Yitro -The Minhag to Stand or to Sit

There are different customs with regards to standing or sitting during the Ten Commandments. The source of the standing/sitting debate is anchored in a Mishna. Tamid 5:1 states that originally Jews read the Ten Commandments daily, as part of their morning prayers. However, a group of heretics arose who insisted that the Ten Commandments were more important than the other 603. To combat this misconception, the sages removed the daily recital in order to downplay their significance (Talmud, Berahot 12a; Yerushalmi 1:5). This in turn inspired Sephardi sages to argue that one should remain seated whilst the Ten Commandments are read. In contrast, Ashkenazi sages argued that one should stand just as the Jews did when they originally heard the Ten Commandments, as the Torah states “vayityatzevu betahtit hahar,” “And they stood at the base of the mountain.”

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Moses and Aaron by Aron de Chavez, 1675, for Creechurch Lane Synagogue. Bevis Marks Synagogue

Surprisingly, the S&P custom is also to stand. It says in Rev Gaguine’s Keter Shem Tob (vol. 1, pg. 315): “It is the custom in London and Amsterdam that the entire congregation rises to their feet whilst the Torah reader reads the Ten Commandments.” How did this Sephardi S&P custom to stand came about?

The tradition to stand in the S&P may have evolved by accident, though this is pure conjecture (I welcome other theories in the comment section below). I’m informed that in Amsterdam the true minhag is actually to sit (See more here). However, if the Haham is given the aliyah, they stand out of respect for him, as they would do whenever he is called to the Torah. But, if no Haham is called up, they sit. However, as a rabbi is typically called up for that aliyah, it could be that it evolved in London, and in NY, to simply always stand. In other words, it had become so engrained to stand that even without a rabbi present they continued to do so.

The question of customs is important, because it distinguishes communities, not just in practice, but in concept too. Professor Haym Soloveitchik, identified a recent development in the Jewish world. In general, we have shifted from what he called a mimetic tradition to a textual one (see his article ‘Rupture and Reconstruction’). In other words, today, when most Jewish communities wish to determine proper practice, they open up Jewish texts and study them until they determine the most compelling position. However, mimetic communities, with their longstanding traditions, historically relied on precedent for rendering their decisions. They did so unless a tradition was discovered to be unfounded, in which case they would declare it a minhag taut, a mistaken custom, and discard it. Of course in most instances the custom had some rationale and so they would follow it, even if the textual sources indicated another approach more compelling.

While most communities used to be mimetic, the upheaval of the past 75 years, in both Ashkenaz and Sephardic communities, has undone tradition based communities, and forced our uprooted and then reconstituted communities to become text based. While the shift from traditions to texts is not bad per se, it of course means that something natural, or evolving has been lost. This is one of the qualities that makes the few remaining S&P synagogues so special. They remain some of the few communities in the world that can lay claim to authentic tradition and minhag hamakom. That does not mean that mistakes have not crept in over time, or that everything is perfect, but that fundamentally, they are mimetic communities, and that is compelling. There is something about their religious devotion that strikes us as natural, cohesive, and authentic, even if different than what is done in most other synagogues.

I and so many others are moved by ‘the minhag’ on a daily basis. I pray that the S&P will continue to stand the test of time!

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2 responses to “Yitro -The Minhag to Stand or to Sit

  1. The persistence of the practice of standing for the Ten Commandments seems to me a clear example of a popular practice which has refused to go away in spite of rabbinic rulings. The preference for sitting comes from Rambam, who strongly objected to the practice of the congregation standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments from the Torah scroll, on the grounds that the Karaites did so. Nevertheless, the practice of standing continues to this day, even though rabbinic objections are still sometimes voiced. Throughout the Middle Ages, teachers would recite the Ten Commandments to young children on the occasion of their first Hebrew lesson. A document from the Cairo genizah records that the Palestinian Synagogue in Fostat sought permission in the year 1211 to preserve a strange ritual of their own: they would daily take the Scroll of the Torah from the Ark, carry it to the reading desk ,and there recite the Ten Commandments, but without opening the Scroll. Ibn Ezra criticised the practice of writing the 10 commandments in the mezuzah (Ibn Ezra on Deut 6.:6). The Tur recommended the daily recital of the Ten Commandments, but Joseph Caro commented that this must mean in private only. In sixteenth-century central Europe, rabbis objected to the new practice of inscribing the Ten Commandments, or an abbreviated form of the Hebrew words, on wooden plaques placed at the front of the Synagogue above or at the side of the ark: in spite of their objections, the practice became universally accepted as an important feature of synagogue design, and persists to the present time. All this goes to show that popular practice can survive and in the end defeat rabbinic rulings.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful post. It’s definitely the most scholarly comment yet on the blog! I’d just add that there are of course different types of rabbinic rulings, and whether to stand or to sit is of course not a very significant one – more of a question of custom than of serious law. Ironically, customs are sometimes even more lasting than laws as people become very attached to them. Thank you again for the post and I look forward to seeing you next time at Bevis!

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