Just Saying

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

by R. Moshe Schapiro

Say What?

The Ten Commandments are introduced by the verse, ““Va-yedaber Elokim et kol ha-devarim ha-eleh lemor,” – “And God spoke all these matters, saying” (Shemot 20:1) a variation of the more common, “Va-yedaber Hashem el Moshe lemor” – “And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying.” The problem in translating this ubiquitous verse is the redundancy of the two verbs va-yedaber and lemor. The translation “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying,”  which is suggested by many commentators1 is awkward and redundant. It would have read more concisely and simply as, “and God spoke to Moshe,” followed by the specific commandment. Ramban adds a new dimension to the word lemor, suggesting that it comes to emphasize the “clarity of the matter,” implying exactness and explicitness.2 However, R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg3 points out that in many cases, particularly in the context of the Ten Commandments, the wording would still be redundant. The verse already states that “God spoke all these matters”; there is no need to further stress the clarity or exactness of God’s speech.

The Sifra ((Vayikra 1)) understands that the familiar translation “saying” is really not correct. The word lemor is an infinitive and the more precise translation should be, “And God spoke to Moshe, to say.” In other words, God taught Moshe a commandment and instructed him “to say,” i.e., to repeat it to the Jewish people. Even with this new insight the opening verse of the Ten Commandments is still problematic.  According to our new reading it should be rendered, “And God spoke all these matters, to say.” However, here God was not speaking to Moshe Rabbenu and telling him to communicate the mitzvot to the Jewish people. He was speaking directly to each and every Jew at the foot of Mt. Sinai. What do the words “to say” mean in such a context? To whom was God directing the instruction “to say?”

 Not To Say the Least

When God set forth the Ten Commandments before the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, we could not witness the events in a detached manner. God’s Torah should not be an object of disinterested observation. “And God spoke all these matters, to say” means that God demanded from us “to say”- to respond. The Mekhilta ((Yitro, BaChodesh 4)) records a dispute between R. Yishmael and R. Akiva regarding the nature of that response. R. Yishmael contended that when God presented a positive commandment such as, “Honor your father and mother” the Jewish people responded “Yes! We will honor our fathers and mothers.” When God introduced a negative commandment like, “Do not murder,” the response was, “No! We will not murder.” However, R. Akiva envisioned the exchange differently. Even the negative commandments like “Do not murder” were accepted with the positive response, “Yes! We will not murder.” R. Yishmael’s opinion is more intuitive linguistically and conceptually. Why did R. Akiva claim that the Jewish people responded to both positive and negative commandments with the affirmation “Yes?”

R. Gedalyah Schorr4 explains that the appreciation for the depth and breadth of the mitzvot is what underlies R. Akiva’s insistence that the Jewish people responded to both positive and negative commandments in the affirmative. When God said, “Do not murder,” the nation understood in that proscription something far more lofty and demanding than a prohibition against taking human life. To merely answer: “No! We will not murder,” would have been incomplete. The true depth of the commandment called for a positive response: “Yes! We will not murder. We will appreciate the value and sanctity of every human life. We will not embarrass or cause harm to another human being, which can be likened to murder. Yes! We understand that in this seemingly simple social restriction there lies the loftiest guidelines for human interaction and for the development of a noble spirit!”

Easier Said…

The basic structure of the Yom Kippur Machzor is built around the Vidui Arukh, a long list of sins (46 in all) to which we confess at various points in the Yom Kippur service. Obviously, each individual could not have committed all of the sins on the list, yet we all recite the same long, detailed confession. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to confess only for the specific sins that we actually committed? The Chida5 quotes a tradition that he received, that there was a righteous individual in the days of Rambam who did not want to recite this confession because he knew that he had not done any of the sins listed. Rambam strongly rebuked him, telling him that if he only knew the extent of true avodat Hashem, he would realize that he had committed every sin on the list, in some respect.

