Inconsistencies in the Torah: Shamor vs. Zakhor

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Gavriel Lakser

The Book of Deuteronomy is referred to by the rabbinic sages as Mishneh Torah– the “Repetition of the Torah.” This designation reflects the dominant theme of Deuteronomy in which Moses recounts the Israelite travails in the wilderness following their redemption from Egyptian slavery. However, there are a number of instances where Moses’ account of events conflicts with the Torah’s description of those events in real time. One such example is the commandment of the Shabbat in the Decalogue, or aseret ha-dibrot.

In the original version of the aseret ha-dibrot in the book of Exodus, we read:

Remember (zakhor) the Sabbath day to make it holy. Six days you shall toil and do all your creative work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath for YHWH your God. You shall not do any creative work, neither you, nor your sons or your daughters, your male or female slaves, your cattle, or the stranger who is within your gates. For, six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them. And He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, YHWH blessed the day of the Sabbath and sanctified it. (Exodus 20:8-11)[1]

But as Moses recounts the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, we read the following:

Guard (shamor) the Sabbath day to make it holy as YHWH your God commanded you. Six days you shall toil and do all your creative work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath for YHWH your God. You shall not do any creative work, neither you, your sons, or your daughters, your male or female slaves, your ox or your donkey, and all of your cattle, and the stranger that is in your gates, in order that your male and female slave may rest as you do. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land Egypt, and YHWH your God took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, YHWH your God commands you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

To begin with, in the Exodus version of the Decalogue we are told to “Remember” the Shabbat, while the Deuteronomy rendition reads “Guard.” One response to this inconsistency is offered by Ramban (on Exodus 20:8) who explains that “Remember” refers to the positive mitzvot pertaining to Shabbat, while “Guard” alludes to the negative mitzvot. Examples of positive mitzvot include all obligations related to sanctifying the Shabbat such as making kiddush and partaking in festive meals. Negative commandments would include all 39 creative activities that are forbidden on Shabbat. Elaborating on this, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halakha, Shabbat, vol. 1, chapter 1:8-9, 12-15) states that the positive aspect of “Remember” is specifically associated with the attributes of generosity and love, while the negative “Guard” evokes strict justice and judgment.

In fact, the competing emotions generated in each version of the Decalogue well-reflect the historical context in which they appear which, in turn, helps explain the discrepancies in language between the two accounts. The first account, from the book of Exodus, comes on the heels of Israel’s redemption from 210 years of Egyptian bondage. This is a nation that, until the moment of liberation, had never experienced relief from the burdens of slavery. And so, for them, God’s gift of Shabbat is truly an act of compassion and kindness par excellence.

Indeed, the language and tone in the Exodus edition is of a decidedly conciliatory nature. By relating Shabbat to God’s resting following His creation of the world, the Torah suggests that just as God ‘needs’ time to rejuvenate from His creative work (see Genesis 2:1-3), so too, does man. Once again, Shabbat is presented here as a gift and an allowance.

This positive and compassionate tone is, similarly, evident in the episode of the manna, where God attempts to educate the newly emancipated nation about the Shabbat. Even as the people disregard God’s instructions to refrain from going out into the fields to collect manna on the seventh day, God is extremely charitable in his response to their recalcitrance:

And God said to Moses, “For how long are you going to refuse to keep my commandments and teachings? See that God has given you the Shabbat. Therefore, he gives you a double portion of bread on the sixth day. Stay in your place. Let no man go out from his place on the seventh day.” (Exodus 16:28-29)

While God chastises the people for their disobedience, His frustration is due to the Israelites’ seeming inability to recognize that He has “given” them the Shabbat as a gift and a blessing. His message to the people is that they can rely on Him, that He will provide for them and ensure that they have a day of rest without having to worry about means for their sustenance.

