Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

20 Insights into the Ten Commandments

This Friday and Saturday is the Jewish festival of Shavuot which commemorates the Revelation at Mount Sinai 3,332 years ago.  To celebrate this event, on Thursday night many Jews stay up all night learning Jewish texts, and then on Friday the Ten Commandments read from the Torah.

Most people know the Ten Commandments (I hope!), so what this article aims to do is to share information “about” the Ten Commandments that most people do not know.  This will include how the verses were divided to arrive at 10 commandments, which of the Ten Commandments God actually spoke at Mt. Sinai, the chronology of Moses going up and down Mount Sinai several times, the actual size and shape of the tablets (it’s not what you think!), and information about specific commandments such as mistranslations.

The Ten Commandments as a Whole

1.  Not all of the Ten Commandments are explicit commandments. Judaism identifies the first commandment with the first two verses: “God spoke all these statements saying: I am Hashem, your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the House of slavery” (Ex. 20:1-2).  But there is no explicit commandment here. Since Judaism has a tradition this is the first commandment, throughout the ages Jewish scholars have written to what would amount to a shelf of commentary explaining how this is really a commandment.

2.  A straight reading of the Biblical text reveals at least 11 explicit commandments. Not counting the first commandment (20:1-2) mentioned above, one finds the following explicit commandments: “Do not recognize other Gods…” (20:3); 2. “Do not make yourself a carved image…” (20:4); 3. Do not prostrate yourself to them…” (20:5-6); 4. “Do not take the name of Hashem, your God, in vain… (20:7); 5. “Remember the day of Shabbat and sanctify it…” (20:8-11); 6. “Honor your father and your mother… (20:12); 7. “Do not murder” (20:13); 8. “Do not commit adultery” (20:13); 9. “Do not steal” (20:13); Ten. “Do not bear false witness…” (20:13); and 11. “Do not covet…” (20:14). Plus, one could even read each thing that one is not to covet as another  explicit commandment.

3.  Jewish commentators arrive at the Ten Commandments by making the opening statement (20:1-2) the first commandment (this was explained in #1 above), and then combine what was identified in #2 above as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd explicit commandments as the second commandment.

4.  Some of the denominations within Christianity have listed the Ten Commandments differently than how Judaism does, including different combinations of the first six verses, and some denominations split the commandment about not coveting into two separate commandments.

5.  The Torah (which is the “Five Books of Moses”) actually contains 613 commandments, not just the Ten Commandments. 248 of the commandments are positive commandments—the “Do’s”—and 365 are negative commandments—the “Do Not’s.”   Most of the commandments pertain to the various sacrifices or agricultural laws that only apply when there is a Temple in Jerusalem.  Therefore, today, out of the positive commandments, only 77 can be done, though not by everyone, because some only apply to men and others only apply to women.

6.  According to Jewish tradition, when God told Moses the precise wording of each of the 613 commandments throughout the 40 year experience in the Sinai Desert, God also explained the details. This is because it is impossible to perform any commandment with just the commandment in the Torah, more detail is needed.  These explanations are known as the “Oral Torah.” The Oral Torah was orally passed generation to generation to understand how to perform the Torah’s commandments.  But then due to historical circumstances, a cryptic rendition of the Oral Torah was written down and “published” in 200 CE of which this text is called the Mishnah.  The Mishnah, along with its first round of commentary that was created from 200 to 500 or so CE, is called the Talmud, and the standardized print edition of the Talmud (Vilna, 1886) totals 5,422 pages.

7.  The Torah does not give enough detail about the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai to get a full-picture of what occurred, nor does Jewish lore have a consensus understanding of the details. Though what is in common among the various opinions is that only the first two of the Ten Commandments were spoke by God to the Jewish people. (Makos 24a.)

8.  The Torah’s narrative prior, during, and just after the Revelation is very confusing to follow at times. In Judaism there is an understanding that the Torah is not always in chronological order but we do not have a list of which sections are out of order. (Pesachim 6b, and Jerusalem Talmud Megilla 7a)  Several Biblical commentators have used this understanding to support their commentaries.  The great Biblical commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), known as Rashi, in order to make sense of the Torah’s narrative, parsed the Book or Exodus into eight sections and posited their correct order. In the Gutnick Chumash there is a chart that shows how Rashi rearranged the Book of Exodus.

 9.  According to Jewish chronology (in Seder Olam Rabba) the Revelation at Mt. Sinai took place on the 6th of the Jewish month of Sivan, which was 50 days after leaving Egypt, in the year 1313 BCE. Academic scholars, based on Egyptian chronology, place whatever happened at Mt. Sinai in the 1200s BCE.  The day after the Revelation, Moses went up Mt. Sinai, remained there for 40 days, and came down on the 17th of Tammuz with the first set of the Ten Commandments that were engraved in stone. This is when the incident with the Golden Calf occurred, so Moses smashed the tablets.  According to the traditional Jewish reading of the Torah’s narrative, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai for 40 days, came down, went back up again on the 1st of Elul for another 40 days, and then descended on the 10th of TIshrei—which is Yom Kippur—with the second set of tablets.

10. There are actually two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah—one is Exodus 20:1-14 and the other is Deuteronomy 5:6-18—which have several slight word differences and one major word difference. The version in chapter five of Deuteronomy is Moses’ reiterating the Ten Commandments as part of his 5-week long farewell sermonThe major word difference will be addressed in #16 below.