David ha-Melekh proclaimed, “To every goal I have seen an end, but Your commandment is exceedingly broad” (Tehillim 119:96). Every mitzvah contains within it an incalculable number of ever-ascending levels of perfection. Even if one did not perform the literal sins which are described in the Yom Kippur confession, it is certain that one did violate some of the more subtle aspects of those commandments and therefore confession is totally appropriate. The commandment to observe the Sabbath, for instance, which the Torah delineates in only a few verses, comprises 156 folio leaves in the Babylonian Talmud, about 174 sections of the Shukhan Arukh and countless halakhic compendia and responsa. David ha-Melekh saw that every material enterprise is by its very nature restricted. However, the commandments are limitless, because they emanate from God, who is infinite.

Undaunted by infinity, Chazal placed the Torah’s expansiveness in perspective. The prophet Yechezkel tells of a wondrous vision in which he saw a scroll of parchment that was “inscribed both front and back” (Yechezkel 2:9-10). The prophet Zechariah also describes a vision in which he saw “a flying scroll (megillah afah), twenty cubits wide and ten cubits long” (Zechariah 5:1-2). The Talmud (Eruvin 21a) makes three assumptions about these two prophecies. First, both Yechezkel and Zechariah saw the same scroll. Second, the scroll was the embodiment of the Torah. And third, the word afah does not mean “flying” but rather, “double,” meaning the scroll was folded over. The Talmud then goes one to calculate that the twenty by ten scroll, when unfolded, would be twenty by twenty. Since it was “inscribed both front and back” the words cover an area of forty by twenty. This yields an area of 800 square cubits. Now, Yeshayahu proclaimed that God measured the entirety of the heavens as “one span” (Yeshayahu 40:12) which is half a cubit. In an area of 800 square cubits there are 3200 spans, and therefore the Talmud concludes that the ratio of the heavens, i.e. the entire universe, to the Torah, as represented by the scroll, is 1:3200.  But are Chazal limiting the Torah in this Talmudic passage or expanding its dimensions?

The curious thing about the above passage is that Chazal did not express the size of the Torah in absolute terms, but as a ratio to the size of the universe. This is because the Torah is not limited, but constantly growing. In one of his final speeches to the nation, Moshe Rabbenu recounted the Jews’ experience at the foot of the mountain, “These words Hashem spoke to your entire congregation on the mountain, from the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness – a great voice, ve-lo yasaf– and He inscribed them on two stone tablets and gave them to me” (Devarim 5:19). The phrase ve-lo yasaf can be understood in two mutually exclusive ways. Rashi and many other commentaries6 translate the phrase to mean “that will never repeat.” However, Targum Onkeles, following the tradition of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) translates it as “that will never cease.” What does it mean that God’s voice never ceased even after Matan Torah? R. Avraham Chaim Schor7 connects this translation with the assertion of the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 22) that, “Scripture, Mishnah, Halakhot, Talmud, Toseftot, Haggadot, and even what a faithful disciple would in the future say in the presence of his master, were all communicated to Moshe at Sinai.”8 Everything was given at Mt. Sinai, because the revelation is ongoing. Every time a Torah scholar proffers a true insight, he is tapping into the flow of divine revelation that first emanated from Sinai. Perhaps Chazal did not posit, as current science does, an expanding universe. However, our Sages clearly believed in an expanding Torah, and they expressed the relationship between the Torah and the universe in terms of a ratio. If the universe is expanding and the Torah growing accordingly, we must conclude that indeed, “Your commandment is exceedingly broad.”

Say it Together!

The boundlessness of Torah in the realm of those commandments that regulate the relationship between finite man and an infinite God (bein adam la-Makom) is readily apprehended. However, regarding the commandments that govern between man and his fellow (bein adam la-chavero) we would be tempted to suggest that there really isn’t much more to the commandment “Do not steal” than what it says. The Ten Commandments themselves can give this impression. The first five commandments which are primarily bein adam la-Makom are quite lengthy, developed in multiple verses; whereas the latter five, which are mainly bein adam la-chavero, are stated succinctly without any elaboration. However, Rashi’s comment9 that the two luchot were exactly equal, despite the obvious fact that the first tablet contained many more letters, indicates that though the Torah may offer more explicit information in certain areas, the extent of every mitzvah is infinite and therefore they are all equal.

