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DO YOU LIKE IT ROUND OR SQUARE?

Friday, 12 August, 2022 - 12:23 am

A Man went to heaven. As he stood in front of heaven’s throne, he saw a huge wall of clocks behind him. He asked, "What are all those clocks?"

 

 

The angel answered, "Those are Lie-Clocks. Everyone on Earth has a Lie-Clock. People tell lies often. Every time you lie the hands on your clock will move."

 

 

"Oh," said the man, "whose clock is that?

 

 

"That's the clock of the Chafetz Chaim. The hands have never moved, indicating that he never told a lie."

 

 

"Incredible," said the man. "And whose clock is that one?"

 

 

The angel responded, "That's Abraham Lincoln's clock. The hands have moved twice, telling us that Abe told only two lies in his entire Life."

 

 

"Where's the clock of the Supreme Leader of Iran?”

 

 

“Khamenei's clock is in G-d’s private office…”

 

 

“Why?”

 

 

“He's using it as a ceiling fan.”

 

 

There is a custom in many synagogues to display a representation of the Tablets containing the Ten Commandments—recorded in this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan—at the front of the synagogue. These images are generally placed above the ark. In most renderings, the Tablets are rounded on top. Yet in some synagogues like our very own, they are shaped as rectangles or squares.

 

 

You might think, what’s the difference, between round, or square? The message is the same. But as is true in all aspects of Jewish practice, this too has a history behind it. And quite an interesting one at that.

 

 

The Torah does not record the size of the Two Tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai engraved with the Ten Commandments. But the Torah does record the exact shape and size of the ark in which the tablets were placed. The Talmud, however, does record.

 

 

From the Talmudic description, the Tablets were square, sharing equally in length and width. Nowhere is there an indication in the detailed description of the Talmud that on the top of the tablets the dimensions changed due to the rounding of the Tablets.

 

 

There are many more sources in the Zohar and in other early texts that clearly indicate the Tablets were square.

 

 

How come we see the image of rounded Tablets in most synagogues? Here’s the story.

 

 

Up until the Middle Ages, Jews did not use the Tablets as a symbol, and they rarely depicted them in drawings. When they were shown, such as in several 13th-century manuscripts, they were shown within the Ark as two rectangular forms, not round at all! Even the world-famous sculpture of Moses by the Italian artist Michelangelo (1475–1564), which is found today in Rome, has Moses with tiny horns, but with square tablets. At least he got it right on the tablets

 

 

The current standard perception of the Tablets as round derives from Christian art, which for the most part depicts the tablets as round. The famous painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt (1609–1669), of Moses, smashing the tablets, has them rounded on the top. Similarly, the painting of the event by the French artist Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) has them rounded, as do dozens or maybe hundreds of other Christian pieces of art. This permeated Jewish culture, even though it contradicts our tradition.

 

 

How did this happen? The Rebbe, in a public address, offered his speculation. Most Jewish books published in Europe during the Medieval age needed to go through Christian censorship. The censor would review and redact the book and would often mark on the front page a Jewish symbol to demonstrate this was a Jewish book. What symbol did he use? The Tablets. Naturally, he used the image of the tablets most popular in Christian Europe. At first, this was not an issue, as it did not affect the content of the book, only it's cover. But slowly, this image crept into the Jewish consciousness, since many of their books were adorned with this image of the Tablets. When Jews began drawing the Tablets for other purposes, they used the image most familiar to them—the rounded tablets.

 

 

Most contemporary synagogues and institutions have no qualms about depicting the Luchot in this format, for they don’t even know that it originated in non-Jewish art and that it is contrary to the Torah tradition. It was a public address in 1981 that actively campaigned for a reversal of Jewish habit and an accurate portrayal of the Tablets in consistency with the truth.

 

 

Indeed, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, on King George St., built in 1982, has on top of the building two Tablets in a rectangular shape.

 

 

You might ask, who cares? Is this really our problem in 2022? We don’t have any other issues to deal with than the shape of the pictures of the Tablets.

 

 

But there are three messages here that are not small at all.

 

 

Judaism is ultimately about one thing only: the search for truth. We ought to allow the search for truth to challenge every assumption and every emotion.

 

 

If the world was looking for truth today? Would we constantly see Israel as one of the worst states in modern history? If professors, students, and journalists, would be dedicated to one thing: the search for real truth, not the truth that confirms my deep-seated notions and feelings, would we be reading the garbage we read about Israel day in and day out? Would the BDS movement have so much appeal to college students who as students of higher liberal education would have one sole objective in life: to discover the truth?

 

 

Friends, truth matters. If we know the Tablets were not round, then painting them in that picture is wrong, because it is untrue. And in 2022, truth matters!

 

 

We must be very cautious not to get our messages of what is right and what is wrong for us from the non-Jewish world. Jews need to discover their own pride and dignity and stop copying others and trying to please others. If we would listen to the world now it would mean that we should just put our heads down and trust that enemies who would love to see us dead will spare us because some of our allies are living in delusions.

 

 

The same is true when it comes to questions of morality, ethics, marriage, right and wrong, education, faith, and truth. We ought not to define our sense of right and wrong based on the fad of the day. A Jew is loyal to Torah—a Torah is given by G-d four millennia ago, but that is as relevant today as it was then. We are thankful for the progress of modernity, and we celebrate all modern developments, but we never allow them to replace the eternal values and truths of Judaism.

 

 

Thus, we should not be defining our Tablets with the Ten Commandments based on non-Jewish art.

 

 

As we said, if the Tablets were round, it means that there was empty space in the ark not filled by the Tablets. This runs contrary to a fundamental idea: Everything has a purpose. Even a box like the Ark did not have any extra space that was unnecessary.

 

 

During our lonely moments, we may feel that nobody cares for us, and we are alone in a large indifferent universe. But in the Jewish perspective, that is untrue. Even a tiny little space in the ark has a purpose. And it is not there for nothing. The same is true with each of us and each moment of our lives and every “space” we are in. We must remember that something very real and absolute is at stake at every moment of our existence and in every act we do. At this very moment, G-d needs you and me to bring redemption to His world.

 

 

There is a lovely Chassidic story that makes the point.

 

 

A dispute existed between Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad, and of the great Tzadik and spiritual giant, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev. The dispute was regarding the prayer "V'Shamru" that is said in many communities on Friday night before the Amida prayer. For various reasons, the Alter Rebbe did not include the prayer in the Friday night service, though he left it in his prayer book.

 

 

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok once told the Alter Rebbe: “When Jews say V'shamru on Friday night it causes a big lively fair, in heaven above.'"

 

 

The Alter Rebbe responded:

 

 

“I need not be at every lively fair!”

 

 

There is a deep message here. Yes, there is a great commotion in heaven. It is an awesome thing to be part of. But it is not for me. I do not belong there. Just because it is “lively” and wonderful and great, it does not mean I belong there. You need to know your soul and you need to know your mission.

 

 

It is not easy to overcome the desire to be someone else, to want what they have, to be what they are. Most of us have such feelings from time to time. It can take a lifetime of wrestling before we know who we are and relinquish the desire to be who we aren’t.

 

 

This may involve a lifetime of struggle, but the outcome is immense strength and happiness. No one is stronger than one who knows who and what he is.

 

 


 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 


 

 

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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