The Big Ten
A first look at a handful of commandments, utterances, sayings, or something of the sort
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
Let’s talk about the Ten Commandments, shall we?
They are a source of significant emotional, theological and spiritual weight for a lot of people, and, as such, merit some time and attention.
The first thing I want to note is that, in the Jewish tradition, we don’t refer to them as the Ten Commandments. They’re the Ten Statements, the Ten Utterances–Aseret HaDibrot. The Ten Spoken Things.
As we reckon, God created the world with ten utterances (Pirke Avot 5:1), there were ten generations each from Adam to Noah and Noah to Abraham, (Pirke Avot 5:2), ten plagues, and more. It’s regarded as a–-not the only, to be sure, but one–-number of perfection, completion.
And more than that, from our traditional reckoning, they contain more than 10 separate mitzvot, commandments (out of the 613 mitzvot total that Maimonides itemizes as listed in the Torah.) For example, Maimonides identifies four commandments contained within the second statement (they’re all listed below, never fear): 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.
And even more than that, one Jewish reading of them is that, in fact, all 613 commandments of the Torah are implicitly contained within those Ten Utterances (which isn’t to say that we don’t also need them spelled out elsewhere.) There are 620 letters (in Hebrew!) in the 10 utterances, so the Rabbis count that to represent, symbolically, the 613 mitzvot plus the seven days of Creation (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 13:15).
As Rashi, our favorite 11th c. French vintner slash Biblical commentator puts it:
“All the six hundred and thirteen commandments are implicitly contained in the Ten Utterances and may therefore be regarded as having been written on the tablets.” (Rashi on Exodus 24:12)
Which, again, isn’t to say that we don’t need to have all of our mitzvot spelled out elsewhere throughout the Torah; just that
what these ten are, what’s being counted, and how, and why, and what they mean is not spiritually straightforward.
The reading here is that all of the Israelites heard the whole Torah directly from God, in this divine revelation, and then when Moses went up to the mountaintop later, it was just to get caught up on the details.
More to the point, as we Jews slice it, the first five are regarded as obligations between human beings and God. (aka 1) I am God who took you out of Egypt. 2) You should have no other deities before me, and don’t make graven images 3) No swearing falsely in God’s name 4) Keep Shabbat and 5) Honor your parents.)
And the last five are regarded as interpersonal obligations, things that we do to care for one another down here. (That is, 6) Don’t murder 7) Don’t commit adultery 8) Don’t steal 9) Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor and 10) Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife1, workers, animals, etc.)
Of course, lots of questions arise from even that–what does it mean that honoring one’s parents is considered a ritual and not an interpersonal commandment? Some suggest it’s because parents are partners with the divine in our creation (cf Talmud Kiddushin 30b.) This explanation, of course, centers a very biological parenting model; we know that parents, and parenting, looks like lots of different things and can happen in lots of different ways. Some consider this a pivot commandment, the one that puts us between person and family, which is somewhere between us and God and us and out in the world.
Life is a Sacred Text is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support this project, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Karyn Goldberger intriguingly points out that, actually, the 10 follow a chiastic structure—a Biblical format in which the center is the most important thing, and then parallels go out from there, symmetrically (ABCBA, eg). So according to this formulation, don’t murder (6)—life—is the center, parents (5) and adultery (7) are about relationship, not stealing (8) and keeping Shabbat (4) are about action, not swearing falsely (3) and bearing false witness (9) are about speech, and coveting (10) and no other deities (2) are about thought. And (1) I am God is just outside the structure. I like that.
For Christians who are confused right now, how things get numbered is A Whole Thing. I don’t, as a rule, recommend Wikipedia as a source, but as far as I can tell (?), this chart does a pretty good job of showing how different traditions number the words below. (Key just below chart)
T: Jewish, aka based on Talmud
R: Reformed Christians, also used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
LXX: Septuagint, generally followed by Orthodox Christians.
P: Philo of Alexandria
S: Samaritan Pentateuch, with an additional commandment about Mount Gerizim as 10th.
C: Catechism of the Catholic Church
Back in the day, Jews used to read the Ten Utterances as part of our daily morning liturgy—we find this in the Nash Papyrus, which was written in Egypt around 150 B.C.E., in the Dead Sea Scrolls in a collection of liturgical texts, and in Mishnah Tamid 5:1. Seems the custom was to recite them before the Sh’ma. So what happened?
