From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: The letters of the law

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – For many of my contemporaries, the quintessential visual representation of the life of Moses is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 cinematic epic The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston.

Despite its title, the film is not primarily about the revelation of the commandments at Mount Sinai. Only a brief segment of the screen time is devoted to the giving of the tablets (carved by spectacular divine fire), Moses’s receiving them, smashing them, and delivering them to the Israelites.

When I first saw the movie in my youth, I was disappointed — as, I suppose were many Jewish viewers — by the fact that the text on the cinematic tablets was not written in the familiar squarish characters that we learned in Hebrew school and in which Jews have been writing and reading for more than two millennia. Instead, it was inscribed in an unfamiliar alphabet similar to the one found on coinage minted by the Hasmoneans and Bar-Kokhba, and still used by the Samaritans.

All this invites questions of why and how DeMille and his collaborators chose to make use of that particular portrayal of the biblical tablets, and how accurate they were in rendering them for the silver screen.

The background story to this decision inspires immense respect for the persons involved. Prominent among these was Henry S. Noerdlinger, a Swiss-born researcher to whom DeMille assigned the task of verifying the accuracy of this and other historical films.

We should note that Noerdlinger’s definition of historical accuracy differed considerably from academic standards. Notably, he strove to incorporate narrative additions from later rabbinic, Christian and Muslim traditions; and the opening credits proclaimed proudly that the story was “in accordance with the Ancient texts of Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, the Midrash and The Holy Scriptures.” DeMille also speculated that other ancient sources had been “long since destroyed, or perhaps lost like the Dead Sea Scrolls” that were coming to light at that time. Those texts were the sources of numerous plot complications, political and romantic intrigues in the Egyptian court, and other non-scriptural elements that enhanced the movie’s dramatic impact.

How was the team of filmmakers able to wrestle with arcane details of Hebrew paleography? So insistent was DeMille on giving his film a genuine look that his tablets of the Law were actually carved out of reddish granite rock extracted from the slopes of Mount Sinai (or at least from Jabal Musa, the site that has been identified with that biblical location). Multiple copies of the tablets had to be crafted from various materials for use in diverse lighting situations. In recent years, those props have been fetching prices of $50,000 to $80,000 at auctions.

As regards the choice of alphabet, this was also dictated by DeMille’s desire for historical authenticity. For this purpose he consulted with Prof. Ralph Marcus, a respected expert on Second Temple Judaism. Of the various options from which they could have chosen (and which are in fact quite similar in appearance), Marcus argued for a late Bronze-Age Canaanite script that would likely have been in use in Moses’ time.

DeMille was very appreciative of Marcus’s contribution to the production and repeatedly consulted him on matters of scholarly accuracy. Marcus soon realized that for a blockbuster that was netting its producers $130 million, he deserved more than the paltry fifty dollars that he was paid. He hesitantly suggested a raise to $250, but received no response before he was felled by a heart attack.

The Talmud preserves divergent opinions regarding the alphabet in which the Torah and the Decalogue had originally been inscribed. While most sages recognized that our square script, known to the Mishnah as “Assyrian,” was introduced in the days of the Babylonian captivity, others (like Rabbi Eleazar ha-Moda‘i) denied that Jews had ever used anything other than our square alphabet. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch held that the original tablets had been inscribed in Assyrian letters, which had subsequently been abandoned until they were re-introduced by Ezra in Babylonia.

DeMille himself was a practicing Episcopalian Christian, and was presumably unaware that he might have qualified halakhically as Jewish, insofar as his mother Beatrice Samuels was of Jewish birth, though she converted to Christianity before her marriage. (Through her he was second-cousin to Viscount Herbert Samuel, the High Commissioner of Mandatory Palestine).

His sentimental attachment to the Jewish people was exemplified when filming an earlier, silent version of Ten Commandments in 1923, for which he employed a large number of recent Jewish immigrants to play the Hebrew slaves. At one point, those Jewish extras broke into a chant of the liturgical melodies “Av Ha-Rahamim” [merciful father] and “Sh’ma Yisra’el,” eliciting tears from the director.

If (as I did) you transliterate Marcus’s text into “normal” square Hebrew letters, you will observe that its content is not completely identical to that of our Jewish Bibles. Some of the differences might stem from the same challenges faced by designers of synagogue Torah arks when they set out to depict the motif of the Ten Commandments, but realize that there is not enough space to display them in their entirety in a readable size (especially the wordier ones at the beginning). A common solution is to include only the first two words of each commandment, or to substitute single letters of the Hebrew alphabet, used as numbers. The designers for the film seem to take an analogous pragmatic approach; though some also made reference to a scholarly theory that the original commandments given to Moses were formulated concisely, and were expanded in later times.

Curiously, the text on DeMille’s tablets skips over the prohibition against taking G-d’s name in vain. It was likely a simple copyist’s omission (in a text that nobody could proofread) — but I wonder whether DeMille had concerns about his own reputed propensity for cussing and blaspheming on the set.

After all, such violations might not be so grave if the prohibition wasn’t set in stone.

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