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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

 
 

 

 

Jewish understanding

Manuscript of Decalogue (2nd century?), containing variations from the Masoretic Text.

Popular belief holds that these are "the commandments" of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the Torah has 613 commandments. The Jewish tradition does, however, recognize these "ten commandments" as the ideological basis for the rest of the commandments (see below).

According to the Medieval Sefer ha-Chinuch, the first five statements concern the relationship between God and human beings, while the second five statements concern the relationship between human beings. Rabbinic literature holds that the Ten Statements contain 14 or 15 distinct instructions.

topThe ten statements

 

1.     "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt..." - This commandment is to believe in the existence of God.

2.     "You shall have no other gods besides Me...Do not make a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above..."

3.     "You shalt not swear falsely by the name of the Lord..." - This commandment is to never take the name of God in a vain oath. In Exodus, the text reads "in a vain oath" (לא תשא את שם ה' לשוא), while in Deuteronomy it reads "in a false oath" (לא תשא שם ה' לשקר).

4.     "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" (the version in Deuteronomy mentions "Keep" rather than "Remember")

5.     "Honor your father and your mother..." - This commandment is a development when compared to other laws of the Ancient East (for example, the Code of Hammurabi) that do not call for equal respect of the father and the mother.

6.     "You shall not murder" - The Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between murdering and killing (see Jewish interpretation below).

7.     "You shall not commit adultery"

8.     "You shall not steal" (sometimes interpreted as kidnapping, since there are other injunctions against stealing property in the Bible).

9.     "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor"

10.    "You shall not covet your neighbor's house..." (in Exodus, the text reads "... neighbor's house, ... neighbor's wife, nor his manservant..." etc. while in Deuteronomy, "thy neighbor's wife, ... thy neighbor's house, his field" etc.)

topJewish interpretation

Jewish thought generally divides the Ten Statements into two halves, the first five dealing with the relationship between God and humanity, and the second dealing with relationships between people.

Traditional Jewish belief is that the commandments contained in the Ten Statements apply solely to the Jewish people, and that the laws incumbent on the rest of humanity are outlined in the seven Noahide Laws.

In the era of the Sanhedrin, transgressing any one of these theoretically carried the death penalty; though this was rarely enforced due to a large number of stringent evidentiary requirements imposed by the oral law.

1.     "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt..."

The belief in the existence of God, that God exists for all time, that God is the sole creator of all that exists, that God determines the course of events in this world. This is the foundation of Judaism. To turn from these beliefs is to deny God and the essence of Judaism.

2.     "You shall have no other gods besides Me...Do not make a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above..."

One is required to believe in God and God alone. This prohibits belief in or worship of any additional deities, gods, spirits or incarnations. To deny the uniqueness of God, is to deny all that is written in the Torah.

It is also a prohibition against making or possessing objects that one or other may bow down to or serve such as crucifixes, and any forms of paintings or artistic representations of God.

One must not bow down to or serve any being or object but God.

One is prohibited from making sculpture of human beings even for the fine arts.

3.     "You shalt not swear falsely by the name of the Lord..."

This commandment is to never take the name of God in a vain oath. This includes four types of prohibited oaths: an oath affirming as true a matter one knows to be false, an oath that affirms the patently obvious, an oath denying the truth of a matter one knows to be true, and an oath to perform an act that is beyond one's capabilities.

4.     "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy"

One is to declare of the greatness and the holiness of the Sabbath, each Sabbath day, on the Sabbath day that God defined for the Jews during the Exodus. Each day of the Exodus, God provided food to the Jews to collect except on the Sabbath. Instead a double portion was provided the day before the Sabbath.

One is enjoined from performing work on the Sabbath. One may not change the day of the Sabbath.

5.     "Honor your father and your mother..."

The obligation to honor one's parents is an obligation that one owes to God and fulfills this obligation through one's actions towards one's parents. This commandment is an interesting development when compared to other laws of the Ancient East (for instance, the Code of Hammurabi) that do not call for equal respect of the father and the mother.

Jewish sages note that the 5th commandment, on the border between commandments on relationship with God and those between humankind, is to "Honor your father and your mother...", and draw lessons from this that a person should respect parents (and by implication, elders) only somewhat less than one would God himself, and that parents should be moral guidance to a person as God is to society.

6.     "You shall not murder"

The Hebrew word is unambiguously murder; kill is a mistranslation. The Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between murdering and killing, and explicitly notes that murder is always a heinous sin, while killing is sometimes necessary, and in these cases just in the eyes of God.

Thus, Jews take offense at translations which state "Thou shall not kill", which Jews hold to be a flawed interpretation, for there are circumstances in which one is required to kill, such as if killing is the only way to prevent one person from murdering another. Another case is killing in self-defense.

Many Protestant and most Catholic Christians hold that this verse forbids abortion; Judaism does not dogmatically regard abortion as murder (c.f Ex. 21:22-23, and Rashi thereon), although Orthodox Judaism prohibits abortion in most circumstances based on several other prohibitions.

7.     "You shall not have sexual relations with another man's wife."

8.     "You shall not kidnap"

Theft of property is forbidden elsewhere. Theft of property is not a capital offense.

9.     "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor"

in a court of law or other proceeding. Lying is forbidden elsewhere. Lying is not a capital offence.

10.    "You shall not covet your neighbor's house..."

One is forbidden to desire and plan how one may obtain that which God has given to another.

Maimonides makes a distinction in codifying the laws between the instruction given here in Exodus (You shall not covet) and that given in Deuteronomy (You shall not desire), according to which one does not violate the Exodus commandment unless there is a physical action associated with the desire, even if this is legally purchasing an envied object.

topSpecial status of the Ten Commandments in Judaism

The special status of the Ten Commandments in Judaism has sometimes been contentious. Indeed, when undue emphasis was being placed on them, daily communal recitation of them was discontinued (Talmud, tractate Berachot 12a).

Still, the Ten Commandments are generally considered to be subject headings to larger groups or subdivisions of the 613 commandments of the Torah; a number of works (starting with Rabbi Saadia Gaon) has made groupings of the commandments according to their links with the Ten Commandments.

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