Q & A (Questions and Assumptions)
A quick tour through the other 8 commandments
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I asked on Twitter one evening, “What questions and assumptions do you have about the Ten Commandments?” I specified that I wanted answers particularly from people who were raised Christian, because I was curious to see perspectives that came outside of my own textual tradition. I got a lot of questions and assumptions!
This is going to be like one of those quick Q&A formats of advice columns, sort of. (Sort of!) I’ll go through some comments from the Twitterati, and then share a few perspectives from the Jewish side of thing about how we regard that particular commandment, what we think it means, and then go to the next one.
Again, what I’m sharing a Jewish perspective on things, and some of you may come back to the sense that your own tradition’s teaching feels Correct for your way of doing things. I do not mean to disparage this, engaging with text (and translation) are always about interpretation, etc. AND for others, it may feel liberating to know that the perspective with which they have been raised is not the only one out there. You do you, etc etc etc. Jews, non-Christians, of course—come and learn!
So Maimonides, in the 12th c., was really the foundational guy when it came to turning the winding debates in the Talmud into a more codified set of Jewish law, uh, codes that were clearer for non-scholars to follow, so I’ll be quoting him a lot, unless it makes sense to site other Jewish legal sources. And sometimes I’ll throw in earlier commentaries, or other ones, just for fun, but my focus here, unlike many times, is to get quickly and clearly to the bottom line: What’s the thing, how do Jews understand what the verse includes and doesn’t include. Maimonides was the guy who enumerated the 613 mizvot (commandments) in the Torah, so sometimes I just quote straight from that list.
The last observation that I want to make is that, from the Jewish perspective, non-Jews are given the seven Noahide laws at the end of the flood/ark story, but beyond that, they’re not really obligated to any of this stuff. But I know that many people who are or were raised Christian have a very different understanding. So, again, multiple understandings of the same text. OK? OK! Let’s dig in.
Nobody had anything to say on the first commandment (the First Utterance, we’d call it in Jewville) but I’ll just note:
God spoke all these words, saying: I am God your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of enslavement.
Hezekiah ben Manoah, also known as Chizkuni, was a 13th c. French Torah commentator, who echoed a lot of other commentators when he explained thusly:
By means of this declaration God commands the people never to forget that it was God Who had redeemed the people by taking them out of bondage in Egypt. God implies [here] that they are far better off serving God than remaining slaves to Pharaoh.
In case you were wondering!
Maimonides says it’s a commandment to believe in God. (Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah 1:6) Some other folks do, too. Anyway! Quickies! On to the next!
You shall have no other deities besides Me.
You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I God your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
So people on Twitter said:
“Idols” encompasses *anything* that you prioritize over God, including people, hobbies, lifestyles, etc.
Second commandment - it was a cudgel against "those Catholics", but what do I do with it beyond back patting myself that I haven't given bread to any statues?
"No other gods" is evidence that the writers were at one point monolatrous.
As I noted a few weeks ago, Maimonides identified at least four commandments, here:
not to believe in any other deity
not to make graven images
not to bow down to idols and
not to worship an idol as it is usually worshipped.
(Mishneh Torah, Negative Mitzvot 1, 2, 5, 6).
So, pretty clear and focused, here. Let’s discuss.
Monotheism. Was the phrasing of the verse evidence of ancient monolatry—the notion that multiple deities exist but that we are Team Our God’s? It’s possible! But by Maimonides’ time—and probably by II Isaiah’s— the notion that there was only one deity and that believing otherwise was forbidden was pretty deeply ingrained in our theology and philosophy.
Don’t make graven images. Yeah, this means idols, meant for worship. It doesn’t mean getting metaphoric about the idolatry in our culture in that “we all serve money now,” it means literally not to make statues, etc. that will be worshipped, whether by your own hand or by hiring someone to do it for you.
OK, and then don’t bow down to the statues, idols, etc. Again, it’s not a metaphor. It means literally, the objects, instead of God. Whether or not that’s the usual way in which they are worshipped.
And then yeah, even if the idol isn’t worshipped by bowing down, we’re closing up the loophole here, also no leaving it food or other offerings.
It has nothing to do with prioritizing your hobbies over God, it is not metaphoric. Don’t make and worship idols means don’t make and worship idols.
Also, viz one of the tweets: I imagine Catholics—and Orthodox Christians—would say that they are not committing idolatry at all, despite Protestant polemics, but rather using iconography as a window into accessing and connecting with the divine. Yes, I debated editing the tweet, but given the centuries of bloodshed over this very issue I figured I’d leave it, name it (rather than pretending it’s not a thing that people are taught).
You shall not swear falsely by the name of God your God; for God will not clear one who swears falsely by God’s name.