What Did the Tablets of the Ten Commandments Look Like?

11.  The Torah states that the tablets were engraved on both sides (Exodus 32:15). Jewish tradition claims that two miracles simultaneously and perpetually occurred with this engraving. One of the miracles is that the engraving went all the way through the tablets, thus, the circular letters of Samech and Final Mem constantly had the middle piece suspend in the air.  Also, whether one looked at the front or the back of the tablets it looked like the front. (Shabbat 104a)

12.  Artistic depictions of the tablets show them being rounded at the top, however, according to Jewish tradition the tablets were flat on top. (Baba Batra 14a, and Exodus Rabbah 28:1) A Michelangelo’s painting of Moses (in 1515) shows the tablets with a flat top, while a famous Rembrandt painting (in 1659) depicts Moses throwing down significantly large tablets that have a rounded top.

13.  Artistic depictions of the Ten Commandments show the first five of the commandments in one column and the remaining five in a parallel column. However, there is no hint to this in the Biblical texts, and Jewish lore does not have a unanimous position on this. Nor did the Ten Commandments have Roman numerals since the Roman civilization did not begin to materialize for another 500 years.

14.  The Talmud (Bava Batra 14a) states that each tablet was 6 handbreadths tall, 6 handbreadths wide, and 3 handbreadths deep, which is approximately 18 inches x 18 inches x 9 inches, and made of sapphire. Scientists have calculated that given these dimensions, the type of stone, and subtracting for the engraving, the weight of each tablet would have been around 250 pounds.  The early rabbis were aware that the tablets would have been too heavy for Moses to carry and wrote about how God helped Moses carry the tablets. (Yalkut 393)

15.  It is possible that the entire text of the Ten Commandments were written on each of the two tablets. This is because in the ancient near East at the time, and even in today’s world with contracts, two sets of a treaty were written–one for the overlord and the other for the vassal. Both tablets were housed in the Ark of the Covenant.

A Look at Specific Commandments

16.  As mentioned in #10 above, there is one major word difference between the two versions of the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:8 states one should “Remember the day of Shabbat…,” while Deuteronomy 5:12 states one should “Guard the day of Shabbat…”   This led the early Rabbis to posit that God said these words together. (Rosh Hashanah 27a; Shavuot 20b)  Additionally, just prior to Sunset on Friday’s it is commandment for Jewish woman light at least two candles for Shabbat.  The reason for two candles is to commemorate the two different statements of “Remember” and “Guard.”

17.  Jewish commentators discuss that the content of the Ten Commandments can be divided into two thematic groupings of five. The first five are commandments between God and Man, while the second five are commandments between Man and Man. A red flag with such a division is that the traditionally counted fifth commandment is “Honor your father and your mother…”  Therefore, the Rabbi’s taught that by honoring one’s father and mother this is a way to honor God.

18.  The sixth commandment of “Do not murder” (20:13) was mistranslated as “Do not kill” when the Hebrew Bible was first translated by Christian scholars and to this day this mistranslation has not been corrected in Christian Bibles. Elsewhere in the Torah killing is allowed in self-defense and in war, and the Torah relays the signs for the types of animals that one may eat provided it is slaughtered in the correct manner. Thus, killing is permitted, while it is murder that is not permitted.  A quick look in any dictionary of Biblical Hebrew will verify that the Hebrew word retzach means “murder,” while the Hebrew word for kill is harog., but the text says retzach, not harog.  As a sidebar: Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible contain many additional mistranslations of important words, such as the word the almah which appears in Isaiah 7:4 which means “young woman,” not virgin.

19.  The commandment of “Do not steal” (20:13), according to Jewish tradition (Sanhedrin 86a), is understood as not stealing a person, or kidnapping.  An extremely brief explanation of why this is, is because the other commandments in this verse all carry the death penalty so this must as well. Also, the commandment not to steal appears in Leviticus 19:11 of which the penalty is a fine.

A Final Teaching

20.  Although this article has been discussing the Ten Commandments, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, nor in Rabbinic Literature, is this term used which would be Aseret Ha’Mitzvot in Hebrew. Three times in the Torah the phrase Aseret Ha’Dvarim appears which means the “The Ten Sayings” or “Ten Statements.”  Thus, similar to what was discussed in #19 above, the term the “Ten Commandments” is a  mistranslation by Christian scholars which has not been corrected. In fact, this term has become so much a part of Western culture that today even Jews who are highly educated in Judaism actually this term.

As once can see, reading the section in the Bible where the Ten Commandments are written versus understanding the Ten Commandments with the Oral Torah that was preserved by the scribes, sages, and then rabbis throughout history, gives a very different perspective of the Ten Commandments, and this can perspective varies even more depending upon which Bible translation one uses.  It is always best to study primary religious texts in their original language and the Jewish scholars have always had the “lens” (i.e., the Oral Torah) upon which to accurately understand the Hebrew Bible, and especially the Ten Commandments, or better I say the “Ten Statements.”

About the Author
Joel E. Hoffman is ordained as a rabbi, but works as a special education teacher, and in his free-time he teaches and writes about Judaism. www.birthrightjudaism.com
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