But for the audience of the aseret ha-dibrot in the book of Deuteronomy, Shabbat no longer has that sense of novelty. This is not the generation that just recently departed Egypt. Rather, Moses is addressing the children and grandchildren of those who had left Egypt 40 years prior. Shabbat, for them, is now a familiar experience. And as they are about to enter the Promised Land, where each man would receive his own inheritance of land to lord over, a very different message is needed. Not one of comfort and blessing, but rather of caution and exhortation. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains:

For, in the change to having to live for oneself in the impending decentralization, and the consequent activities of wresting one’s independence from nature and human competition, the Sabbath was to be impressed above all in its shemirah aspect, in its twenty-four hour sacrifice of ceasing work in acknowledging homage to God. So that those who henceforth would feel relegated to their own yad and their own zarua, their own “strength and power,” should not forget the truth that every ounce of strength and every grain of power, and all that they might come to think was their own production, comes from God and belongs to God; the God Who showed them His strength and His power in the midst of the “might and power” of the great Egyptian state on the “slaves” who had been bereft of all strength and power, and it is He Who has given them the strength and power they now enjoy and call their own, and Who expects them to acknowledge this fact with the twenty-four hour Sabbath sacrifice of shevitat melacha v’hotza’ah, ceasing exercising their “creative” power and control and regulation of things (see Ex. XX, 11 and XXXV, 2) … and that is why here “l’ma’an yanuach avdecha v’amatecha kamocha” (“in order that your slaves and maidservants shall rest as you do”) is stressed as a special visible consequence of the God-acknowledging festival of Sabbath when man calls a halt to the exercise of his “strength and powers.” (S.R. Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 79-81)

As the Israelites transition to becoming masters in their own land, there looms the danger of them coming to forget the source of their productivity. And while they would likely continue to reap the benefits of the day of rest, those under their power might not be so fortunate.

And so, as Rabbi Hirsch explains, the focus in Deuteronomy turns to the restrictive dimension of Shabbat. Here, in place of recalling God’s creation of the world, Moses reminds the Israelites that the power and prosperity they are to enjoy in the Promised Land is only possible because of the wonders and miracles that God performed in taking them out of Egypt. As Moses exhorts the people:

When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget YHWH your God- who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage… (Deut. 8:10-14)

The addition in the Deuteronomic text of those beasts of burden- “your ox or your donkey”- along with the reemphasis of the requirement to give respite to your slaves so that they “may rest as you do” reflects this transition from Shabbat as a provision to an obligation. Just as you enjoy relief from your burdens, so too, must you grant such freedom to those under your staff. Indeed, only in the Deuteronomy edition is Shabbat referred to as a commandment- “Therefore, YHWH your God commands you to observe the Sabbath day.”

So too, with Moses’ recapitulation of the manna episode in Deuteronomy we come across a more castigatory tone than we saw in Exodus. Here, the manna is presented, not as a gift from God but, rather, to “make it known that man lives not on bread alone but on whatever God declares that man will live” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Bread, of course, is fashioned by man. The message, here, is that man’s sustenance, just like his freedom, is in the hands of God alone.

Moses concludes his reflection on the manna episode with one final rebuke- “And you shall keep (“ve-shamarta”) the laws of the Lord your God, to follow His ways and to fear Him.” Once again, in the spirit of the Deuteronomic account of the aseret ha-dibrot, the restrictive shemirah aspect of Shabbat is emphasized.[2]

Thus, the discrepancies between the Decalogue as presented in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy can be attributed to nuances in historical context. The Exodus account features God’s word to a recently freed Israelite nation that is being introduced to the concept of Shabbat for the first time. In Deuteronomy, Moses is the speaker, and he is addressing the children and grandchildren of those who left Egypt, a generation that is well attuned to the observance of Shabbat and which is being prepared for entry into the land of Israel.