First time I “took the lord’s name in vain” I told my parents my brothers were watching something with “oh my god” in it. Lol. I felt so guilty cause I knew I said it that way so I could experience it - so exhilarating! But the guilt was pretty bad…
Oh, and I was definitely taught never to say "God" in the context of "Oh my..." It had to be "gosh" or "goodness." Even now, I might type "omg" but feel as if I might get struck down if I used/said God's name improperly.
And then, over to the Jews, who make it clear that “OMG” was never really the problem, at least as far as we read it. Rather, it’s about taking oaths, vows, about things we have no business taking oaths about.
To clarify: Oaths are a pretty big deal in the Jewish world. It’s a sacred promise, invoking the Holy Name. You don’t mess around with them.
As Maimonides formulates it, this commandment refers to the prohibition against four different kinds of “futile” oaths:
When one has sworn that a known fact is not a fact, like that a pillar of marble is made of gold.
When one has sworn about a known fact which is not doubted by anybody, “that a particular stone is a stone, or that the number two is two, or anything of this sort. Since this is not doubted by any normal person, there is no need to confirm it by oath.”
“A case where one has sworn to break a commandment, as when they have sworn…not to dwell in a sukkah during the festival of Sukkot, or not to eat matzah on Passover nights, or to fast on Shabbat and festivals, or something like this.”
“Where one has sworn about something that is not within their power to do—they have, for example, sworn not to sleep for three days in succession, both night and day, or not to taste anything for seven consecutive days, or something like this.”
(Mishneh Torah, Oaths 1:4-7).
So, like, OMG is fine, even goddamnit is fine, this verse is about swearing futile oaths, taking vows we have no business taking, not about never saying the name of the divine (particularly, in my opinion, not in English—we Jews try not to be reckless with the Divine Name in Hebrew, but not because it’s forbidden in this particular commandment.)
Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.
Well, OK, we talked about this two weeks ago. REST IS A JUSTICE ISSUE!
Honor your father and your mother.
And we talked about this last week. Honoring parents doesn’t mean harming yourself, limiting yourself, editing your life choices, giving up your rights or putting up with abusive treatment. That's not what God wants.
You shall not murder.
Does Thou shall not kill cover war? Self-defense? Capital punishment?
That "thou shalt not kill" included abortion.
What does the prohibition on killing/murder cover?
I’ve often heard the no murder commandment teased out through “don’t even think about murder” to “don’t think angry thoughts towards them” to “don’t be angry” but I don’t think God commands no anger? What is the broader internalization of “don’t murder” without denying emotion?
First of all, this is where knowing Hebrew comes in handy. It doesn’t say “Do not kill.” It says, “Do not murder.” Different words, different meanings. Abortion isn’t included (more on that coming up in a few weeks.) Neither is killing in self-defense, or (necessarily) killing in the context of war. (Which doesn’t mean that anything goes in war, of course. More on that when we get to Deuteronomy.)
Maimonides makes it pretty clear: “Not to slay an innocent person.” (Mishneh Torah Negative Mitzvot 289).
So definitely don’t do that.
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You shall not commit adultery.
I was taught that “thou shalt not commit adultery” encompassed porn
I was taught that “Thou shalt not commit adultery” meant nobody should EVER succumb to lustful thoughts, even if that’s a HUGE departure from the text.
There's always been an assumption you can commit adultery with the eyes, also.
Again, I’m sorry, we’re almost boring-ly literal, here. No adultery means, “Don’t have sex with a woman who is married to another man.” (Mishneh Torah Negative Mitzvot 347). Patriarchy and ancient anxieties about assuring paternity being what they are/were, the marital status of the male partner isn’t even relevant. Just hers! (Is she regarded as property? Maybe!) But it’s definitely not about porn, it’s not about “lustful thoughts,” it’s not about what you’re looking at. From the Jewish perspective, it’s about prohibiting penetrative intercourse with a woman who is married to another man. Same-sex couples, nonbinary folks, etc. technically all exempt, presumably. *shrug emoji*
You shall not steal.
How serious should we take “thou shalt not steal/lie?” If you were starving had no money and saw an apple stand, would God be angry if you took one?
Soooo. This one is actually not read in the Jewish tradition to be about shoplifting or anything of the sort. (Which is not to say that you should do that, but for what it’s worth, viz the apple/Jean Valjean question, Judaism says you can violate just about any commandment to save a life, including your own.)
Rather, Maimonides says, “This text refers to kidnapping.” (Mishneh Torah Negative Mitzvot 243)
I bet you didn’t see that one coming, eh? Huh? How’d he get there?
From this Talmud passage (and a few more like it.)
