Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg of the Jerusalem-based Albright Institute of Archaeological Research asks what at first seems to be a stunning question – did Moses get stonne two tablets on Mount Sinai or only one? Rosenberg answers this question rather conclusively. But first, he points out a problem in out traditional understanding of the biblical text:
…[Two stone tablets] seems to be the easy way to read the biblical texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but were the Ten Commandments really engraved on two tablets, which together would have weighed one-quarter of a ton according to the dimensions given in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 14a)? Luckily the Gemara, which describes the tablets as each having been like a very large paving slab and six times as thick, does not have a monopoly on our history.
In any case, would it have made sense to engrave one of the shortest codes of Law on two pieces of stone, however large or small? If we look back into antiquity, we can see the actual pieces of stone of several codes of law. The most famous is the Code of Hammurabi of about 1750 BCE, which has 282 laws engraved in cuneiform on one mighty black stone, front and back. Also from Mesopotamia is the earlier code of 61 laws of Eshnunna of about 2000 BCE, and the 38 extant laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Sumer from a period a little later. These were all written on one piece of stone with a rounded head, as are major inscriptions from ancient Egypt, though we have no code of laws from that country.
To inscribe a set of laws, particularly such a succinct one as the Ten Commandments, on two pieces of stone seems to be asking for trouble. Is one stone the important one, and the other less so? Is one first class and the other second? What if one is lost, will its laws be forgotten and considered defunct?… [I would only half in jest note that we do have the more important, less important problem today, with the division going, more important: laws between God and man, less important: laws between man and man.–Shmarya]
So, we have stone tablets way to heavy for even the strongest human to carry. This is what our so-called mesora tells us to believe. Rosenberg now looks to the biblical text itself to clarify this:
…From the biblical texts it looks as if there were certainly two tablets, in Hebrew the word is luhot. Its original meaning is based on the root laha, meaning fresh or moist. In old age, Moses does not lose his freshness (leiho, Deut. 34:7). In a dispute between rival advisers to King Ahab, one prophet hits another on the cheek (haleihi, I Kings 22:24), a ruddy cheek being a sign of good health, of freshness. As leihi basically means the human cheek, then the two tablets or two luhot would be the two cheeks or sides of the one stone. This is further underlined by a passage in Ezekiel (27:5) which talks of the fine ships of the port of Tyre having their cedar wood made luhotayim, in the dual plural, meaning that the ships’ planks had two smooth faces, or cheeks, on the underside as well as the top. Only the best ships would have that refinement. It looks therefore as if the two luhot of the Ten Commandments could be the two cheeks or smooth faces of one piece of stone.
IF WE look again at the Bible texts, we should now read them in that light. In Deut. 9:15, Moses says "and the two luhot of the Covenant were on my two hands," meaning the two smooth sides of one heavy stone. More revealing is 9:10, "He gave me the two luhot of stone written with the finger of God." Although the word stone is in the plural in the Hebrew, it implies the material and not the pieces, and is always translated in the singular, meaning that the "cheeks" were of stone, that is, the two sides were of stone. This is made clear in Exodus 24:12 which is quite explicit, when God says to Moses, "I will give you the luhot of the stone (ha’even)." And Exodus 31:18 says that He, God, gave "the two luhot of the Testimony, luhot of stone [singular], written with the finger of God."…
So, let’s recap. We have a gemara that claims the impossible, a superhuman feat. We also have a rational explanation that fits well with the biblical text and with available historical evidence. Faced with this choice, what would you choose?
Before you answer that, look at this:
…[I]n 32:15, when Moses descended from the mountain, "the two luhot of the Testimony were in his hand, luhot written from their two sides (evreihem), from this side and that they were written."
If the tablets were two individual hunks of stone, no matter their size, how would this have worked? Rashi answers that question in a most bizarre fashion. The letters were engraved in a miraculous fashion, completely through the stone, so they were visable from both sides. What’s miraculous about that? According to Rashi, whatever side you looked at was perfectly legible. Also, neither side had reversed letters, and round, closed letters were magically suspended in the stone.
Rosenberg answers Rashi this way:
…[The biblical passage] refers to the single stone itself, which had two sides (everim) of smooth faces or cheeks, and that it was the single stone that was written, or better engraved, on both of its faces.
The conclusion is, then, that the Ten Commandments – like other ancient codes of law such as the Code of Hammurabi – were engraved on both faces of one stone.
Of course, the problem with all this rational information and historical data is that it contradicts the fantasies of generations of rabbis. Did Moses even exist? It’s an open question. But one thing seems sure; if he did, he carried one stone, smoothed and engraved on two sides.