Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth, has an excellent article on the Ten Commandments, “The Custom that Refused to Die.” Rabbi Sacks’ article was published in Chabad.org. The article deals with the role the Decalogue played in Jewish worship and the synagogue.
At issue are the questions of whether the Ten Commandments should be read during public prayers and whether the congregation should stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments.
Below is an excerpt from Rabbi Sacks’ article:
Maimonides found himself involved in a controversy over this question. Someone wrote him a letter telling the following story. He was a member of a synagogue where originally the custom was to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments. Then a rabbi came and ruled otherwise, saying that it was wrong to stand for the same reason as it was forbidden to say the Ten Commandments during public prayer. It could be used by sectarians, heretics and others to claim that even the Jews themselves held that the Ten Commandments were more important than the other 603. So the community stopped standing. Years later another rabbi came, this time from a community where the custom was to stand for the Ten Commandments. The new rabbi stood and told the congregation to do likewise. Some did. Some did not, since their previous rabbi had ruled against. Who was right?
Maimonides had no doubt. It was the previous rabbi, the one who had told them not to stand, who was in the right. His reasoning was correct also. Exactly the logic that barred it from the daily prayers should be applied to the reading of the Torah. It should be given no special prominence. The community should stay sitting. Thus ruled Maimonides, the greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages. However, sometimes even great rabbis have difficulty persuading communities to change. Then as now most communities—even those in Maimonides’ Egypt—stood while the Ten Commandments were being read.
So despite strong attempts by the sages, in the time of the Mishnah, Gemara and later in the age of Maimonides, to ban any custom that gave special dignity to the Ten Commandments, whether as prayer or as biblical reading, Jews kept finding ways of doing so. They brought it back into daily prayer by saying it privately and outside the mandatory service, and they continued to stand while it was being read from the Torah despite Maimonides’ ruling that they should not.
Rabbi Sacks’ article is very informative. You can read his article in its entirety by visiting Chabad.org.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary