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I was standing between Hashem and you at that time to tell you Hashem’s word because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up on the mountain saying. (Devarim 5:5)
In this week’s parsha we learn about the Ten Commandments. The text of the Ten Commandments in our parsha significantly differs from the text of the Ten Commandments in parshas Yisro. Chazal explain that in parshas Yisro the Torah records the text of the first set of tablets that were later shattered. In our parsha the Torah records the text of the second set of tables that were given in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) relates a dispute regarding the script of the Torah. One opinion holds it was the ashuris script. This is the script with which our Torah scrolls are written today. The script is of Divine origin and the form and shape of each letter is filled with great meaning and kabalistic teachings. It is called ashuris either because it was commonly used by the Jewish people during their settlement in Assyria or because the word ashur may be translated as “choice” or “best.” This implies that this is the preferred script. The other opinion holds that the Torah was given in the ivri script. This was an ancient mundane man-made script that was commonly used during the time the Torah was given.
There is much discussion in the commentaries as to which script was used in the tablets. The Talmud relates that the letter mem and samach were miraculously suspended in the tablets. This appears to be true only if the script was ashuris. These letters are completely closed on all four sides. Being that these letters were carved out from end to end, the middle section could not stand under the natural laws of science. On the other hand if the ivri script was used, the only letter that required a miracle was the ayin. In the ivri script the ayin has a circular or triangular shape. Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi explains that according to this opinion it was the ayin that was miraculously suspended in the tablets not the mem and samach.
The Radvaz advances a novel approach to this matter by explaining that the first set of tablets was written in ashuris and the second in ivri. He brings support to this from the posuk where Hashem tells Moshe “Carve out two stone tablets for yourself just like the first ones and I will write upon these tablets the ‘matters’ which were on the first tablets that you broke” (Shemos 34:1). The choice of words intimates that only the ‘matters’ were the same not the script. What is the significance that the two sets of tablets were written with different scripts?
The Torah is broken down into two parts, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The two are inseparable. The Oral Torah is the only true interpretation of the Written Torah. The commentators explain that the first set of tablets is symbolic of the written Torah, whereas the second set is symbolic of the Oral Torah. The main difference between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah is accessibility. The written Torah is accessible to all whereas the Oral Torah is transmitted privately from teacher to student throughout history. The first set of tablets is symbolic of the written Torah because it was given to the Jewish people in public and with great fanfare. The entire world witnessed firsthand the giving of the first tablets. Chazal tell us that even the animals did not make sounds when the Torah was given. This is symbolic of the Written Torah which is accessible to all. The second set of tablets is symbolic of the Oral Torah. They were given to Moshe privately when he ascended heaven to plea for forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people. These tablets are symbolic of the private nature of the Oral Torah.
We may now understand why there was a different script for each set of tablets. The first set of tablets was written with the ashuris script. Chazal tell us that the form of each letter in the ashuris script is full of meaning and insight. Even the crowns of each letter contain “mounds upon mounds” of halachik teachings. Within the ashuris script itself we find the entire Torah with all its laws and depth. Although not explicit, all of the Torah is hinted to through these letters. It is accessible for all. This is the character of the Written Torah. The second set of tablets was written with ivri script. This script is mundane. It does not have deep meaning. There are no laws derived from the form and unique shape of each letter. There are no crowns either. The second set of tablets was just the bare skeleton of Torah. The depth and breadth of the Torah was transmitted orally from Hashem to Moshe and from Moshe to the Jewish people.
We may further note another important difference between the two sets of tablets. The first set of tablets focused solely on Moshe. He spoke with Hashem and served as an intermediary between Hashem and the Jewish people. After the sin of the golden calf Moshe pleaded with Hashem for forgiveness. Here, he invoked the merit of our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. It was only in their merit that Hashem conceded to give the Torah once again. In summary, the first set of tablets was in the merit of the Jewish People through Moshe, the second, in the merit of our forefathers.
The first time a word appears in the Torah has great significance. The word ivri appears in the Torah for the first time in reference to Avraham. The posuk says “The one who had escaped came and told Avram the ivri” (Bereishis 14:13). Rashi explains that Avram was called ivri simply because he came from the other side of the river. Chazal however explain that he was called ivri because he took a stand against the practice of idolatry. The whole world was on one side and he on the other.
We may suggest that it is also for this reason the second set of tablets was written with the ivri script. This script served as a reminder that the Torah was given a second time only in the merit of our forefather Avraham the ivri. His ability to stand up against a whole world of idolaters was the merit the Jewish people needed in order to counteract their sin of idolatry.
It is customary on the High Holy Days to dress the Torah and Aron Hakodesh in white. Where does this custom come from? White is a symbol of purity and forgiveness. It is certainly appropriate that we dress ourselves in white. After all, we are the ones in need of forgiveness, but why the Torah? The Torah is pure all year around.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) when discussing the ivri script asks, “What is the ivri script?” The Talmud answers “It is the Libonaah script.” The root of the word Libonaah is lavan, which means white.
The climax of the High Holy days is Yom Kippur. The day Hashem forgives us. It is noteworthy that Yom Kippur was the day when we received the second set of tablets. It was on this day Hashem forgave the Jewish people for the sin of worshiping the golden calf.
The two sets of tablets represent two different approaches to Torah. The first set of tablets represents an ideal. We earn the Torah and all blessing that come with it in our own merit. When focusing on the first set of tablets we reflect how Hashem took us out of Egypt and how we faithfully followed Him to the desert. We stood by Mount Sinai and received the Torah. We were free from sin and lifted to an exalted level of spirituality, all in our own merits. This indeed may be our approach to Torah the whole year around. During the High Holy Days, however, we focus on the second set of tables. We are cognizant that we were sinners and did not deserve the Torah. We only survived due to the merit of our forefathers. We dress our Torah scrolls and Aron in white, reminiscent of the second tablets that were given on Yom Kippur written in the Livonaah (white) script and are symbolic of forgiveness and atonement.
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5765/2005