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Squared vs. Rounded Tablets by Reuven Chaim Klein
There is a custom in many synagogues to display a representation of the Tablets (Luchos) containing the
Ten Commandments at the front of the synagogue sanctuary. These images are generally placed on top
of the ark containing the Torah Scrolls and/or on the curtain covering the ark. In many renditions of the
Tablets, they shaped as regular rectangles or squares, but in most renderings, they are rounded on top.
In recent times, several Rabbinic figures have expressed their opinions regarding this matter.
The Tablets’ Dimensions
The Babylonian Talmud
records the dimensions of the Tablets as six handbreadths long, six
handbreadths wide, and three handbreadths thick. The Jerusalemic Talmud
offers a similar description,
noting that the Tablets were three handbreadths wide. All in all, both Talmuds seem to agree that the
Tablets were square prisms because they note the Tablets’ dimensions in a linear way, without
specifying that the Tablets were rounded.
Furthermore, in the ensuing discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, the Talmud proves from the Tablets’
dimensions and the dimensions of the Holy Ark
that when the Tablets were placed in their ark, the ark
was completely filled exactly to capacity. Since the Holy Ark was a cube prism, the Talmud calculations
can only work if the Tablets were also squared. If the rounding
was done within the square dimensions of the Tablets, then there
would be slightly more room in the Ark, while if the rounding was
done outside of the square dimensions of the Tablets, then the
Tablets would be too big to fit into the Ark.
While the Talmud stops short of explicitly mentioning that the
Tablets were squared, Rabbeinu Bachaya (1255–1340) does so in his commentary to the Torah
Torah tells that at Marah, HaShem “offered [the Jews] a decree (chok) and ordinance (mishpat)”
Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that “decree” in this context alludes to the Tablets. He justifies this
association by noting that according to the dimensions of each squared Tablets given in the Talmud, the
volume of each Tablet equals one-hundred and eight cubic-handbreadths (6˲6˲3 = 108). The number
one-hundred and eight equals the word “decree” ( ח ק ) in numerical value (Gematria). Similarly, Pirush
HaRokeach twice mentions that the total volume of the twin Tablets is two-hundred and sixteen.
seemingly arrived to this conclusion the same way as Rabbeinu Bachaya (only doubling the formula to
calculate both Tablets together). In short, by calculating the volume of the Tablets as simply a function
of its length, width, and thickness, these sources clearly understood that the Tablets were perfectly
squared, which, in fact, Rabbeinu Bachaya wrote explicitly.
TB Bava Basra 14a.
JT Taanis 4:5.
As given in Exodus 25:10.
To Exodus 31:18.
J. Klugmann (ed.), Pirush HaRokeach Al HaTorah Vol. 2 (Bene Barak, 2009) pgs. 75; 109–110.
Rejecting the Notion of Rounded Tablets
In two responsa about this topic, Rabbi Eliyahu Katz (1916–2004),
Chief Rabbi of Slovakia and later of
Beer Sheva, writes that the Tablets given at Mount Sinai were definitely squared, not rounded. He notes
that it seems Christian artists like Michaelangelo (1475–1564) and Rembrandt (1609–1669) were the
first to introduce the notion of rounded Tablets and their widespread portrayals of the Tablets in such a
permeated Jewish culture, even though it contradicts tradition.
Nonetheless, since it has become a widespread practice even in Jewish circles to portray the Tablets as
having a rounded top, Rabbi Katz proposes an interesting theory to justify its prevalence by ascribing a
more “Jewish” origin to the practice. He notes that in certain ancient
Tunisian synagogues, there are images of the Tablets with three crowns
atop them. These crowns ostensibly represent the three crowns which
adorn the Jews: the Crown of Torah, the Crown of Priesthood, and the
Crown of Kingship.
While earlier images of the Tablets were
supplemented with these three crowns, over time, the meaning of
these three crowns was forgotten and people began to assume that the
Tablets themselves were rounded on top. Based on this explanation, Rabbi
Katz proposes that the old Tunisian custom should be restored with three
crowns on top of the Tablets and a line of demarcation to separate the
crowns from the Tablets so that the observer would realize that the Tablets
themselves were not round.
Following Rabbi Katz's suggestion,
MK Yaakov Margi (Shas), who formerly served as the chairman of the local religious council in Beer
Sheva, changed his council's official logo from a rounded depiction of the Tablets to a squared one.
Similarly, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), spoke strongly
against those who depict the Tablets as rounded on top and actively campaigned for an accurate
portrayal of the Tablets.
Justifying the Common Practice of Rounded Tablets
In one of his responsa, Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Fisher (1928–2003),
Chief Rabbi of Badatz Eidah Chareidis
in Jerusalem, defends an author who came under attack for including in his book an image of the Tablets
as rounded. He writes that the Talmud never mentions whether the Tablets were squared or rounded
and there is no clear proof to either approach (however, see above). Furthermore, he expresses his
Responsa Beer Eliyahu §96–97. The first responsum was originally printed in Nitzanei HaNegev Vol. 4 (1977) pg.
34, while the second was printed in Katz (ed.), HaEshel Vol. 49 (Beer Sheva, 1990) pgs. 26–29. Rabbi Amihud
Levine, Rosh Kollel in Netanya and editor of the Torah journal Oraita wrote an article in Oraita Vol. 13 (Netanya,
1983) pgs. 147–151 summarizes the different positions and issues surrounding this controversy.
See Maimonides (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:1). Cf. TB Shabbos 88a which states that when the Jews agreed to
accept the Torah before being informed of what that entailed, each person was granted two special crowns. Those
crowns were removed when the Jews sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf.
Sichos Kodesh 5741 Vol. 2 (New York) pgs. 513–515.
