The Ten Words


In 1996 Joseph Dana published a photographic reproduction of MS 1276 of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America along with a translation and detailed introduction (“The Piyyut on the Ten Commandments ascribed to Saadiah Gaon” Jewish Quarterly Review LXXVI, Nos. 3–4, pp. 323-375.) The reader is referred to this excellent article, which details the wealth of material already available on this intriguing text. I offer here a transcript of the version published in Oran, 5616/1856, along with some notes on the Arabic text and additional notes to my translation. This edition is designated as text 112 in my checklist; there is a copy in the British Library in London. The Arabic text is in Acrobat format, which can be read with the free Acrobat reader. Some words are marked in the Arabic text; by clicking on them a pop-up note appears, similarly words in blue in the translation direct the reader to a note. Click on the arrow (‹–) following the note to return.


Dana follows the majority opinion of scholars that the text was not written by Saadiah Gaon. However I have a somewhat different attitude to this matter. This text is what I would call a living text that was used liturgically for generations. As such, it was probably often memorized, being passed down by tradition, and subject to changes in the course of transmission. It has been said that folksongs exist “only in their variants,” and it seems to me that this applies also to a popular item like this text also. There would be a natural tendency for transmitters to “update” the vocabulary as they went, and often supplement the text with added material of their own. Traditional communities were in the habit of using their memories in ways that are impossible for us, whose ability to memorize has been inhibited by the habitual use of paper, ink, and now electronic devices. I witnessed the so-called psaulmistes, who, in Tunis of a Sabbath afternoon, would recite the entire book of Psalms aloud by heart. Sacred texts like this were insulated from change for pietistic reasons, but this did not apply to a sharh (commentary) like the work on the Ten Commandments ascribed to Saadiah. Accordingly, the fact that there are grammatical “mistakes” in the text does not mean that Saadiah could not have written it. Such mistakes are inherent in the development of language; when a mistake is made often enough, it becomes part of the standard language. Obviously, the text of a sharh or a folksong must have been written by someone originally; but that original form can only be guessed at. (Cf. my attempt at reconstruction of the text of Gerineldo.) Accordingly, I think we should leave the question open whether Saadiah wrote the original form of this text, but not fail to give credence to the traditional ascription. Great writers can have varying styles and interests; we do not deny to Joseph Caro the authorship of his highly personal diary because it is so different from his crisp, legalistic writing elsewhere.

The text is an expansive commentary, known in Arabic as sharh, to the Ten Commandments, and was used liturgically on the Feast of Weeks, which occurs seven weeks after the Passover, and celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai. It is customary also to read poetic compositions detailing all 613 commandments known as Azharot (Admonitions.) These are usually read to a traditional melody, with each male congregant taking turns at reading a line. There was, perhaps in some places still is, a custom that if the reader of a particular line made a mistake in the reading, the Congregation would interrupt with gusto in Arabic and Spanish, singing in the same melody as that used for the poem: Awed, awed, awed, vuelva Usted otra vez, “Repeat, repeat, repeat, do it again another time.” These Azharot, are always in Hebrew, not Arabic.

The Ten Words

The Ten Commandments are called in rabbinic Hebrew “Ten Words,” either debarîm or dibberôt. Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbât 86b: “On the sixth of the month the Ten Words were given to Israel.” The notion underlying this is that divine speech is different from human speech, being much more concise, so the Ten Commandments, some of which are relatively expansive in human speech, are each a single, supernatural utterance in divine speech. This doctrine finesses the problem inherent in the slight differences between the text of the Ten Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy, e.g. in the instruction about sabbath observance, in one place the word keep is used, in the other remember. So what did God say? Answer: both in a single utterance. Curiously, the Snobol programming language uses this very concept. It is possible in Snobol to store an alternate string in a variable, e.g.

instruction = ("keep" | "remember"),

and this has valuable uses in pattern matching. But if you ask the poor computer to print out the value of the variable instruction, it lamely responds: PATTERN. God's language can handle it, but not man's.

On its face this is a bizarre, some would say typically Rabbinic, explanation. Yet in many cases concepts can be imagined by exceptionally creative human beings which, at the time, cannot be brought from thought to actualization in the real world on account of the then lack of the necessary technology. Just think of Leonardo da Vinci, Babbage, Countess Ada.


I have added annotations to the translation which can be reached by clicking in the usual way, attempting to explain various allusions and references. In the Arabic text the notes are directed more specifically to the Arabic text, and will be of use mainly to those who read Arabic. The text was customarily preceded by an introit in Hebrew, which varies according to local custom. Dana did not translate this text; I offer a translation here. Readers are invited to let me have any questions or comments they may have.

Alan D. Corré
Milwaukee, Eve of the Feast of Weeks, 5765/June 12, 2005.

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