Zeman matan toratenu = the season of the giving of our Law is another name for the Festival of Weeks = Shavuoth.  The reading of the Law on Shavuot specifically relates to the Decalogue, which appears in two versions in the Torah: Exodus 20:2-17 & Deuteronomy 5:5-18.  In Exodus, the Ten Words are written onto two luchoth haeduth = Tables of Testimony, while in Deuteronomy the words are written on two luchoth haberith = Tables of the Covenant. In most western countries, neck bands representing these two Tablets of the Law remain part of the regalia worn in Court by barristers and judges to remind them to dispense divine and not human justice.


However, keeping to the Decalogue is a constant challenge. For example:

  1. “I am the Eternal your God”. Over 60% of people in western countries take the secular view on life and do not link life to the existence of a God as described by monotheistic religions.
  2. “You shalt not have any other gods before Me”.  Western democracies strive to be multi-cultural societies without preference for a particular religion.
  3. “You shalt not take the Name of God in vain”.  Modern languages use the word God in many of their greeting and idioms.
  4. “Remember the Sabbath Day”.  Industrial legislation provides for Saturday and Sunday trading and employers expect their employees to work on the Sabbath.
  5. “Honour your father and your mother”.  Children are protected by the State and the relationship of children to father and mother is sometimes blurred. i.e. the stolen generation; Trade in children for prostitution; single parent & same sex families; in vitro-children; etc.
  6. “You shalt not murder”.  Society punishes murder for personal gain but glorifies murder committed in the service of one’s country in war. Some Law Courts license murder in the form of capital punishment.
  7. “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.  Adultery has been decriminalised in most western countries.
  8. “Thou shalt not steal”. It is not acceptable to take away another person’s property by individuals; however the State is at liberty to acquire people’s private property by taxation.
  9. “Thou shalt not bear false witness”.  This is perhaps the only Commandment that still has to be observed by the majority of people, except that politicians can bear false witness under Parliamentary privilege.
  10. “Thou shalt not covet”.  It is difficult to comment on this Commandment unless you have a degree in psychology and live in the illusion that you can completely comprehend another person’s mind.

When reading the Decalogue on Shavuot we might well reflect on how key Jewish dicta have been adapted or even revoked to serve human and not divine justice.

Copyright Abridged version of an essay by Ken Arkwright