In its translation of the Ten Commandments, the Targum Yonatan may also be trying to highlight the equality and immeasurability of all the mitzvot, even those that govern interpersonal relationships. While translating the first five commandments essentially literally, the Targum elaborates much more on the latter five: “My nation, Children of Israel, do not be murderers, not companions or partners with murderers, and there should not appear in the Congregation of Israel murderers, and your children after you should not learn to be with murderers.” The same lengthy formulation is given regarding adulterers, thieves, false witnesses and coveters. R. Eliyahu Lopian10 suggests that the Targum was trying to prevent the mistaken impression that somehow the mitzvot bein adam la-chavero do not have the same limitless potential as the mitzvot bein adam la-Makom. “Do not steal,” is an injunction against taking another person’s possessions, but there are many more subtle levels and aspects, with increasingly more demanding expectations for the development of the religious personality and the perfection of the human character. As a person grows spiritually, these seemingly straightforward commandments take on more meaning. “Do not steal” also means, “Be quiet when others are sleeping” so their sleep is not stolen. It means, “Do not jaywalk” causing drivers to stop or slow down, thereby stealing their time.

As the Saying Goes…

Although Rashi, by stressing the equality of the commandments on the Luchot, and Targum Yonatan, by elaborating on the last five commandments, both imply that even the Written Torah is more expansive than might appear at first glance, the Written Torah and the carved Tablets of the Law are essentially finite. The Torah that is constantly expanding and developing is the Oral Torah, the Torah she-be-al peh. Rashi11 identifies the scroll that Yechezkel and Zechariah saw as being the physical embodiment of the Torah she-be-al peh,.It was to accept this limitless Oral Torah that the Jews at Mt. Sinai responded “Yes” with all the boundless possibilities that an affirmative response  evokes.

As we noted, R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg12 questioned the opinion of Ramban, that the word “lemor” comes to emphasize the “clarity of the matter,” because in many occurrences of the word, such as in the opening verse of the Ten Commandments, the clarity is already implied. However, he does not entirely abandon Ramban’s concept of clarity. He suggests that whereas Va-yedaber refers to the speaking of the words of the written Torah, lemor connotes the further clarity and elucidation of the Oral Tradition. Every mitzvah was given not only with its exact, recorded wording, but with the additional clarifications, stipulations and principles contained in the Torah she-be-al peh.13

The Netziv , like R. Mecklenburg, understand the word lemor as a reference to Torah she-be-al peh, but he retains Chazal’s translation of the word lemor as “to say.” The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 4:2) quotes an intriguing statement from the sage R. Yannai: “If the Torah had been given cut and dried we would not have a leg to stand on.” In other words, had every halakhic decision been rendered unambiguously in the Chumash, we would not have been able to adapt and apply the Torah to new situations and circumstances. The Talmud states that R. Yannai’s source is the verse “And Hashem spoke to Moshe” and posits a conversation in which Moshe pleaded with Hashem to render decisive halakhic rulings. However, God responded that He would not do so and that we must follow the majority “so that the Torah may be interpreted in forty-nine ways to impurity and in forty-nine ways to purity.”

The Yerushalmi’s message is that the Torah must be flexible and open to multiple interpretations in order to be relevant. However, it is not clear how R. Yannai derived this lesson from the verse “And Hashem spoke to Moshe.” The Netziv14 insists that the passage in the Yerushalmi meant to quote the verse in full, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe to say [lemor].” He points to Rabbenu Chananel in his commentary to Sanhedrin 36a, who quotes this passage with the full verse. God spoke (va-yedaber) to Moshe the specific words that are recorded in the Torah. However, lemor means that Hashem gave us the Torah “to say.” We must argue and debate the forty-nine possibilities of impurity and the forty-nine possibilities of purity. And it is we who must reach a conclusion and say it aloud. The Torah was not given as a static body of law, but as a dynamic, living interaction between the infinite wisdom of God and the finite mind of man.

