The Fifteen Commandments


“All pay heed!” cries Mel Brooks, playing Moses in History of the World, Part I–“The Lord has given unto you these Fifteen Commandments!” He promptly drops one tablet, which shatters. Without missing a beat, Moses continues: “Uh, these Ten Commandments!”

It’s a classic movie moment, albeit one with little support from the Bible (or from the Talmud and Midrash, for that matter). That isn’t to say that the most intricate minutiae relating to the Commandments haven’t been extensively researched and debated. For instance, one question has plagued religious scholars for ages–what shape were the tablets that contained the Commandments?

The Torah itself doesn’t address the question. The Babylonian Talmud (Baba Batra 14a) says that the two tablets were both squares–six by six handbreadths each, and three handbreadths deep. The Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 10b), on the other hand, claims that the tablets were oblong. (The two Talmuds also disagree about the font used–the Jerusalem Talmud says they were in a Phoenecian-style Ivri font; the Babylonian says it was Ashuri, similar to modern Hebrew.) One thing that never comes up in the traditional sources: the capsule-shaped tablets, with rounded tops, that often appear in contemporary depictions.

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