Israel Drazin

Thoughts on the Biblical Portion Yitro

As usual, the biblical portion Yitro is named after the first significant word in the portion, the name of Moses’ father-in-law Yitro. His name in English is Jethro with a J. German scholars began to transliterate some, but not all, names that start with the Hebrew letter yud with a J. Examples include Jerusalem and Joshua. Exceptions are Israel and Ishmael. Some foolish people criticize Maimonides for accepting philosophical ideas from the pagan philosopher Aristotle. They forget that the lawgiver Moses took advice from his pagan priest father-in-law in this portion. The portion also includes what is commonly mistakenly called The Ten Commandments. Some Jewish philosophers, rabbis, and non-Jews disagreed over what the Bible was saying in the Ten Commandments. The philosopher Philo who lived during the beginning of the Common Era, is an example. Most people will be surprised to learn that the Decalogue contains laws that are obscure.

  • The oft-used term “Ten Commandments” is incorrect. Scholars and clerics know more than ten commands are in the Decalogue, although they differ on how many there are. The correct term for the document used by the Torah itself is aseret hadibrot, “Ten Statements.” In Greek, “Decalogue” means the same. The ten statements contain between eleven and fifteen commands.
  • For example, the consensus is that the first sentence beginning “I am the Lord your God” is the first command even though no command is explicit in the words. It appears as a separate command in the picture of the two tablets in synagogues. Still, others, such as the Masorites, discussed below, are convinced it is not a command but God being introduced to the Israelites. Also, what most people consider the second command can be divided into more than a single mandate: (1) Have no other gods except the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, (2) Make no image of God, (3) Make no image of anything on earth, the heaven, or in the water, (4) Do not bow down to them, and (5) Do not serve them.
  • There are even different opinions among Jews on how to divide the ten statements. The Masorites combined what most Jews today consider the first two statements into one and split the last into two. Masorites lived during the second half of the first millennia. They were the Jewish scholars who determined the correct wording of the Torah and, among much else, the spacing of Torah sentences and paragraphs. The term Masorites derives from the Hebrew masora, which means “tradition.” They were called Masorites because they established or continued the Torah traditions. Their spacing of the aseret hadibrot is the one found in the Torah scrolls used during the Torah reading in synagogues. Thus it is rather remarkable that their view of the spacing of the Decalogue, the one in the Torah scrolls, is not accepted by Jewry.
  • Another difficulty with the Decalogue is how to interpret the prohibitions. For example, the second statement says that we may make no image of items on earth, in heaven, or the water. Yet, contrary to the explicit prohibition in the Decalogue, the rabbis allow making and owning pictures and statutes.
  • Still another difficulty: in the last statement (or last two, according to the Masorites) about coveting what does not belong to us, does this prohibit mental desires or only the improper taking of another person’s object? The rabbinical interpretation is that it disallows theft, even though this is contrary to what is stated because coveting is a mental process.[1]
  • Verse 19: 15 raises a question. Moses said “to the people: be ready against the third day. Come not near a woman.” Who are “the people”? Why should the people not come near a woman” before God reveals the Decalogue? Why doesn’t the Torah also say women should not come near men or say, “do not come near people of the opposite sex during the next three days”?
  • Why three days?
  • Should we understand that “the people” are males, that the commands were not given to women, and that somehow being with women within three days ruins the delivery of the commands?
  • Rashi states that the commands were also addressed to women. He contends that we should not understand that the command about the three days was given to men. It orders women not to have sex for three days because semen deteriorates within three days. Because of the deterioration and the implied order that she immerse herself in a ritual bath, a mikveh, the women will be pure and can receive the Decalogue. Does semen make one impure? Why does semen stop a woman from receiving commands? Would it have made more sense to warn both men and women not to act contrary to reason during the three days?
  • There are at least three ways to understand the Jewish law, which is not mentioned in the Torah, that women are not obligated to observe rules related to time. An example is the law about dwelling in Sukkot for seven days in the fall. Women do not have to use the Sukkah.
  • Additionally, there is a significant fundamental question, why is this law not mentioned in the Torah?
  • The generally accepted idea is that women are equal to men and received the same commands at the same time men received them. Later, the rabbis saw that women were overburdened with caring for the home and the commands. They enacted a new law that overrides the biblical command; women do not have to observe all the biblical rules. Do the rabbis have a right to tell half of Jewry, do not do what the Torah states? Is this the same as discontinuing sacrifices, not building a new temple today, owning slaves, etc.?
  • An opposite approach is to say women were not initially obligated to observe the commands, not even the Decalogue. Later, rabbis felt women should be treated better. They made many rules that helped women, such as the ketubah, the marriage contract, and stressed that men should not take women into marriage by having sex with them because this is unseemly, but by giving them something of value, such as a ring, or a contract. But they did not want to overload women, so they required them only to observe commands that are not time-bound.
  • The third idea is by the mystic Nachmanides, who contended in his commentaries to Leviticus 18:25 and Deuteronomy 11:18, and in Sermon on the Words of Kohelet that the biblical commands were instituted to be observed in Israel, not outside the holy land. He said we keep the laws outside of Israel today because the rabbis said we should follow them so that when we return to Israel we will know what to do.
  • What are the implications of each view? I believe that none of the three opinions stop me from my goal of being an observant religious Jew. I find the questions I raise interesting and thought-provoking but not disturbing. I feel that women need more respect than what we give them.
  • As indicated above, Rashi, Midrashim, and the Talmud take the first approach. The following are some more of Rashi’s ideas on the Decalogue.
