Although the most popular way to depict the Luchot (Tablets) is with rounded tops, there is actually no authentic source in Jewish tradition for this. The main source for this erroneous image seems to come from Christian art during the Renaissance, with some depictions dating even earlier.

Title page of Zohar Chadash, dated 1658, showing round-topped Luchot. (Courtesy of the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad—Ohel Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch)
Title page of Zohar Chadash, dated 1658, showing round-topped Luchot. (Courtesy of the Library of Agudas Chassidei ChabadOhel Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch)

To be sure, one can also find old Jewish books and manuscripts with illustrated title pages that have the Luchot depicted with rounded tops. Keep in mind, however, that hundreds of years ago most Jewish books were printed by non-Jews (not to mention the fact that they were, for the most part, censored for anything that could be construed as being anti-Christian or anti-government). One need only to glance at some of the more “colorful” illustrations to know that these were most definitely not commissioned by the authors.

This manuscript of the Kabbalistic work Pardes Rimonim depicts a hunting scene, a common illustration on illuminated manuscripts. (Credit: Columbia.edu)
This manuscript of the Kabbalistic work Pardes Rimonim depicts a hunting scene, a common illustration on illuminated manuscripts. (Credit: Columbia.edu)

Now that we have established that they were boxlike, we can address the question of whether the Luchot were square or rectangular.

Square or Rectangle?

The Babylonian Talmud discusses how the Luchot fit perfectly in the Ark of the Covenant together with the Torah scroll written by Moses. According to tradition, the Luchot were square blocks of stone, six handbreadths tall by six handbreadths wide, and three handbreadths deep. In modern measurements, that would be about 18.9″ × 18.9″ × 9.9″.1

An early printing of Shnei Luchot Habrit (Amsterdam, 1698) shows square Luchot, as per the Babylonian Talmud. (Photo: Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad—Ohel Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch)
An early printing of Shnei Luchot Habrit (Amsterdam, 1698) shows square Luchot, as per the Babylonian Talmud. (Photo: Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad—Ohel Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch)

In other words, according to the Babylonian Talmud, it seems clear that the faces of the Luchot were square.

A Divergent Tradition?

However, in several places the Jerusalem Talmud gives the dimensions of the Luchot as being six handbreadths tall by three handbreadths wide, making them rectangular in shape.2

Rectangular Tablets above the entrance to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Rectangular Tablets above the entrance to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Many commentaries take this at face value and accept that there are divergent traditions in the two Talmuds (in which case we generally follow the Babylonian Talmud, see The Two Talmuds). Some, however, attempt to reconcile the two.

One explanation of Tosafot is that the Tablets were truly three handbreadths wide. The tradition in the Babylonian Talmud that states that each tablet was six handbreadths wide means that if you were to place the broken tablets next to the (second) unbroken tablets, you would get six handbreadths for each set of tablets, and that was how much space was taken up in the Ark (which contained both sets of tablets).3

In Conclusion

Since the rounded tops are not the authentic shape of the Luchot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—strongly urged that we should make the utmost effort to depict them as square or rectangular.4

For decades, the children’s periodical “Shmuessen Mit Kinder” had square Luchot on its cover.
For decades, the children’s periodical “Shmuessen Mit Kinder” had square Luchot on its cover.