November 16, 2018

Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

How many commandments are there in the Torah? To most people the answer is simple: 10.

True, there are those who know the Torah contains 613 commandments, but the majority of people believe that there are only “The Ten Commandments.” For them, the 613 figure comes as a shock. And even among those who are aware of the 613, you will sometimes hear, “Yes, I know, but there are really 10 ‘big’ commandments.”

Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that the term “Ten Commandments” is foreign to the classic Jewish tradition. The birth of “The Ten Commandments” tradition is in the Christian world, where Christian theology asserted that only these 10 statements, spoken by God at Mount Sinai, were relevant. The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Torah, translated the biblical term Aseret Hadevarim (10 statements), as dekalogos, which means “10 words.” Largely due to Christianity’s theological conclusions, the commonly known word “Decalogue” came to be known in Hellenistic and Christian circles as “The Ten Commandments.”

Rabbinic Judaism never used the term “Ten Commandments,” which in Hebrew would have been Aseret Hamitzvot. Instead, the rabbis named them Aseret Hadibrot (10 sayings or utterances).

What made these particular commandments unique to the rabbis was obviously not their exclusivity to all other commandments, but the manner in which they were transmitted to the Israelites. Most of the Torah’s commandments were transmitted through Moses. God would teach Moses, and Moses in turn would teach the people.

This is reflected in the oft-repeated verse “And God spoke to Moses as follows: Speak to the Children of Israel and instruct them….” This phrase, with either “God spoke to Moses” or “God said to Moses,” appears in the Torah 146 times. By contrast, the introduction to the “Aseret Hadibrot” — “God spoke all these words, saying…” — appears only in this instance. The fact that God chose to speak these 10 statements in first person, without an intermediary, is what caught the eyes of the rabbinic tradition. In fact, the Midrash Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael goes one step further, saying that all 10 statements were actually spoken by God as one: “God spoke all these words. This teaches us that God spoke the Aseret Hadibrot in one utterance — something impossible for creatures of flesh and blood. If so, why then is it said ‘I am the Lord your God,’ ‘You shall have no other Gods,’ and so on? It simply teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, after having said all of the Aseret Hadibrot in one utterance, repeated them, saying each commandment separately.”

The words of this Midrash have even impacted the way the Aseret Hadibrot are read in the synagogue from the Torah. It is the custom in most communities to stand during the reading of the Aseret Hadibrot, a show of special reverence for this being the actual voice of God that was heard at Mount Sinai when these commandments were spoken. Additionally, when the Torah reader chants them, he must choose, based on the custom of the community, how to chant them. There are two alternative systems of cantillation for the Aseret Hadibrot — “lower cantillation” (ta’am tachton) and “upper cantillation” (ta’am elyon). The former divides the Hebrew text into verses, in the usual grammatical manner of the rest of the Torah, where the latter divides each commandment into its own unit, reflecting the manner in which God actually spoke them.

It is obvious that in the Jewish tradition, the Aseret Hadibrot are not the “Ten Commandments,” but they do hold a special place within the tradition. Is the mere fact that they were spoken out loud by God enough of a reason for the special attention they are accorded? Or is the actual content of these commandments, which is so powerful that God purposely chose to utter only these directly, the reason for their special place in Judaism?

The answer to this question is best summed up in Sefer Haikkarim, a 15th century work of Jewish philosophy by Spanish rabbi and philosopher Joseph Albo, who writes: “These 10 statements are general, all-inclusive principles representing the two main categories of commandments in the Torah. The first five of these commandments represents man’s faith in God, and his obligations toward God. The next five define the overriding principles governing man’s relationship to his fellow man, and are mandatory to the existence of an orderly life in any state or society” (Section 3, Chapter 26). As such, Albo asserts that the Aseret Hadibrot are a sort of “preamble to the constitution,” and without them, the rest of the Torah cannot make sense.

The Talmud teaches that the Aseret Hadibrot were once a fixed part of Jewish liturgy, and were recited every day during services. This practice was abolished, the Talmud says, so as to not strengthen the claim of the heretics who said that these are the most important commandments. I strongly believe that given the sad state of spiritual and moral affairs in today’s society, we should reinstitute the daily recital of the Aseret Hadibrot. Let us worry a little less about the “claims of the heretics” and focus more on what path we would like our world to follow.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, a nondenominational, modern/traditional Sephardic synagogue in Westwood. You can read his blog at