The Ten Commandments

The first ten of the 613 commandments given by God to the Jewish people form the foundation of Jewish ethics, as well as civil and religious law.

Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar
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"Moses with the Ten Commandments," by Rembrandt van Rijn (1659)
"Moses with the Ten Commandments," by Rembrandt van Rijn (1659)
Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar

The Ten Commandments, also known as Aseret HaDibrot (“Ten Sayings” in Hebrew) or Decalogue, are the first ten of the 613 commandments given by God to the Jewish people. They form the foundation of Jewish ethics, as well as civil and religious law. These commandments are mentioned twice in the Torah—once in Exodus (20: 1-17) and again in Deuteronomy (5:4-21).

The following are the Ten Commandments as they appear in Exodus 19:1-20:23

1. I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

2. You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness of any thing... you shall not bow down to them, nor serve them...

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain...

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to God... For in six days God made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.

5. Honor your father and your mother...

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your fellow.

10. You shall not covet...anything that is your fellow's.

The commandments are guiding principles that refer to general situations, without going into detail: murder, theft, adultery, false witness in court. The fine points — such as what constitutes murder? Is killing in wartime murder? What about killing a fetus to save the mother? — are worked out in other books of the Torah and later in the Mishna and the Talmud.

The Ten Commandments as treaty

Modern commentators have pointed out that the form of the Ten Commandments bears a strong resemblance to covenantal treaties forged by Near Eastern kings with their vassals. If the Ten Commandments are read as such a Covenant, then the first commandment would correspond to the document’s preamble, which explains why the king has the right to command the people.

Jewish sages have also noted the similarity of the Ten Commandments to a treaty. Rabbi Hanina ben Gamaliel (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael) states that each tablet contained five commandments. However, “the Sages say ten on one tablet and ten on the other,” that is, the tablets were duplicates, similar to diplomatic treaties of Ancient Egypt, in which a copy was made for each party.

The Torah also describes the Ten Commandments as the covenant itself. The narrative relates that God spoke to the Israelites on the third day after they arrived at Mount Sinai following the exodus from Egypt. The dramatic scene at Sinai set the stage for an impressive ceremony during which the Israelites are bound to their God.

Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which He commanded you to follow, and then wrote them on two stone tablets. (Deut. 4:12–13.)

The people, frightened of the spectacular sound and light show on the mountain withdraw and Moses alone goes up to hear the rest of the covenantal commitments, which he writes down for the Israelites:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:27–28.)

The next stage too is similar to the diplomatic negotiations of Near Eastern kings: The elders are invited to a banquet hosted—at least figuratively—by God (Exodus 24: 1-11).

Lastly, the ceremony concludes with the “signing” of the contract. Moses ascends the mountain and comes back with two stone slabs containing the written version of the Ten Commandments. The story does not end well, however. As Moses is gone for 40 days, the Israelites fear that he has come to grief, and fall back into idol worship. When Moses triumphantly descends with the signed “contract” in his hands, he finds the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. In his anger, he breaks the stone tablets and carries out a purge. Afterward, he again ascends the mountain to bring back a copy of the Covenantal tablets, only this time, according to the Torah, instead of being “inscribed by the finger of God,” Moses must himself engrave the tablets.

The Ten Commandments and Jewish liturgy

In the period of the Second Temple, the Ten Commandments formed an important part of Jewish liturgy. According the Mishna (Tamid 5:1), they were recited twice daily before the reading of the Shema Yisrael, Judaism’s central statement of faith. There is some evidence that the Ten Commandments were also among the texts included in the tefillin.

The sages of the Talmud argued against given the Ten Commandments special prominence, so as not to give ammunition to heretics who claimed that only the revealed law was important, and the man-made amendments were not. To this day, some communities stand during the reading of the commandments and some don’t. However, the sages won out in that we no longer read the Ten Commandments as part of the Shema, or given them any other special liturgical prominence.

Today, the Ten Commandments are read aloud in the synagogue three times a year: during the yearly readings of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and during the festival of Shavuot.

Some communities traditionally stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments, although many authorities, including Maimonides, oppose this, as it appears to give the Ten Commandments greater weight than the rest of the commandments. All the same, there is no doubt that the Ten Commandments have exerted a greater influence on the development of law than many other texts, whether religious or secular.

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