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Torah Commentary
Va-et'chanan (July 20, 2013)

Missy Bell,
Program Director
of Youth Learning and Engagement

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Va’etchanan, includes the second listing of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy Chapter 5. Scholars have a great deal to say about why this second set of the Ten Commandments is different from the first, which appears in Exodus Chapter 34.

Some say that the words spoken by God to Moses could not be understood by humans, so the Ten Commandments had to be translated in a couple of different ways so that humans could fully understand. Others say that that humans were in a very different place spiritually in Deuteronomy than in Exodus, 40 years earlier, and they needed a version of the Ten Commandments that was more conceptual than spiritual. Medieval scholar Ibn Ezra, however, says that one should not pay attention to the differences in the two sets and that just as when someone repeats a story and changes some of the words naturally in the second telling, so too did Moses in his second recitation of the Ten Commandments.

The primary difference between the two sets is in the fourth commandment. In the first set, given in Exodus, the fourth commandment is “Remember (Zachor) the Sabbath and keep it holy.” In this second set, the fourth commandment is “Observe (Shamor) the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Some say that this is where the tradition of lighting two Shabbat candles comes from — one for “remember” and one for “observe.”

Talmud Bavli, Sh’vuot 20b, tells us that Zachor and Shamor were pronounced in a single utterance — an utterance which the mouth cannot utter, nor the ear can hear. This idea is repeated in L’chah Dodi, one of the songs traditionally sung to welcome Shabbat: Shamor v’zachor b’dibbur echad, or “Observe and remember in one word.”

Another book in the Talmud, Avodah Zarah, tells us that “remembering” and “observing” are two distinct acts and that we must do both. “Remembering” is what one is supposed to do in order to prepare for Shabbat — perhaps thinking about what one is going to do to make Shabbat special or preparing meals in advance. “Observing” Shabbat is what one does on Shabbat itself. For a complete Shabbat experience, one must remember and then observe. One cannot have Shabbat with only one of these two acts, and that is why they were uttered together as one word.

As Reform Jews, we each can have our own way to remember Shabbat and to observe Shabbat. How do you fulfill the mitzvot of shamor v’zachor?

Join the conversation and post your thoughts.

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