1) GRANTING SPECIAL STATUS TO THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
QUESTION: The Gemara relates that there were attempts to incorporate the reading of the Ten Commandments into the daily prayers. These attempts were blocked because of "the heretical claims of the non-believers" who would say that we include a reading of the Ten Commandments in the prayers in order to grant special status to them because only this part of the Torah was given to us by Hash-m (Rashi DH Mipnei).
The RAMBAM (Teshuvos ha'Rambam #46, Jerusalem edition) writes that for this reason we should take care not to attribute any special status to the reading of the Ten Commandments, such as standing when that portion of the Torah is read in the synagogues on Shabbos. He maintains that the custom found in some communities to stand during this part of the Torah reading should be discontinued.
We publicly read the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments three times a year: on the Shabbos of Parshas Yisro, the Shabbos of Parshas Va'eschanan, and on Shavuos. On each one of these occasions, the congregation stands while the reader recounts these basic tenets (for various reasons for this custom, see Parasha Page, Yisro 5757). In light of the words of the Rambam, why do we stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments?
(a) The BEIS YAKOV (Teshuvos, #125) answers that the manner in which we read the Ten Commandments on Shavuos cannot possibly be used to support the perverted arguments of non-believers. If we would give unique status to the Ten Commandments any other day of the year, perhaps it would show that we consider this section of the Torah to be more important than any other. Standing while reading them on Shavuos, the very day that the Torah was given to us, cannot be mistaken for anything but a commemorative act.
This argument, however, cannot be used to defend the custom of standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments on the Shabbos of Parshas Yisro and on the Shabbos of Parshas Va'eschanan.
(b) RAV DOVID FEINSTEIN shlit'a (quoted in IGROS MOSHE OC 4:22) points out that it has become customary to stand for other Torah readings also (such as the reading of Shiras ha'Yam). Consequently, it cannot be claimed that standing for the Ten Commandments gives them a unique status.
Along a similar line of reasoning, RAV MOSHE FEINSTEIN zt'l (ibid.) and RAV MOSHE STERNBUCH shlit'a (Teshuvos v'Hanhagos 1:144) suggest that in order to avoid opposing the Rambam's ruling regarding standing for the Ten Commandments, one should rise before the reader reaches that portion. In this manner, he will stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments, without affording it a different status than the rest of the reading.
(c) The MAREH YEHUDAH (1:6) suggests another approach. We cannot compare reading the Ten Commandments when other portions are not read at all (such as during the morning prayers, which the Gemara prohibits) with reading them in a different manner than the reading of other Torah portions (such as standing during their reading, which is permitted). Merely reading them in a different manner is not enough of a change to support the arguments of those who reject the Torah. (See also CHIDA ibid. and RAV MOSHE FEINSTEIN ibid.)
(d) RAV YOSEF DOV SOLOVEITCHIK zt'l (the great-grandson of the Beis ha'Levi) suggests an approach to this matter, which exonerates both our custom and the Rambam's ruling.
The Mesorah provides us with two different ways of chanting the Ten Commandments. In most Hebrew printings of the Chumash, a note appears before the Ten Commandments instructing us to use the "upper set of cantillations" during the public Torah reading. Instead of separating each verse from the following one, as the lower set of cantillations does, the upper set of cantillations separates each of the Ten Commandments from the others. In doing so, they either group a string of verses into one long pseudo-verse (as in the case of the commandment to observe the Shabbos), or they divide one verse into several pseudo-verses (as in the case of the verse beginning with "Do not kill").
The custom of reading the Ten Commandments with the upper set of cantillations is quite ancient and is mentioned in the early Torah commentaries. However, there is disagreement as to exactly when the upper set is to be used, as recorded by the MAGEN AVRAHAM (introduction to OC 494, DH Kasav). The CHIZKUNI (Shemos 20:14) and MAS'AS BINYAMIN (#6) assert that they are to be used only on Shavuos; the lower set of cantillations are to be used for the Shabbos readings of Yisro and Va'eschanan. On the other hand, the OR TORAH and HA'KOSEV (Ein Yakov to Yerushalmi Shekalim, ch. 7) tell us to use the upper set of cantillations even for the Shabbos readings and to use the lower set only when reading the Torah in private. The practice today (in most synagogues) follows the latter opinion.
When the Ten Commandments are read with the upper set of cantillations, it is clear from the very manner in which the verses are read (i.e. as Ten Commandments, not as individual verses) that in addition to fulfilling the Mitzvah to read a portion of the Torah, we are commemorating an event. It is thus justifiable to stand during this Torah reading since standing is a commemorative act which cannot be mistaken as a show of preferential treatment for one part of the Torah!
Where the Rambam lived, however, the Ten Commandments apparently were read using the lower set of cantillations (or perhaps the Rambam was discussing only the Shabbos readings of Yisro and Va'eschanan, which he read using the lower set of cantillations). When read in such a manner, it is not clear that an event is being commemorated. Accordingly, standing indeed would attribute a unique status to the Ten Commandments which could lead to heretical claims.