Nevertheless, we are still left with two competing accounts of the Decalogue and they cannot both be historically accurate.[3] Indeed, Ibn Ezra (on Exodus 20: 1-2) makes precisely this point and asserts that the Exodus version, in fact, presents the authentic account of the aseret ha-dibrot. His thesis finds support from Ramban (Deuteronomy 1:1) and Or Ha-hayyim (also on Deuteronomy 1:1), who state that the text of the final book of the Torah features the thought and speech of Moses and not God. They explain that the recounting of Israel’s travails in the wilderness during the previous 40 years, the blessings, and the admonishments all come from the mouth of Moses and by his own initiative, without any instruction from God. And while Moses may be the greatest prophet to have ever lived, he is a mortal being made of flesh and blood. As such, his perspective is subjective, and any conflict between his word and that of God will always be decided in the latter’s favor.

Nevertheless, the fact that- despite its earthly composition- the Mosaic account is included in the corpus of torah mi-shamayim (‘Torah from heaven’) illustrates man’s integral contribution to the strength and vitality of the Torah. Indeed, Rabbi Yehudah Arye Leib Alter (1847-1905), author of the Sefat Emet commentary on the Torah, identifies the book of Deuteronomy as the beginning of torah she-baal peh (the ‘Oral Torah’), where man becomes a partner with God in creating Torah through offering his own hiddushim, or insights, on the divine text (Sefat Emet, Deuteronomy 9:2).

It is this creative freedom- or, responsibility– given to man that ensures that the divine law will endure through the ages. For, while the Torah’s laws and statutes are eternal, the cultural dialect of its audience is in constant flux. Thus, for the Torah to remain a living document, it must speak in the cultural vernacular of each generation it seeks to educate. Moses does just that in his speech to the Israelite nation as it is about to enter the Promised Land.

But make no mistake, Moses does not “change” God’s commandments. Shabbat remains the very same Shabbat that God introduced to Israel 40 years prior. Furthermore, the essence of Shabbat remains precisely as God intended as stated in the first account of the Decalogue; as a “gift” from God through which the Israelites can gain freedom from their toil while reconnecting with their Creator without the distractions of the busy work week. Indeed, the Shabbat liturgy much more reflects the ‘zakhor’ aspect of Shabbat than that of ‘shamor.’ In fact, there is not a single reference to the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt in the Shabbat Amidah, while the connection between Shabbat and God’s creation of the world is mentioned repeatedly. So too, the kiddush only makes one passing reference to God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage while, otherwise, focusing entirely on the ‘zakhor’ aspect of Shabbat.

Thus, while the Deuteronomic account fully addresses the needs of that particular generation (and, most certainly, the generations that follow), it does not reflect the relationship between the people and the Shabbat in its most ideal state. Ideally, Shabbat would not need to be imposed on us as a divine command but, rather, that we would yearn for its arrival each week, along with the peace and serenity that accompanies it.

With that said, it is a testament to God’s divine wisdom that He sees fit to include the book of Deuteronomy as part of His Torah. By assigning equal status to this earthly testimonial as that which is of divine utterance, God authorizes hiddush as an unalterable divine imperative. It seems as though God anticipates that well-intentioned Sadducean urge on behalf of man to proscribe any and all human contribution in matters of divinity; that that which is holy must be fiercely shielded and protected from the hands of the profane. On the contrary, if the Torah is to remain a living Torah, its eternal laws and precepts must be constantly interpreted and applied by man according to the unique cultural and social circumstances of each generation.

[1] Translations of the Torah are taken from New JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh with some modifications.

[2] Rashi (on Deuteronomy. 1:1) states that the book of Deuteronomy is, essentially, Moses’ rebuke of the nation for all the times they angered God in the wilderness.

[3] One resolution to this conundrum is offered in the Talmud (Shevuot 20b), which states that “shamor” and “zakhor” were miraculously spoken by God in one utterance.

Gavriel Lakser has taught at a number of yeshivot and seminaries in Israel and was, most recently, Coordinator of Academic Programs at The Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. He received semikha from Yeshivat Hamivtar. He can be reached at