Sunday, March 07, 2010

Square-Faced Tablets
of the 10 Commandments

The simple and real reason the tablets of the 10 commandments commonly appear rounded on their tops, like two semicircles, relates to historical factors. Back when Jewish books had to pass through Gentile censorship, they had to be printed by Gentile publishers who printed this image on the first page of Jewish publications. Jews paid the matter little attention, but this 1st-page custom propagated from generation to generation.

The fact is this image of the tablets rounded at their tops contradicts what the Gemora (B. Basra 14a) tells us. There it states clearly the tablets' dimensions and that they filled, with two other items, the hollow of the ark - in such a way that no empty space remained therein. The tablets were 6 x 6 x 3 (tefachim) and flat on all sides (for rounded edges would leave unused, empty space).

A book by a rabbi a few decades ago, published in Israel, proved the accuracy of this Gemora. Nevertheless, the rounded design remains in prominent display in far too many synagogues across the world, perpetuating the error - one that stands in contradiction to what our cherished Gemora teaches.

Besides in synagogues, they abound as well in educational institutions where young children learn in their formative years. This inaccuracy embellishes Jewish flyers, receipts or school certificates. Jews thus have the wrong impression and take for granted this erroneous appearance. 

The source of this mistake derives from Gentile persuasion and history. It contrasts with what Gemora teaches. When the tablets are rendered rounded, it enhances the non-Jewish version over the words of our venerable sages.

Similarly, this same perverted phenomenon holds true for the shape of the Temple Menorah, which too has a history of distortion, as written here.

Here, for example, is a picture of this distortion, in the famous Hurva Synagogue in The Old City of Jerusalem, which, in these very days was again inaugurated (for it had been destroyed and rebuilt a few times). This same distortion can be seen even in most orthodox synagogues around the world.

How to explain it? People just don't know.


  1. Be consistent: The Gemara says the tablets were square, not rectangular. You show rectangular tablets. (Although there are sources that say they were rectangular, you don't cite them.)

  2. Thanks Nachum. I changed the title to read SQUARE instead of RECTANGULAR. (Although the sides of the tablets were, in fact, rectangular.)

    To be sure, the front and back of the tablets were square. I also added the tablets' dimensions of 6x6x3 "tefachim" (i.e. 1 x 1 x 0.5 cubits, or "amot").

    As for the inaccuracy of the photoshopping exhibit, I mislead my kid and he'll get some new homework from me.

  3. I believe there is another source that says that they were 6 x 3 x 3, though- rectangular front, square top.

  4. As far as this Gemora's page goes, only one set of measurements are given. perhaps elsewhere there's another viewpoint. (My kid did a quick job of his homework.)

  5. How about the many hieroglyphics and petroglyphs we find of the stone tablets that depict them with the rounded tops?

  6. Anon - with all due respect to hieroglyphics and petroglyphs, the sages would not spout an iota of breathe were it not 100% truthful. The dimensions they gave fit perfectly with the dimensions of the ark they were kept in. They is no room for poetic license as there is in hieroglyphics and petroglyphs.