In his responsa Even Yisroel (Vol. 8, §57).
A drawing of the Tablets adorned with three crowns on top. This picture is printed in S.
Buber (ed.), Midrash Lekach Tov (Vilna 1880) pg. 70.
bewilderment as to why that author’s book came under attack, but no one ever complained about the
multitude of synagogues across Jerusalem which portray the Tablets as being rounded. Instead, Rabbi
Fisher proposes that there is justification for portraying the Tablets as round and the custom should not
He begins by offering an interesting proof to the assertion that the Tablets were in fact rounded, not
squared. The Jerusalemic Talmud in several places states that when HaShem created the world during
the Six Days of Creation, squares did not naturally occur, implying that everything created then was
circular, not squared.
Additionally, the Mishnah
teaches that the Tablets were created during the Six
Days of Creation. By putting together these two sources, Dayan Fisher concludes that according to
tradition the Tablets were completely rounded (even the bottom!), not squared.
Rabbi Katz rejects this proof by noting that the Talmud itself qualifies its assertion about squares in
nature by restricting it to living creatures (and perhaps also foods), but not all elements of creation.
Furthermore, he notes that the same Mishnah teaches that HaShem created the script of Lashon
HaKodesh during the Six Days of Creation, yet the script of Lashon HaKodesh surely contains squared
figures such as the final mem (ם).
Furthermore, Dayan Fisher argues that even if the Tablets were actually square, there is another reason
to continue the custom of rounding the Tablets. The Talmud
mentions a prohibition of constructing
replicas of the Holy Temple and its paraphernalia. While some commentators restrict this prohibition to
only those elements listed there in the Talmud (namely the Sanctuary, the Hall, the Courtyard, the
Shulchan, and the Menorah), others, including the Galician Rabbi Yosef Babad (1801–1874)
that this prohibition applies to anything for which the Torah prescribes certain dimensions. Dayan Fisher
understood that the Tablets are therefore included in this prohibition (and explains that even though
the Torah does not mention its dimensions, the Talmud does). Accordingly, he supports the custom of
rounding images of the Tablets so that the distorted image would not fall under this prohibition.
JT Shevous 3:8, Nedarim 3:2, Maasros 5:3.
TB Avodah Zarah 43a.
Minchas Chinuch (#254).
A drawing of the Tablets included in a manuscript (housed at
Cambridge University) of Sefer HaKushyos, a work written by an
anonymous Ashkenaz scholar in the time of Rabbi Meir of
Rothenberg (circa. 1120–1293). This facsimile is reproduced in Y. Y.
Stahl (ed.), Sefer HaKushyos (Jerusalem, 2007) pg. 275.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Katz disagrees with Dayan Fisher’s assessment of the matter and contends that only
what is mentioned in the Talmud is forbidden to be replicated, thus excluding the Tablets, which are
omitted from the Talmud’s list. Furthermore, argues Rabbi Katz, this prohibition only applies to one who
constructs these elements in their prescribed dimensions, but replicas of the Tablets do not generally
match the dimensions of the Talmud. Even if one was particular to construct the Tablets at six
handbreadths wide and long, they do not usually also make sure to have the Tablets three handbreadths
thick. Since this change already removes the prohibition of replication, there is no need to further
distort the image of the Tablets by rounding off the tops.
In his final note on the topic, Dayan Fisher notes that since it is unclear whether the Tablets were
squared or rounded, the custom is to square the bottom and to round the top, thereby surely altering
the image from the original so as to completely avoid the prohibition of replicating components of the
Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach (1899–2001), Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovezh and leader of World Jewry
in his time, was once asked by the board of a synagogue which was designing its building whether they
should make the Tablets rounded or squared. He responded by writing that he sees that most
synagogues have the Tablets rounded, even though in truth, the historic Tablets were squared. He
concludes that while it seems that the accepted custom is to round the Tablets, the Steipler Gaon, Rabbi
Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky (1899–1985) instructed that the Kollel Chazon Ish should have squared Tablets.
In his conclusion, Rabbi Shach defers to Rabbi Kanievsky’s position and recommends that the synagogue
have squared Tablets, not rounded ones.
King Solomon advises about the Torah and Mitzvos, “write them on the tablets of your heart” (Proverbs
7:2). Based on this, Radaz, Rabbi David ben Zimra (1462–1572) explains
that the Tablets of the Ten
Commandments represent the heart of a person in many different ways. Just as the word of HaShem is
eternally inscribed on the Tablets, so should a person eternally inscribe in his heart the will of Hashem.
Following this line of reasoning, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (1923–1986), the Mashgiach of Ponovezh,
explains that for this reason the Tablets are traditionally rendered as rounded on the top , i.e., “heart-
This article was written by Rabbi Reuven Chaim (Rudolph) Klein, author of the upcoming book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew
(Mosaica Press). He is a graduate of Emek Hebrew Academy/Teichman Family Torah Center and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles and received
Rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner. His writings have been
published in several prestigious journals including Jewish Bible Quarterly (Jerusalem), Kovetz Hamaor (Brooklyn), Kovetz Kol HaTorah (London),
and Kovetz Iyun HaParsha (Jerusalem). He is currently a fellow at the Kollel of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem and lives with his wife and children in
Beitar Illit, Israel. He can be reach via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The letter penned by Rabbi Shach is printed by Rabbi Efrayim Greenblatt (1932–2014) in his responsa Rivivos
Efrayim (Vol. 5 §115), as well as in a compendium of Rabbi Shach’s letters, Michtavim U’Maamarim Vol. 1 (Bene
Barak, 1989) pg. 148.
Metzudas David, Sefer HaMitzvos.
C. Freidlander, Sifsei Chaim, Moadim Vol. 1 (Bene Barak, 1994) pg. 37.
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