The Kosher Bookworm: Ten Commandments and Counting

by Alan Jay Gerber

Rabbi Etshalom’s new commentary, Between the Lines of the Bible volume two [OU Press / Urim Publications, 2012] is unique in many ways, however, simply put, for an English work it is quite different in both content and organization.

My good friend, Rabbi Gil Student who brought Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s latest commentary on Shemot, the Book of Exodus, to my attention, noted that, “with his captivating prose, penetrating depth and dazzling breadth, Rabbi Etshalom analyzes topics in the Bible in classical Brisk fashion.”

With the reading of the Ten Commandments this coming Shabbat, it would be interesting to see the application of this method to this holy event and to the details of the commandments themselves. It is this chapter, entitled “The Ten Commandments: Reassessing what we ‘know’” that will serve as the main focus for this week’s review.

A brief outline should be sufficient to give you an idea as to what this work and teaching has to offer.

Rabbi Etshalom treats the text with the sacredness it deserves. He parses just about every major nuance to seek out the inner meaning and purpose for each word and phrase.

Starting with the very word “commandment” he defines the essence of what is implied by a divine directive. Further on, the count of the number ten is analyzed to determine the true accuracy of the enumeration and meaning of each command and of its proper setting within our tradition. After reading this section you will learn that our system of enumeration is at variance with those of other faiths who count this text as sacred in their traditions.

Afterward, Rabbi Etshalom explains what he calls three premises that he establishes regarding the Aseret Hadibrot [The Ten Statements]. This is not going to be easy, but, please just follow along.

The first premise deals with the proper understanding of the message, or rather the proper understanding of the context of events. Further on, a second premise is presented dealing with what the author calls “the Dibrot were interrupted” regarding the presentation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai.This will require of you a great deal of concentration of thought. However, this will be worth your while. There is much to be gained for this effort in the enhancement of your understanding of the text.

The last premise deals with the need to integrate the two versions of the text, both in Shemot and in Devarim. According to the author, “We must understand these Aseret Hadibrot through the eyes and ears of the Israelites at that time; we must understand them as the ‘opening’ of the Covenant as opposed to its ‘outline’ and we must integrate both versions in order to comprehend the impact and import of this Revelation.”

Further on, the two aspects each of the mitzvah of the Shabbat and the mitzvah of honoring parents are detailed together with the practical applications that apply to all of us.

This segment concludes with the issues dealing with murder, adultery and stealing, all of which have universal application, but each of which has a very important and little understood parochial significance in terms of our religious tradition and national experience.

Rabbi Student in his analysis is indeed most correct in his observation when he states that “Rabbi Etshalom is singularly focused on the Biblical text. He tries to tease the true meaning from the text by allowing it to speak for itself. However, he is a sufficiently traditional Torah scholar that when he evaluates ambiguous passages, he builds on the Talmud and famous Jewish commentaries.”

When coming to terms with the methodologies employed in this work, it is interesting to know of Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s religious educational background. He was educated at Yeshivat Keren B’Yavneh, RIETS / Yeshiva University, and Yeshivat Har Etzion, and he received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem.

I wish to conclude with another perceptive teaching from Rabbi Etshalom.

This one should resonate with all of us, especially when we consider the hot political rhetoric that is swirling around us at this time keyed to some of our most base instincts.“We must respect the rights and property of our fellows…. ‘Do not covet…nor anything which belongs to your fellow.’ It is most poignant that these Aseret Hadibrot conclude with that key word, re’achah, reminding the newly freed slaves of how differently they need to relate towards covenanted fellows than we did to our neighbors in Egypt.”

The Orthodox Union is to once again be commended for sponsoring this high quality commentary that will make for an excellent addition not only to the Shabbat table now, but also to the Pesach Seder table in the months to come.

The Jewish Star post appeared online Feb.9, 2012.

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