The Ten, or So, Commandments

We have all heard about the 10 commandments, they are a focal point for morality and the foundation of many modern legal systems. But which ones are commandments and how are they to be counted? When one asks this question, one learns that there are many different interpretations. Before we begin it is important to note that the 10 commandments are given three times in the Torah, first in Shemot (Exodus) 20:1-13, again in Shemot (Exodus) 34:11-27, and finally in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5:6-21. For this article I will focus on the commandments as given in Shemot (Exodus) 20.

Shemot (Exodus) 20: 1-13

1″ And G-d spoke all these words [to the Israelites] saying:
2 I am YHVH your divine ruler, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of servitude; You shall have no other deities before me.
3 You shall not make for yourself any crafted image or likeness, anything that is in the skies above, or that is on the earth below, or that is in the water beneath the Earth.
4 You shall neither bow down to them nor serve them; for I YHVH your divine ruler, am a jealous deity, visiting the crimes of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me;
5 And showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
6 You will not swear by the name of YHVH your divine ruler falsely; for YHVH will not forgive those who take an oath in His name falsely.
7 Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy.
8 For six days you shall labour and do all your creating (work).
9 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHVH your divine ruler; you shall not create or labour. Neither you, nor your sons and daughters, your male or female servants, your livestock, nor the visitor who is within your gates.
10 For in six days YHVH made skies and Earth, the seas, and all that is in them; and He rested the seventh day, He blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
11 Honor the traditions of your fathers, that you will have a long stay in the land that YHVH your divine ruler will give you.
12 You shall not kill in hate.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
13 You shall not desire your neighbor’s house; neither shall you shall desire your neighbor’s wife, his male or female servant, his ox, his burrow, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

(Translation in context by the blog author with the assistance of Mechon-Mamre).

The tablets in approximate ancient Hebrew

What is the first commandment? According to the Talmud and thus Orthodox Judaism the first commandment is Shemot (Exodus) 20:2 “I am YHVH your ruler, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage;” How is this a commandment? What does it command us to do? The Talmud argues that we are commanded to remember this. The Torah never asks us to remember anything, only to observe. This is merely an introduction, just as a man might introduce himself at a presentation: “I am John Doe who invented the whatchamacallit…” YHVH introduces Himself by reminding the Israelites that He brought them out of Egypt which is why they must observe His commandments. Historians have noted that in ancient semitism there were no religious precepts that take place within the abstract realm of the mind, only those that require an action to be taken or not to be taken.

17 Century CE Ten Commandments – Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Talmud was written down somewhere around the 6th Century CE. An older counting of the commandments exists, however, in the works of the great Alexandrian Jewish Philosopher Philo and in the histories of Josephus. The Philonic counting, as it is called, of the commandments holds that the end of verse 2 is the first commandment: “You will have no deities before Me.” YHVH introduces Himself then begins to command in verse 2 by commanding the Israelites not to have other deities before, or in addition to, Him.The Rabbinical interpretation holds that the commandment not to have other deities before Hashem goes long with the commandment against making idols.

The Philonic counting, which is also given by Josephus, gives the first commandment as that of not having deities before Hashem. The commandment against making idols is the second and so forth from there. This counting is widely used in Christianity. The second commandment encompasses the commandment not to make and worship graven images or likenesses, verses 3, 4, and 5. The commandment not to make and worship idols is a separate act from beholding other deities. One could believe in Odin in addition to YHVH and never craft an idol. Meanwhile, one could craft and worship an idol of YHVH instead of respecting Him as the “living” or “real” deity who cannot be represented in any physical form.
10 Commandments according to the Philonic counting

The third commandment includes verse 6: keeping oaths made in the name of YHVH. The fourth concerns Shabbat and includes verses 7, 8, 9, and 10. Within this commandment is that one should observe Shabbat (from sunset Friday to Sunset Saturday) by making it a holy day (praying and giving offerings) and that you should not create or engage in burdensome labor on that day. The remaining six days we must work and be productive according to our talents if and when we are able. The fifth commandment can be found in verse 11, where one should honour their parents by following the traditions of their parents, lest one should wander off after other deities. For Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:19-20 tells us to choose life (a long life in the land) by observing the commandments. This verse promises a long life in the land and thus has to do with the traditions set forth by the previous generations.

The sixth through ninth commandments shoot off from there in verse 12. Note that the seventh commandment is not to steal, although it is often regarded as a commandment against taking a free Jew into slavery by the followers of the Talmud. Finally, the tenth commandment is verse 13. Many scholars knowledgeable of Hebrew believe that the word “take” should be used in lieu of the common translation to “covet,” or “want.” I believe that the best description of the concept represented by the word “chamad” in Hebrew is to respect boundaries and not to want things publicly. If you desire your neighbor’s wife and others become aware of it, this could sow discord and mistrust into your marriage and that of your neighbor, for example. If a man is always speaking of how he wants his neighbor’s ox and then that ox is stolen, who will be the first suspect? Private desires are not an action that takes place outside of the individual, making others aware of them is.
The Samaritan Counting

Charlton Heston As Moshe

The Samaritans, whose Torah differs slightly from that used by Jews, argue that verse 2 is merely a preface and that verses 3-6 are the first commandment, leaving only nine commandments. Naturally, they believe that there is a tenth commandment, but that it was removed from the Torah for political reasons by Ezra. This commandment calls for the Israelites to pray at Mt. Gerizim, which the Samaritans hold to be the holy place. The Jewish version of the Torah only refers to “the place that will be chosen,” which is interpreted such that Jerusalem was ultimately chosen, and does not include this place to be chosen among the ten commandments. The Samaritan argument is interesting in that it is stronger when arguing with the Talmudic counting than with the Philonic. I want to note that I hold the Samaritans in high regard, have visited their community in Holon on several occasions and mean them no offense.

Mt. Gerizim the place of prayer for the Samaritans
Philo and Josephus lived in a time before the major Jewish institutions, and the Temple, were destroyed. They had access to the practices that were set forth by Ezra and Nehemiah, which are the closest anyone can get to ancient Jewish belief, short of finding a new set of “Dead Sea Scrolls” written before the destruction of the First Temple (the Temple of Solomon). This is why I agree with Philonic counting and disagree with any other.

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