In the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot, Chapter 1, fol. 3c), we find this (echoed also in the Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 12a):
Rav Matana and Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman explained, “It would be proper to read the Ten Commandments every day; and why don’t we? Because of the zeal of the heretics lest they say: These alone were given to Moses at Sinai.”
The zeal of who?? Some suggest early Christians, or Gnostics, or Samaritans, or some other group. Whoever it is, it’s a group that suggests that only the Big 10, and not the whole of Torah, was given to Moses at Sinai—and this fact, at least, was regarded as heretical. Rav Matana and Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman are saying: those folks put too much emphasis on these Utterances, missing the 10 for the 613, and so we stopped saying them, lest people get the wrong idea about us. Of course all of Torah was given at Sinai! (Or, it’s possible that this group was the early Christians, and the Rabbis wanted to differentiate from them and avoid confusion, and the theological hairspitting was just an excuse. I am not sure.)
Maimonides, too, objected to Jews standing when the Big 10 were read in public because it might lead to the idea that some parts of the Torah are holier than others:
“…and they think that the Torah contains different levels and some parts are better than others, and this is very bad…” (Responsa, ed. Blau, No. 263)
I mean, yes, they’re important in Judaism. We read them in public three times a year (in the readings of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and during the festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah on Sinai.) We teach them as part of Jewish education. And yes, some Jews do have the custom to stand as the Ten Utterances are being read—Ashkenazi rabbis argued that doing so is appropriate following the Israelites’ own experience of receiving them in the Torah in Exodus 19:17, “And they stood at the base of the mountain.” The souls of all Jews by choice—those who would ever convert, at any point in the future, were also said to be here at Sinai, receiving this revelation. Maybe that in itself is standing-worthy. (Talmud Shevuot 39a).
But these Utterances are not considered on some higher or more sanctified level than our other mitzvot, nor are they namechecked in famous Rabbinic conversations about what the heart of the Torah is, like
There was another incident involving one non-Jew who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. (This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade.) The same non-Jew came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study. (Talmud Shabbat 31a)
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18) Rabbi Akiva says: This is the great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says: "This is the book of the generations of Adam" (Genesis 5:1—[that is to say, the knowledge that we’re all descended from a common ancestor, we’re all related]) is the great principle of the Torah. (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4:2-4)
In any case, hope this little overview was helpful. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look in depth at a couple of these Utterances, and then do a bit of an overview on the rest, looking at questions and various ideas about what they mean, and how they’re interpreted in the Rabbinic tradition or what the Hebrew itself can teach us about what’s going on.
And, as promised, here are the Ten Utterances in full:
God spoke all these words, saying:
I am God your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of enslavement:
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.
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.
Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Shabbat of the God your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days God made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the day of Shabbat and hallowed it.
Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that God your God is giving to you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
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.
“Thus in all the words of the world and all the deeds and works—whether of a woodchopper or some other occupation—the Torah is hidden in all of them, for everything was created through the Ten Utterances in which the Torah was hidden and concealed before the Giving of the Torah.”
Rebbe Nahman of Breslov (Likutei Moharan, Part II 78:4:6)
Like this? Get more of it in your inbox every week.
For free every Monday—sign up at the ‘Subscribe now’ button just below.
And you can get even more as part of a community of rabble rousers going deep into the questions and issues, with even more text and provocation, every Thursday.
And please know that nobody will ever be kept out due to lack of funds. Just email email@example.com for a hookup.
And if you’d like to underwrite one of these donated subscriptions, you can do so here.
And if it resonated with you, please share this post:
Sending a big pile of blessings and goodness your way.
This seems like a good time also to point out that “Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife” painfully underscores some of the patriarchal garbage and exclusion of women that we saw a few weeks back. Or maybe the 10 Utterances were given to straight men, queer women and nonbinary people who date women! (I know, I know. Sigh.) But still, anyone who might have a husband wasn’t included here as audience here, and the whole women-as-property trope that painfully pops up in the Bible now and again is here, as a life partner is compared to a house, workers, animals. (We’ll unpack what it means to “covet” in a later missive.)