Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
Researchers Uncover a Weighty Past
The future of the Ten Commandment tablets now ensconced in the Jewish Community Services Building on Arch Street is quite clear: They'll hang in the Center City foyer for years to come.
What remains a mystery, however, is their past.
According to the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, the two white-marble decalogues with gold lettering - about 42 inches tall by 30 inches wide - were discovered by non-Jewish friends in a building in the Philadelphia Museum of Art area.
The donor said that, as far as she knew, the previous owner of the home had passed away, and no more information about how the stones had found their way - "in rather good condition" - behind a piece of Victorian furniture was available. "We took them with the idea that we would find a home for them. We didn't want them just to vanish in some basement somewhere."
Based on the nearly inch-thick marble - thinner is generally newer - and the relatively good condition of their edges, Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of Hillel of Cincinnati, guessed that the tablets could be dated from the mid-20th century. (Cincinnati's Hillel, led by Ingber, houses a 10,000-square-foot museum of antique Judaica and artifacts collected from synagogues both here and abroad.)
Not coincidentally, in 1956, Cecil B. DeMille was wrapping up work on his famous Hollywood movie, The Ten Commandments. Seeking to create permanent reminders about how to live life, as well as a little pre-publicity for the film, DeMille teamed up with the Fraternal Order of Eagles - a national group that had already been distributing paper versions of the tablets after a judge ordered a juvenile in 1946 to learn and live by the laws - to distribute stone versions throughout the country.
According to retired teacher Sue Hoffman of the Seattle area, who's done extensive research on the subject, documentation and verification exist that the Eagles distributed 159 granite monoliths in 34 states to courthouse squares, city halls and public parks. Some of these tablets have been the subject of controversy, even court cases.
But Hoffman asserted that the decalogues were not part of this distribution. Among other differences, the Eagles' tablets used English, and were made out of red, brown or gray granite.
Though Federation's tablets have Hebrew inscribed on them, researcher Scott Meyer - who's seen a photo of them - said a certain characteristic may suggest a non-Jewish origin. Meyer, an analyst in the development office at Northwestern University, has examined all sorts of depictions of the tablets.
He noted that the second word on the Federation's tablet is the full name of the Hebrew God. "On most tablets displayed in synagogues, the name of God is usually written only in any one of several standard abbreviated forms rather than in full," wrote Meyer via e-mail. "It is possible that such a way of writing the name of God would more likely be found in a Reform Jewish synagogue rather than an Orthodox or Conservative."
Meyer did note that there are always exceptions, and in fact, the full name of God appears on tablets in the oldest synagogue in Amsterdam, one with Orthodox origins.
He added that the first words in the Federation example are, "I am the Lord," a common characteristic of Jewish tablets.
To pinpoint the exact origin may never be possible, but Ingber said it's safe to assume that the tablets probably didn't originate far from the museum area, where they were found, because marble is heavy and doesn't travel well. He also noted that in many cases, these types of artifacts are taken from elsewhere, and people are afraid to come forward with the real story, even if the work surfaces years later.
The decalogues were hung in the vestibule of the Jewish Community Services Building back in October, after engineers spent nearly a year designing the best way to affix them to the wall.
Rabbi David Gutterman, Federation's rabbi and executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, will hold a dedication ceremony for the tablets on Feb. 14.
"For Federation to house what is ultimately the Jewish symbol of values is a good thing," stated Gutterman. "When someone walks into the building, the first thing they see are the two tablets. It's an appropriate statement for a Jewish organization."
According to Dominic Vallone, director of operations for Federation, three different engineers submitted plans on the best way to hang each 125-pound monolith. The winning plan consisted of a metal shelf that the tablets sit on, anchored by a sophisticated steel-and-concrete rigging on the other side of the wall. Pins in the bottom and top of the tablets hold them in place.
Vallone said that the work cost $4,000, all of which was covered by Federation.