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch15 applies this understanding directly to the introductory verse of the Ten Commandments. Lemor was not a demand for a response, as the Mekhilta understood it, rather a directive to the Jewish people “to say,” namely to inform and educate others. “And God spoke all these matters, to say” means we must transmit the Tradition received at Mt. Sinai, which is encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, to our children and our students. R. Hirsch suggests that Chazal understood the connotation of the word lemor in this way as well. Although the seven Noahide Commandments are associated with the eponymous Noach, six of them were originally given to Adam on his first day in Gan Eden. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) derives each commandment from a different word in the verse, “And Hashem commanded Adam to say [lemor], ‘Of every tree of the Garden you may freely eat” (Bereshit 2:16). The word lemor is the source of the prohibition against forbidden sexual relations (gilui arayot). While the Talmud supports its assertion from another verse containing the Hebrew root amr, the connection seems tenuous at best. R. Hirsch16 explains that the word lemor (to say) implies that each command of God is not only to be followed, but transmitted to others, particularly the next generation. The transmission of the Masorah takes place primarily within the context of the family. It is therefore essential that there be healthy, intact families. Since gilui arayot threatens and undermines the very existence of the family unit in which the Tradition can thrive and continue, Chazal saw in the word lemor a command to preserve the family.

What Are We Saying?

Every word in the Torah can teach us important lessons and impart precious insights. The word lemor, which often just slips by us as we read through Chumash, is no exception. Lemor is a direct appeal that demands a response. Lemor is a profound statement about the possibilities of growth and spiritual elevation. In a generation when we see Jews, superficially religious, paraded on the front page of newspapers indicted for stealing and cheating and worse, we must tremble when we read “Va-yedaber Hashem el Moshe lemor.” In a generation when the vast majority of Jews do not observe Shabbat on even the most basic level we must tremble when we read “Va-yedaber Hashem el Moshe lemor.” Engaging in actual melachah on Shabbat, actually stealing and murdering- these are basics laws whose violation should have been unthinkable. They should be taken for granted. We should be striving for the loftiest levels of human perfection both in the areas of bein adam la-Makom and bein adam la-chavero.

Unfortunately, we cannot climb the ladder to heaven if we have not yet placed our feet firmly on the first rung. Ultimately, lemor is a challenge to every generation to devotedly transmit the content, methodology and sensibilities of Torah to the next generation so that we will continue to grow spiritually as a people.  Shavuot is the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is our sacred obligation to educate our children and the wider Jewish community, to reach out to every Jew and say the words of Torah that God asked us to say so many millennia ago. The challenge that sincerely religious people face is to continue to grow in personal sanctity, refining and elevating our observance of the Torah’s commandments, while at the same time remaining aware of and sensitive to the most elementary spiritual needs of our children and our neighbors. We must work for the day when all Jews will respond “Yes!” to God’s call to the covenant and together we will explore the full depth and breadth of the Torah and its commandments.


  1. See Ibn Ezra Shemot 31:12 and Rashbam Bereshit 8:16. 

  2. Ramban Shemot 6:10. 

  3. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, Shemot 20:1 and Vayikra 1:1 

  4. Or Gedalyahu, Mo’adim, Likutei Dibburim ‘al Inyanei Shavuot, 5. 

  5. Chasdei Avot, Avot 2:8 

  6. See Rashbam and Ramban. 

  7. Torat Chaim, Sanhedrin ad loc. and at greater length in Bava Metzia 85a. 

  8. Shemot Rabbah 28 explicitly quotes the words ve-lo yasaf to prove that, “Each of the Sages that arose in every generation received his wisdom from Sinai.” 

  9. Shemot 31:18, citing the Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tisa 16). 

  10. Quoted by R. Yehudah Heshil Levenberg, Imrei Chen al HaTorah, v.3 p.12. 

  11. Eruvin 21a s.v. Vayifros

  12. Op cit. Vayikra  

  13. Cf. Malbim, Shemot 12:1 who offers a similar interpretation, but inverts the meaning of va-yedaber and lemor

  14. Ha’amek Davar, Vayikra 1:1. R. David Frankel in his commentary on the Yerushalmi (Sheyarei Korban ad loc.) quotes a similar interpretation from the Yefeh Mareh, but rejects it. He offers a different suggestion in his commentary (Korban HaEdah ad loc.).  See also Penei Moshe ad loc.  

  15. Bereshit 1:22. 

  16. Bereshit 2:16. 

About Moshe Schapiro

Rabbi Moshe Schapiro is a reference librarian at the Mendel Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University. He has served as rabbi of the Synagogue on the Palisades in Fort Lee, NJ and as an adjunct professor for Jewish Studies in the Isaac Breuer College at Yeshiva University.

Leave a Reply