Yitro is a short section of the Torah, and it might seem like I’m just defaulting to discuss the Ten Commandments. But in fact I come back to them repeatedly because I find that important aspects of some of the Dibberot that are too little known. I don’t think we’re as bad as the Georgia Congressman who couldn’t name them, but I meet many Jews who are less aware of the full ramifications of these Dibberot (Pronouncements, which is what the Torah calls them) than would be optimal. Bringing up these lesser-known points will be a good review or helpful new information.
Hashem Identifying Himself
The first of the Dibberot declares Hashem to be the same Hashem as the One Who took us out of Egypt. Rashi thinks Hashem was reminding us of the Exodus to point out that we “owe” obedience to Hashem for having been redeemed from slavery. As Jews, we should feel, not just intellectually know, that Hashem took us out of Egypt and therefore, on those terms alone, owe Hashem our service.
In his Commentary to the Torah, Ramban follows Rambam that this is a positive commandment, and offers several defining aspects of this belief. For Ramban, those are that Hashem exists, produced the world with will and power (so that Hashem can also change the world, such as through miracles), and is a Master to whom we owe service.
Believing all of these, according to Ramban, is called accepting the yoke of Heaven. I note that because most people today would say they believe in God, but Ramban is pointing out (and it was a challenge in his day as well, not just ours) that that declaration is only accurate if what we believe matches up with the truth of Hashem. Someone who believes in a God who came into being at the same time as the universe, for example, doesn’t actually believe in Hashem, for Ramban.
The second of the Dibberot tells us not to have other gods. Ibn Ezra says that what makes idolatry so wrong is that our basic human purpose is to serve Hashem, which makes idolatry a perversion of our central reason for existence. His casual assumption should be noted, since even many Orthodox Jews don’t necessarily accept it (or, don’t act like they accept it, don’t give the appearance of recognizigin that our lives are supposed to be about service of Hashem).
In his Commentary to Shemot, Ramban makes a point about idolatry that is halachically commonplace yet also often glossed over. The prohibition includes accepting anything other than Hashem as a force that rules one’s life. When people spoke of angels, that would mean it was idolatrous for a Jew to say, “Gabriel, you run my life,” for example, even if the Jew meant that the angel Gabriel ran his life along with Hashem.
In today’s terms, it seems to mean that a Jew is not allowed to say “Nature runs the world,” even if that Jew adds “unless Hashem chooses to abrogate it.” That seems to say that Nature is a power of its own, and that we recognize that power over our lives. I think what a Jew has to say is that Hashem created a world that functions with regularity, that we can expect that regularity to continue, that we are required to operate with that regularity and not rely on miracles. We can even, for convenience, call that regularity Nature. But we cannot see it as a force independent of Hashem that runs our lives.
Treating the Name of Hashem Properly
As an extension of the way we are supposed to honor and serve Hashem, Ramban points out, the third of the Dibberot prohibits using Hashem’s Name in vain—Hashem’s Name needs to be treated with something approaching the respect and honor we owe Hashem. Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 26;3, rules that the names that non-Jews use for Hashem count as kinuyim, which are included in this prohibition. That means that saying, “I swear to God” runs the risk of counting as a false or vain oath in Hashem’s Name. That would not apply to the word “Hashem,” I think, because that isn’t a kinuy of Hashem, it is a way to refer to Hashem without actual naming.
Shabbat as a Time of Its Own
The fourth of the Dibberot establishes Shabbat; in a world where many take that and kashrut as the markers of Orthodoxy, I may not have much to add. Let me offer two points: First, the Dibberot see Shabbat as a sign of our belief in Hashem’s having created the world in six days (in some sense) as well as a reminder of the Exodus. I note that because I know many people today who are Sabbath-observant, and therefore insist on their inclusion in the Orthodox community, yet don’t believe in the Exodus or Hashem’s having created the world. Picking and choosing is alive and well.
The other aspect of Shabbat to note is Rashi’s comment that the Torah’s call to complete all our work in six days is about mental attitude. The Torah is not urging us to take on only those projects that can be completed in six days (farming isn’t done every week); it is telling us to make Shabbat a separate time, mentally, from the rest of the week, where none of what happens, before or after, intrudes. It’s not simple to do, but that’s how Rashi sees it.
Parents as Representatives of the Creator
For the command to honor our parents—which seems intuitive—I note Kiddushin 30b’s comment that Scripture offered verses that used similar terms of honor, fear, and the prohibition of cursing for how we should treat Hashem and how we should treat our parents.
This is because, famously, they were all partners in producing us, but I am not sure if we always catch on to what that is saying. Our parents are, for us, embodiments of a Creator—they are our creators, small ‘c’, and we are to react to them with something approaching the attitude we owe the Creator, capital ‘c’. Ramban extends that to areas I am not sure are halachically accepted; he thinks it includes an obligation to admit one’s father’s paternity (denying a father would be akin to denying Hashem), not to take a parent’s name in vain, and so on.
Ramban brings up recognizing parents again in the prohibition of adultery. Adultery leads people to be unsure of their fathers’ identity, leading to denial, much as idolaters deny their Father in Heaven. For Ramban, idolatry, honoring our parents, and adultery are all aimed at ensuring we admit crucial truths about our parents and, from there, about Hashem.
Rashi to Shir haShirim 4;5, on the other hand, thinks that adultery parallels the prohibition against having other gods. Just like an adulterous wife betrays the husband to whom she is supposed to be connected, idolaters betray Hashem.
To me, the most interesting aspect of all this is that we all agree that Hashem chose adultery, of all the sexually inappropriate relationships, to include in the Dibberot. Whether or not it is of paramount importance, its inclusion here gives it some notable importance. Yet today, people often see it as the least of the arayot, the least of the sexual wrongs—in a world where ten percent of married women would seem to have committed adultery, it is hard to retain our awareness of how serious it is, yet there it is, in the Aseret haDibberot.
This is another well-known prohibition, some of whose key elements might, however, be overlooked. Ramban reminds us, for the example I want to focus on, that even wanting the item is a problem. Many Jews say the Torah doesn’t legislate feelings, intentions, or thoughts, but this seems to contradict that. Ramban and others clearly understand the Torah to be prohibiting the desire for another’s possessions. There might be room to excuse the first flash of desire as uncontrollable, but from that point on it becomes a question of reminding ourselves to suppress such desires, or distract ourselves from them, so that they wither away.
It is also arguable that a desire isn’t inappropriate if the owner of the item is happy to sell. That might permit one approach to the owner, but once rebuffed, lo tachmod prohibits revisiting the conversation, offering more money, or in any other way pressuring the current owner.
There’s obviously much more to be said about these Dibberot, but this is one quick review of some points that seem to me salient to our current experience of them.