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What Did the Tablets Look Like?

What Did the Tablets Look Like?

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Question:

I read in the Torah that Moses came down from the mountain with two tablets of stone,1 but did not see anything about their size, shape, or what kind of stone they were made of. Can you shed some light?

Response:

The Dimensions:

Tradition tells us that they were thick square blocks of stone, six handbreadths tall, six handbreadths wide, and three handbreadths deep. In modern measurements, that is about 18″ × 18″ × 9″. The sages of the Talmud demonstrate how tablets of this size—along with a few other relics—fit neatly into the Ark of the Covenant that Moses made as described in Exodus.2

It is interesting to note that nowhere is there any mention of them having the rounded tops that are so common in the popular drawings of Moses and the tablets. This design appears to be the invention of non-Jewish artists.

The Material:

The tradition is that both sets of tablets were made of sapphire. After Moses broke the first set, G‑d revealed a large deposit of sapphire under Moses’ tent. Moses used some of the stone to carve the second tablets, and was permitted to keep the remainder.3

The Writing:

The most common understanding is that the first five commandments were written on one tablet, and the other five commandments were on the second.4

The Torah describes the writing as “inscribed from both their sides; on one side and on the other side they were inscribed.”5

This means that the inscription was engraved through and through. As such, the words were clearly legible on one side and written in mirror writing on the other. Now there are two Hebrew letters, the ם and the ס, that are closed from all sides. The centers of these letters, Rav Chisda concludes, must have been miraculously suspended in place.6

Others teach that the writing was miraculously legible on each side—in other words, although the letters were engraved all the way through, they could nevertheless be read from right to left on both sides. Rabbeinu Bechayei explains that this is because the Torah can be understood on two levels, one revealed and one hidden.

Footnotes
2.

Talmud, Bava Batra 14a.

3.

Rashi to Exodus 34:1.

4.

This is the tradition of Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel, Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6:1.

6.

Talmud, Shabbat 104a; Rashi ad loc.
Chizkuni explains that it was these holes that rendered the tablets so easily breakable.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Discussion (29)
May 22, 2016
I do not agree with the writings going right through the stone , if that was the case how could one read them from the other side ?
CTL
UK
February 7, 2016
Two copies of the same "contract"
Some years ago I read an article that suggested that in ancient times when two parties made a contract, their scribes would write in clay the "bullet points" of the contract, not every fine detail. The bullet points were sufficient to remind them of the details. Each party would have a copy of it upon completing negotiations. The Torah text suggests this is possible, since both sides of the tablets were written on, which could be duty to G-d on one side, and to man on the other. So neither side went all the way through as is commonly thought. In this scenario, G-d was so attached to Israel and trusting of Moses, He gave Moses both His copy and the one for Moses (representing Israel) to keep in the Ark of the Covenant. Of course the text is clear, they were of sapphire, as if cut from G-d's throne (see Ezekiel 1:26 & 10:1). If so, this is an amazing testimony to G-d's trust in Israel, His forgiveness of their failings, and His willingness to put His reputation on the line.
Dennis Worthington
Ruidoso, NM
June 1, 2014
I liked Rabbi Menachem Posner's scholaryly article because he identifies Torah and Talmud sources. G-d carved and wrote on the Tablets Himself so there was no need to give description just as there was no need for Hashem to give himself directions what to do. But the Ark containing the Commandments was made by people so those measurements are a good starting point for figuring out the specs. on the the tablets. We know the Tablets can't be bigger than the box they fit in. The Sages of the Talmud offer conflicting opinions of the tablets and I think they were trying to work out something they weren't really sure of. I think that Rabbi Posner shows himself as scholarly but totally lacking in imagination when he assumes that pictures of the ten commandments with rounded tops must be from non Jewish artists because there is no religious source for it. Messages written in stone are seldom flat on top. Notice at a cemetery how many stones are rounded and how many are perfectly flat
Hersh Goldman
Swampscott, MA 01907
September 1, 2013
Sapphire - Ribbon of Blue
The Sapphire makes much better sense than just a rock or something. This would explain why the Most High commanded the thread of blue for the tzitzit. When Israel would look at the blue color of the thread, it really would remind them of the blue color of the tablets of stone which the mitzvot were upon.
Matthew Janzen
Georgia
February 16, 2012
Sapphire Tablets
Sapphire is not a common stone like quartz-granite or shale or slate. Just the rareity of sapphire to be carved this huge approx 18x18x9 is massive and quite heavy to carry. The physical viewing of tablets this large with ambient light shining on them had to be quite majestic.

Also the tools needed to carve stone is one thing, however sapphire is in a unique class in and of itself, just ask your local gemologist. Along with the dialogue with Moses while on Sinai, it would take almost the span of 40 days to carve the second set of tablets.
Dennis M Schuemaker
El Cajon, CA
January 2, 2012
Underground chamber beneath the Holy of Holies
I have read that the Knights Templar excavated the Temple Mount extensively but found nothing or did they? Apparently they also had knowledge of an underground "safe place" for the Ark. So, about rebuilding the Temple I understand that Mount Moriah is the Temple Mount and that the Holy of Holies was positioned right under the Dome of the Rock. That is correct right? So, to rebuild the 3rd Temple we need the Dome removed, the Ark "brought up" and I understand that we have everything else in place. I heard that we have the Red Heifer breed and all the vessels for worship ready. When do the Arabs give up the Mount for us to rebuild?
Anonymous
Bradenton, FL
January 1, 2012
To Anonymous
About where the ark is now, I suggest that you have a look at this wonderful <a href="/article.asp?aid=144580" target="_blank">article</a>.
Rabbi Menachem Posner
January 1, 2012
Sapphire like tablets
I agree with this commentary, I have read this from a few other sources and they agree. Sapphire llke tablets in the dimension described, blue and written on both sides. Interesting how it is said that they read the same thing on both sides and that it was cut through and through, very interesting and I have no problem believing it. Written by the finger of G-d. No problem with that either. The whole experience of Sinai was other-worldly and mysteriously supernatural. Interesting also about how it was said that the stones fit into the Ark perfectly, hadn't thought that one through. So, what about the other elements inside the Ark? The Manna and the Staff? What purpose did they serve in the "properties" of the Ark? And, by-the-way, where is the Ark now and will it ever be found again. Will the new Temple be complete without it?
Anonymous
, FL
August 3, 2011
the tablet
I'm quite amazed that the tablets were made of sapphire and accurately cut. At first I thought the tablets were kept in broken pieces it's my first time to know this so thank you for sharing.
alida
tarlac, philippines
June 19, 2011
stencil
You younger people imagining Moses hoisting large rocks up mountains- I advise you to study some items, before a lot of it is lost in yard sales and intellectual layering.
Look for:
images in glass, antique crstal, especially salter crystal.
images in gemstones and even the content of paste or Swarovski crystal rhinestones images from clay slicks on hand made ceramics
sue
Kanata, ON
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