Standing for the Aseres HaDibros

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

In the vast majority of Ashkenazi minyanim, the prevalent minhag is for the tzibur to stand during the reading of the aseres hadibros on Shavuos. This minhag, at first glance, has a certain majestic appeal to it--after all, what could more appropriate than rising as one while the event at Sinai unfolds and God speaks to Bnai Yisrael? And yet, there is a riveting halachic debate as to the merits of this action. The spectrum of rabbinical opinions itself might come as a shock to many of its most passionate adherents. 

The Mishna (Tamid 5:1), in reviewing the daily tefila of the kohanim in the Bais Hamikdash, explains how the kohanim would (after barchu) read the aseres hadibros, the parshiyos of shema, and then move into “emes veyatziv.” The Talmud (Berachos 12a) explains that Chazal attempted to incorporate the aseres hadibros into tefila outside the Bais Hamikdash as well. However, this was rejected due to the issue of “taromes haminim.” Rashi (ibid “mipnei...”) and the Rambam (Perush Mishnayos Tamid, ibid) both explain that “tarmoes haminim” refers to an attack heretics would direct towards the average Jew based on the seemingly “favored” inclusion of the aseres hadibros in tefila. From their perspective, the fact that this portion of Torah was chosen demonstrates that the rest of the Torah is untrue, and they would use this argument to sway the minds of the Jewish people into questioning the truth of Torah. What makes the aseres hadibros susceptible to this line of reasoning? Rashi explains that it was the only part of Torah transmitted directly from God to Bnai Yisrael. How does one then derive the rest of the Torah to be untrue? What Rashi is telling us is that the singling out of the aseres hadibros, according to the minim, is being done to demonstrate its higher degree of authenticity. In other words, the only reason Chazal isolate the aseres hadibros is that it was the only portion that was communicated directly from Hashem to Moshe and it is, therefore, the only portion whose authenticity could be verified. According to the heretics, once Moshe became involved in communicating the rest of the Torah, the possibility of deviating from God’s words is a very real one, leaving the authenticity of entire rest of the Torah, as it was transmitted, questionable. Chazal saw this issue as having the potential to influence the masses, so they chose to bar the inclusion of the aseres hadibros in our daily tefila. 

It is important to clarify the intent of Chazal when introducing one pasuk over another in different halachic activities (such as tefila). There is no concept of superiority. Rather, Chazal recognize that certain ideas need to be conveyed during specific activities, and they incorporate those pesukim that best express these ideas into said activities. Therefore, while the objective of including aseres hadibros in tefila would be to convey certain ideas, the potential distortion that would emerge prevented it from being included.

The Rambam (Responsa 46) was asked about a minhag that had developed where people stood during the reading of the aseres hadibros. He vociferously argued against permitting such a minhag, explaining that to stand for the aseres hadibros during the reading of the Torah would be giving too much prominence to this specific part of the Torah, an extension of tarmoes haminim. According to the Rambam, standing up for the aseres hadibros correlate with a “loss of faith,” leading a person down the road to denying the Divine origin of Torah. How did he come to this conclusion? Looking at the Talmud’s case, the Rambam theorized that any action that would differentiate the aseres hadibros was imbued with the character of taromes haminim. There is no specific halachic action per se that is forbidden. Instead, it is bringing about this result that is the halachic problem. 

And yet, Jews stand up for the aseres hadibros.

It happens to be that numerous other Rishonim and early Acharonim noted the prevalence of Jews standing for the reading of aseres hadibros, seemingly disregarding the Rambam’s teshuva. Modern day poskim, such as R’ Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Daas 1:29, 6:8), explain that it was possible that many of these Torah luminaries did not see the teshuva of the Rambam--had they read it, surely they would have agreed. Other poskim, however, offer different solutions for justifying the minhag.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Harirei Kedem Vol 2) takes up the contradiction between the near universal practice of standing for aseres hadibros and the position of the Rambam. He explains how there are two different taamim (cantillations) when reading the aseres hadiros--taam elyon (where they are divided based on the commandment itself) and taam tachton (where they follow the division of the pesukim in the Torah). According to some poskim, taam elyon would only be employed on Shavuos (today, most shuls are accustomed to having taam elyon used all three times aseres hadibros are read). Why just Shavuos? The public reading of the Torah is generally considered a kiyum in talmud Torah, a fulfillment of the publication of learning Torah to the tzibur. However, on Shavuos, the reading of the Torah portion takes on another dimension. On that day, the revelation at Sinai took place, so the reading of the Torah portion becomes a remembrance of the event at Sinai. Therefore, taam elyon is used, signifying this kriya as one of zecher. In other words, the Rav is saying that the kriyas haTorah on Shavuos is of a different halachic nature. Since the very reading itself contains the character of zecher, standing up for the reading, like Bnai Yisrael stood around Har Sinai, would be in line with the theme. It is not that the content of the aseres hadibros is more important--rather, the event at Sinai, which Shavuos commemorates, is being “recreated.” The Rav then explains that the Rambam most likely never used the taam elyon. Since there would be no difference in the kriya between Shavuos and the other times the aseres hadibros is recited, standing up for this portion would, by definition, have the character of heresy attached to it. Sitting all year around, and then standing up, without any change in the halachic character of the kriya, is the problematic result the Rambam sought to avoid. It would seem though that the Rambam would agree with the Rav’s approach that adding the element of remembrance to the kriya would remove the problem of taromes haminim.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC 4:22) offers a different justification for the common minhag today. He explains that the original concern about the influence of the minim on Jews with aseres hadibros was not a general concern about heretical influence. Most Jews would never come to the conclusion proposed by the minim. According to Rav Moshe, it is self evident that the ideas of the aseres hadibors are the reason for its inclusion in tefila, not any sense of greater authenticity. In fact, Rav Moshe surmises that the aseres hadibros had been included in tefila even outside the Bais Hamikdash for many years. However, at a certain point in time, philosophical attacks took hold and indeed swayed some Jews. As a result, it was no longer included. In other words, Rav Moshe maintained that the concern was situational, that only when minim would actually pose a threat would the problem emerge. He goes one step further, writing how the very halacha introduced in the Talmud was limited to reading the aseres hadibros in tefila. There is a specific categorical construct to the prohibition, and this being the case, there is no reason to assume it extends to a different activity, such as standing. Therefore, according to Rav Moshe, one may stand for this kriya all year round. 

Rav Moshe, Rav Ovadia Yosef, and most other poskim indicate that even if one is follows the opinion of the Rambam, he should still stand when everyone else in the minyan stands for kriyas aseres hadibros. Since it has become the established minhag, it would be inappropriate to publicly deviate from the custom of the tzibur. However, in a minyan where only a few people stand, it is acceptable to remain seated. 

Overall, it is clear that standing for the kriya of aseres hadibros is a very controversial activity that is nonetheless accepted as the norm the world over. But like all other areas of halachic performance, a person’s thinking is what validates the activity, and to distort the concept by this kriya could lead to an uprooting of basic tenets of Jewish faith. It is critical that when standing up during this kriya, one should reflect upon its significance as one of the greatest, most momentous events in our history. The reading of the aseres hadibros marks our acceptance of the Torah as the guideline by which we live our lives, the blueprint for every minute of every day.  If one would stand, it cannot be in recognition of the content of the aseres hadibros, since that content is no more valid than any other kriya we perform throughout the year and is merely a small portion of a greater whole. It should be done to show our acceptance of kol HaTorah kulah.