An artistic rendering of the Ten Commandments. (mtsyri/shutterstock)
An artistic rendering of the Ten Commandments. (mtsyri/shutterstock)

A deeper look at the foundational commandments upon which the Jewish people’s values are built.

rabbi ari enkin

Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, are a set of commandments that were given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. Many religions have adopted them as their primary code of conduct. The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah, first in Exodus 20:1-17, and again in Deuteronomy 5:4-21. According to one opinion, each tablet contained five commandments. According to another opinion, both tablets contained all ten. The arrangement of the commandments on the two tablets is interpreted in different ways in the classical Jewish tradition.

In biblical Hebrew, the Ten Commandments are called the “aseret hadvarim,” but are more commonly known by their name in rabbinical Hebrew, the “aseret hadibrot.” Both versions mean “the ten words,” “the ten sayings,” or “the ten matters.” The stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written are referred to as the “luchot habrit,” meaning “the tablets of the covenant.” Judaism believes that observance of the Ten Commandments, and by extension, all the commandments of the Torah, are binding only upon the Jewish people. The only laws that non-Jews are required to observe are the seven Noahide laws, several of which overlap with the Ten Commandments.

Daily Recital in the Holy Temple

During the period of the Second Temple, the Ten Commandments were recited daily. The Mishnah records that in the Temple, it was the practice to recite them every day before the reading of the Shema. This practice was later abolished, however, as heretics tried to convince people that only the Ten Commandments were important, while all other commandments were less important or even optional in nature.

Today, the Ten Commandments are heard in the synagogue three times a year: twice when they come up in the course of the annual Torah reading cycle (in Exodus and Deuteronomy), and once during the holiday of Shavuot. In some communities, all those present rise for the reading of the Ten Commandments to highlight their special significance. Many rabbis, including Maimonides, have opposed this custom, fearing it too may lead people to believe that the Ten Commandments are more important than the rest of the Torah.

The Commandments In Depth

Marble with abbreviated phrases alluding to the Ten commandments. (Yuriy Chertok/Shutterstock)

Marble sculpture with abbreviated phrases alluding to the Ten commandments. (Yuriy Chertok/Shutterstock)

What follows is a look at some of the Ten Commandments, and their traditional Jewish interpretations:

I am the Lord Your God

By saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” it introduces God by name and establishes His authority behind the stipulations that follow. By invoking the Exodus from Egypt, it also confirms the precedent that God is the only redeemer in the world.

You Shall Have No Other God before Me

This commandment establishes the exclusive nature of the relationship between the nation of Israel and God. Idolatry is one of three sins (along with adultery and murder) that the Mishnah says must be resisted to the point of death. The Talmud teaches that the acceptance or rejection of idolatry is a litmus test for Jewish identity: “Whosoever denies idols is called a Jew.”  Although Jews are generally forbidden to mock anything holy, it is meritorious to mock and deride idols. Indeed, in rabbinic literature idols are referred to as elilim, “powerless ones,” and gillulim, “pellets of dung.”

You Shall Not Take the Name of the Lord Your God in Vain

This is a requirement to avoid taking God’s name in vain. As such, Jewish custom is to only say God’s name during prayer, with some extending this dispensation to include study, as well. At all other times God is referred to as “The Name” (“Hashem” or “Adoshem”).

Honor Your Father and Your Mother

What constitutes “honor”? One must provide one’s parents with food and drink and clothing. One should bring them home and take them out, and provide them with all their needs cheerfully. The commandment to honor one’s parents is compared to honoring God. The Talmud says that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honor showed to parents is considered to be honor shown to God. One is also required to honor one’s stepparents, older siblings who are responsible for child rearing, and one’s teachers. A child is not required to obey a parent who says that s/he must marry a particular person, or must not marry a person s/he wishes to marry.

You Shall Not Commit Adultery

Some may be surprised to learn that the prohibition against adultery is interpreted to refer to sexual relations between a man and a married woman, not to be confused with any other type of sexual impropriety. Other sexual relations outside of marriage are prohibited based on Deuteronomy 23:18.

You Shall Not Steal

According to Jewish tradition this commandment refers to kidnapping, not the theft of another person’s possessions.

You Shall Not Covet

Unlike the other commandments which focus on outward actions, this commandment focuses on thought. It is an imperative against setting one’s desire on things that are forbidden or belong to another person. A person who is “happy with their lot” will never come to transgress this commandment. We must always realize that anything we have is because God wants us to have it, and anything we don’t have is because God doesn’t want us to have it.

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

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