commandments, and chances are that they will produce the same familiar picture of two joined rectangles with rounded tops. This is the image which occupies a central place in Jewish ritual art, particularly as a decoration of snagogue arks.
If one examines the many remains of ancient Jewish religious art, one would be hard put to find any representation of the "tablets of the covenant," let alone the one depicted above. Unlike the lulav, the Temple and the seven-branched menorah, the tablets were not considered an identifiably Jewish symbol. This surprising situation might reflect the fact that Judaism--unlike Christianity--does not attach special significance to the "ten commandments" inscribed on the tablets, but sees them only as part of the total of 613.
Although we do not possess any ancient Jewish pictures of the tablets, the Talmuds have preserved some discussions of their shapes. The Palestinian Talmud describes them as two separated oblong tablets, whereas according to the Babylonian Talmud they were squares, measuring 6 x 6 x 3 handbreaths each--very different from any of the portrayals that we are used to. None of these sources speak of rounded tops.
Pictures of the tablets do not begin to show up in Jewish art until the 13th or 14th centuries, and they do not become widespread until a few centuries afterwards. When Jewish artists sought ways to represent them they invariably copied models that had been developed over a long period in Christian iconography.
From the earliest days of the Church, it had included the ten commandments in its traditional artwork. Ironically, the tablets figured not only in illustrations of Moses and the revelation at Mount Sinai, but also (and some would argue, primarily) in contexts that we would regard as anti-Jewish. To take one notable instance, a favorite motif in church art was the confrontation of the Church victorious and the Synagogue vanquished. In these portrayals, the synagogue was personalified as a woman with a broken staff, holding the tablets of the Law that represented the Jews' stubborn clinging to dry legalism. The image of the two tablets became so identified with Jewish stubbornness and evil that in thirteenth-century it was prescribed as the mandatory shape of the yellow "Jew badge" which Jews had to attach to their garments as a humiliating symbol of their inferiority.
When Christians drew the tablets what did they look like? At first they took the form of two unattached rectangular blocks (like the ones that are held by Michaelangelo's Moses). It was only in the twelfth century that we begin to encounter the familiar joined oblongs with the rounded tops. Scholars now believe that the latter form was inspired by the "diptych," a popular type of writing-tablet consisting of two waxed boards attached by a hinge that could be closed shut. It was in this shape, which was also used for other forms of church art, that the tablets became familiar to Jewish artists in the later middle ages. In time, the unpleasant associations came to be forgotten until the tablets found their way into almost every Torah ark in the western countries.
Not all Jews had forgotten where the tablets image had come from. About ten years ago the Habad hassidim began a campaign to eliminate the rectangular tablets from Jewish religious art, arguing that they contradicted the talmudic descriptions and were an imitation of Christian portrayals. Some respected rabbis (including Rabbi Eliezer Shach), while acknowledging the truth of these arguments, insisted initially that the images had become so rooted in the Jewish mind that they had by now taken on the status of a venerable Jewish custom.
And indeed, when we see how universally this image has been accepted into our conventional synagogue decorations, it is hard to realize just how problematic it really is.
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