  • Verse 19:22 states priests were forbidden to ascend the mountain when the Decalogue was announced. This is problematical. Aaron and his sons were not yet made priests. Rashi, relying on the Talmud, says that priests here means firstborn males. Why are they called priests? What did they do if they functioned as priests before Aaron’s family was given the role?
  • Verse 20:1 states that “Elohim” delivered the Decalogue. Rashi, accepting the homiletical view, states Elohim denotes a judge. God is saying that you will be punished if you do not observe the Decalogue.
  • Rashi writes that God spoke all ten statements in a single utterance, a miraculous event impossible for humans. God followed this single utterance by stating each sentence separately. Why did he say this? What does God accomplish by reciting the Decalogue in two ways?
  • He says that the word in verse one, “saying,” implies that the Israelites heard all ten statements and answered yes to each positive command and no to each negative one. Doesn’t “saying” in verse one mean “as follows” and not what Rashi contends?
  • He understands “Do not steal” means “Do not kidnap.”
  • He understands “Do not commit adultery” as a prohibition against sex with a married woman. Why isn’t it adultery for a single woman to have sex with a married man? Is this another indication that women do not have to observe the Decalogue?
  • He takes the words “all the people saw” in “all the people saw the thunder, the lightning, the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking” literally and concludes that there were no blind Israelites, but is not bothered by the impossibility of seeing thunder and the sound of a horn.
  • The following are some of the many things that the philosopher Philo (20 BCE –50 CE) wrote about the Decalogue:[2] Philo accepted the current understanding of the Decalogue, not the teaching of the Masorites, and divided the first statement into two and combined the last two. He called and treated the document as Ten Commandments even though there are more than ten.
  • Like Saadia Gaon (882–942), Philo considered the commands “generic rules, comprehending nearly all offenses.” In other words, one can see that any wrong committed by people can be subsumed under one of the general ten laws.[3]
  • God did not “speak” the commands because God is not anthropomorphic; God does not have vocal cords allowing speech. God created a miraculous sound that spoke the commands.
  • The Greek Septuagint translation had two distinct orders for the Decalogue, different than all other translations which parallel our Masoretic text. Our text is: You shall not murder…adultery…steal in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The Septuagint changes the order in Exodus to adultery…steal…murder, and in Deuteronomy to adultery…murder…steal. Philo accepted the Septuagint order.
  • Philo states that the first four commands deal with relations between man and God. The fifth is about honoring parents and focuses on both honoring God and treating people properly. The remaining five are commands dealing with human relations. They begin with adultery (in the Septuagint and Philo order) because this is the greatest of crimes according to them.
  • The first law (“I am the Lord”) “opposes the polytheistic doctrine and teaches that one sole governor rules the world.”
  • The second, forbidding making idols, is so that “the only true God might be honored in truth and simplicity.”[4] Does God need honor, or does God desires to aid humans from going astray, by teaching them to follow natural law He created or formed?
  • The third prohibits the wrongful use of God’s name. This restrains people from making unnecessary oaths that can cause many problems.
  • The fourth about the Sabbath obligates people to work during the other six days of the week and to use the seventh day to contemplate how to improve one’s self. It requires people to give rest to servants and even animals. It teaches that people should become self-reliant and not rely on servants and animals, servants should not despair of better times that lay ahead, and people should be sensitive to the needs and feelings of animals. Contrary to the Greek society in which he lived, Philo felt that slavery is an affront to God and humanity.
  • The fifth requires honoring parents. This is both a human and divine-oriented command. People must learn how to reciprocate with service to those who have done them a service. The command teaches that we must reciprocate not only to parents but to God, nature, and all people, to everything.
  • Philo’s sixth law bars adultery. As previously noted, it is “the greatest of all violations of the law.” It has as its source the love of pleasure that enervates the body and destroys the chance for proper improvement. It affects three people and their families, the husband, the adulterer, and the wife and her children.
  • The seventh in Philo’s order of Exodus 20 is murder, an act of sacrilege, for humans are godlike and are supposed to be civilized and act with reason. Murder robs a person of the sacred gift given by God, life.
  • The eighth in his Exodus order is stealing. A thief is an enemy of the State and all that a State stands for. Stealing one object leads to other transgressions and develops progressively worse habits.
  • The ninth outlawing being a false witness can produce “every kind of terrible danger.” Such a person corrupts the truth, the most sacred treasure anyone can expect to own.
  • Philo understands that the tenth, the prohibition against “covetousness,” bans improper desires, not deeds.[5] Covetous desires is the original passion from which all other mischiefs emanate. People need to learn to become obedient to the laws of moderation.

[1]      This raises the question: how does this command differ from the injunction against theft.

[2]      The source for the quotes is Torah from Alexandria, Philo as A Biblical Commentator, Exodus, by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, Kodesh Press, 2014.

[3]      Why did they consider the ten commands as ten categories? We do not know. It is possible that they thought since the Decalogue is described in the Torah as being promulgated in a miraculous manner, different than all other commands, it must have special significance.

[4]      This concept of worshiping God in a very simple manner stresses acting properly with fellow humans rather than pompous grandiose religious observances.

[5]      In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:50, Maimonides explains, like Philo, that people need to learn to control their desires. However, as a matter of halakha, “law,” Maimonides states (in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Geneivah 1:9) that the rabbis understood that it is the acts that the Torah forbids.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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