Michelangelo had it right. Most synagogues around the world have it wrong.
The two tablets of stone, divinely inscribed with the 10 Commandments and bestowed upon Moses at Mount Sinai, did not have the rounded tops familiar from their depictions in most houses of worship and popular art since the Middle Ages. And the Chabad (Lubavitch) Hassidic movement is encouraging synagogues to correct the misrepresentation.
Rabbi Menachem Brod, Chabad’s spokesman in Israel, noted Thursday that the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, accurately depicted the two tablets as perfect squares as early as the 1940s, in writings for Chabad youth, and said many Chabad synagogues now feature the accurate artistic representations of the tablets. He said the image of the tablets had been skewed over the centuries in Christian tradition, and it was time for the Jews to reclaim the true representation of the two stones.
Brod was speaking in an Army Radio interview on the day after the Shavuot festival, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In the Diaspora, Shavuot is celebrated for two days — Wednesday and Thursday, this year.
As detailed in the Talmud, the two tablets were eight tefahim wide and high — perfect squares, Brod said — equal to about 24 centimeters or eight inches, and four tefahim deep, with sharp, not curved, corners. According to the biblical narrative, the first set was smashed by Moses, enraged at the sight of the Golden Calf, and the second set safeguarded in the Ark of the Covenant, later placed in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Michelangelo’s iconic statue, which mistranslates the word keren and depicts Moses with “horns” rather than “rays” of light following his mountaintop encounter with the Lord, shows the Israelite leader apparently protecting the accurately sculpted sharp-edged tablets under his right hand and arm, while his features in many interpretations reflect his fury at having discovered his people worshiping the Golden Calf they have fashioned in his absence.
Some 150 years later, Rembrandt was depicting Moses holding rounded tablets aloft.