The Sages taught: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13), and it is with regard to one who abducts people that the verse is speaking. Do you say that the verse is speaking with regard to one who abducts people, or perhaps the verse is speaking only with regard to one who steals property? You say: Go out and learn from one of the thirteen hermeneutical principles [that are used to interpret text]: A matter derived from its context. With regard to what context are the adjacent prohibitions “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery” in the verse speaking? They are speaking with regard to capital cases. So too here, the prohibition is speaking with regard to a capital case of abduction. (Talmud Sanhedrin 86a)
So basically, the Rabbis look and see two things that the Torah addresses as capital cases—adultery (yeah, I KNOW1) and lying on the witness stand, and say, well, it would make sense if the thing in the middle were equally high stakes. It wouldn’t make sense if, sandwiched between these two extremely life-or-death issues, was, “Thou shall not take an extra helping of guacamole at the condiment bar and not pay for it at checkout.” (But pay for your guac, kids.)
So they figure it must be something equally serious—the stealing of human beings. And that the prohibition against stealing money or property must be found elsewhere (Leviticus 19:11, to be specific.)
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Well, nobody had any comments on this one, so let’s go straight to Maimonides:
Not to testify falsely, as it is said, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). (Mishneh Torah, Negative Mitzvot 285)
It’s pretty straightforward. It doesn’t mean don’t harmful gossip (that’s a different prohibition—Leviticus 19:16). It doesn’t mean telling a white lie in order to spare someone’s feelings (we generally discourage lying (Exodus 23:7) but eg the Talmud teaches, “Rabbi Ilaa said in the name of Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon: It is permissible to alter [the truth] for the sake of peace.” [Talmud Yevamot 65b] and the Rabbis even debate whether or not to tell a bride she looks nice at her wedding if they don’t think she does [Talmud Ketubot 16b-17a]).
This verse means, literally, not giving false testimony in judicial proceedings, either suggesting that something happened that didn’t, or the reverse. Again, it is weighty and serious, along the lines of the other capital cases. Significant things are at stake, life and death, justice and injustice stuff.
And last but not least!!
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or their male or female servant, or their ox or their donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
Lotta thoughts from Twitter on this one!
I was taught that it is just as bad to covet, to want something that isn't yours, as it would be to act on that desire. Like, involuntary thoughtcrimes.
What does "covet" actually mean? (I was brought up to believe it meant wanting... basically anything I didn't already have.)
"Thou shall not covet" means you shouldn't want what someone else has, but what do you do instead? Want not?
So this is another place where the Jews are like, yeah, we’re concerned with actions, not thoughtcrimes. It’s not about just wanting things you don’t have, because how do you measure, mark, legislate that? How do you stop it from happening? That’s not fair? So how to interpret coveting?
Let’s look at a few texts this time.
Rav Aḥa of Difti said to Ravina: But [in this situation that we’re not going to get into now] doesn’t the bailee violate the prohibition of: “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:14)? One transgresses this prohibition by taking an item from another by force or deceit, even if one pays for it. The Gemara answers: The prohibition “You shall not covet” is understood by most people as referring to taking an item without paying money. Since the bailee may have been unaware that he was acting criminally, his testimony and his oath are deemed credible.(Talmud Bava Metzia 5b)
Got that? Rav Aha said the bailee was violating “You shall not covet” by taking an item by force or deceit, but the anonymous voice of the Talmud says, “Most people think that verse refers to taking an item without paying money.” (The status of the bailee’s actions isn’t relevant for us here, but glad his testimony is credible.)
According to our friend Maimonides,
“To covet is to plan to take away what belongs to another.” (Mishneh Torah, Negative Mitzvot 265)
And elsewhere, he says,
“Anyone who covets the servant or the house or goods of their neighbor, or anything that they can buy from them, and they exert friendly pressure and annoys them until they buys it from them, even for a high price, breaks the prohibition: "You shall not covet" (Exodus 20:17). (Mishneh Torah, Robbery and Lost Property 1:9)
So: Not about what you think, or crave. But what you do, or plan to do. Taking an item by force or deceit. Taking an item without paying for it. To plan to take away something that belongs to someone else. To pressure or coerce someone into selling something to you. Your mind is your own. Your actions, however, are your responsibility.
Let’s end with a poem today, eh?
The Eleventh and Twelfth Commandments: Don't Change! Change
By Yehuda Amichai (Hebrew here.)
My father was a god and did not know it.
He gave me The Ten Commandments neither in thunder nor in fury;
neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love.
And he added caresses and kind words and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”
And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat In a single melody
And he pleaded and cried quietly between one utterance and the next ,
“Do not take the name of God in vain,” do not take it, not in vain, I beg you,
“Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
“Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”
And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head wit the Yom Kippur blessing.
“Honor, love, in order that your days might be long On the earth.”
And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.
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