SALT - Sunday, 14 Shevat 5776 - January 24, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

One of the differences between the two texts of the Ten Commandments – the one that appears in Parashat Yitro (Shemot 20) and that in Parashat Vaetchanan (Devarim 5) – relates to the fourth commandment, the command to observe Shabbat.  In Parashat Yitro, this command is formulated as, “Zakhor et yom ha-Shabbat” (“Remember the day of Shabbat”), whereas in Parashat Vaetchanan the wording is, “Shamor et yom ha-Shabbat” (“Guard the day of Shabbat”).

Rashi, citing the Mekhilta, famously comments, “Zakhor ve-shamor be-dibur echad ne’emru” – the commands of “Zakhor” and “Shamor” were both issued in a single utterance.  Although these two refer to different aspects of Shabbat – “Zakhor” speaks of the requirement to designate Shabbat as a special day, and “Shamor” speaks of the activities that are forbidden on Shabbat – they were given together.  Rashi proceeds to give other examples of pairs of commands that were given together in a single utterance, even though they are actually in conflict with one another.  For example, one verse designates Shabbat desecration as a capital offense (Shemot 31:14), and another (Bamidbar 28:9) mandates offering sacrifices on Shabbat, an act which would otherwise be forbidden.  These two verses, even though they in a sense oppose one another, were presented “be-dibur echad” – “in a single utterance.”  Rashi also gives the example of tzitzit, which requires tying wool strings to linen garments, despite the prohibition of sha’atnez.  These two conflicting commands – the requirement of tzitzit and the prohibition of sha’atnez – were given “be-dibur echad.”  The final pair of commands noted by Rashi is the prohibition against marrying one’s brother’s wife and the mitzva of yibum, which requires doing just that when the brother dies without children.

How might we explain the significance of this concept, “be-dibur echad ne’emru”?  Why do Chazal seek to draw our attention to the fact that these pairs of different or conflicting commands were given in a single utterance?

The answer, perhaps, is that Torah life imposes a wide range of obligations and requires many different commitments, many of which at times conflict with one another.  Certainly, limits in time, energy and resources make it difficult to satisfactorily tend to all our different obligations.  Additionally, we are expected to balance conflicting characteristics and values.  We are to be bold and cautious; private and social; generous and responsible; tolerant but firm in our beliefs and convictions.  So much of Torah life follows the model of “Zakhor ve-shamor be-dibur echad” – two vastly different, or even opposing, ideals that somehow need to be balanced against one another.

The concept of “Zakhor ve-shamor be-dibur echad ne’emru” is mentioned also in the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 27a), which adds, “which the mouth is incapable of uttering, and the ear is incapable of hearing.”  Meaning, only God is capable of issuing two commands in a single utterance.  Perfect balance and harmony between conflicting ideals and values is not human; only God can achieve such perfection.  Nevertheless, we are to strive to maintain as perfect a balance as possible.  We must ensure never to focus exclusively on “zakhhor” or on “shamor,” on a particular religious value or requirement, without taking note of the other side of the equation.  The Torah must be learned, understood, internalized and practiced in its totality, with proper attention given to all its various components, so that the numerous different ideals and obligations it encompasses blend together into a single, integrated, balanced life of religious commitment.