The Ten Commandments
“I am Hashem your G-d…” (Shemot 20,2)
(Much of the material in this section is adapted with permission, from Sefer HaTodaah of Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov)
“Maamad Har Sinai” – The Stand at Mt. Sinai
When the Jewish People stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and accepted the Torah, was probably the most momentous event in the history of the human race. At that time, what occurred taught the following profound lessons:
There is a G-d in the World
The World was created by G-d
G-d established rules for the behavior of Man and, at the root of them, are these ten:
The text (in bold); following the text are some comments –
1. “I am Hashem, your G-d, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence.” (Shemot 20,2)
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (RAMBAN) asks, “Why did Hashem introduce Himself to the Jewish People as the One Who had taken them out of slavery in Egypt. Great as that was, wasn’t He also the One Who had done something even greater; namely, created the universe? And RAMBAN answers that while it’s true that Hashem had created the universe, there had been no human witnesses present at that event! Whereas, there had been millions of witnesses to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. And these witnesses were expected to pass that testimony onward from generation to generation, till our day.
The Ten Commandments are written as commands to individuals, so that each individual should know and realize that the Commandments are meant for him, and he cannot say, “let them be fulfilled by others.”
Since Hashem had appeared to the Jewish People at the Sea as a warrior, and at Sinai as a Teacher of Torah, and He would appear to them in the time of Shlomo as a young man, and in the time of Daniel as an old man full of mercy – the Holy One Blessed be He said to them, “Although you see different manifestations, you should realize that I Was the One at the Sea, I Am the One here at Sinai, I Am the One at all times – I Am the L-rd your G-d.”
2. “You shall not make a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I am Hashem your G-d – a jealous G-d, Who visits the sin of fathers on children to the third and fourth generations, for My enemies; but Who shows kindness for thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and observe My commandments.” (Shemot 20:4-6)
This is one of the three cardinal sins in Judaism, such that if Person A approaches Person B and says to him, “I will kill you if you do not worship idol so-and-so,” Person B must allow himself to be killed rather than worship the idol.
The ratio of the “mercy” of G-d to His “judgment” is at least 500 to 1. For we see that he visits the sins of the fathers onto the sons only to a maximum of four generations, whereas he remembers the good deeds of the fathers for thousands (minimum of thousands is two thousand). Perhaps the way this trans-generational transfer of guilt and merit works is like this: A parent’s sinful behavior can affect a child, but only up to a maximum of four generations. Whereas, an ancestor’s good behavior will “sink into the bones” of the descendants, and remain as a positive influence for at least two thousand generations.
3. “You shall not take the name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain, for Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain.” (Shemot 20:7)
Do not be quick to take oaths which involve mention of Hashem’s Name. And do not let oaths become commonplace in your mouth, because someone who behaves in this manner, will swear even when he or she has no desire to do so. Therefore, it is forbidden to swear even on something true (this is why many people, when asked to swear, in certain administrative and judicial contexts, will request the right to “affirm,” rather than swear). And anyone who desecrates G-d’s Name by swearing falsely or even truthfully (in a matter not justifying use of G-d’s Name) his end will be that Hashem, acting in accordance with the principle of “midah k’neged midah,” or “measure for measure,” will cause information that this person would have preferred to remain private, to enter the public arena, and be “bandied about” like something trivial.
4. “Remember the Day of Shabbat to sanctify it. Six days shall you work and accomplish all your work; but the seventh day is Shabbat to Hashem, your G-d; you shall not do any work – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, your animal, and your convert within your gates – for in six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, Hashem blessed the Day of Shabbat and sanctified it.” (Shemot 20:8-11)
According to Jewish Tradition, Hashem uttered the Command of “Remember the Shabbat” and the Command of “Guard the Shabbat” (which is the form of the Shabbat command as it appears when Moshe reviews the history of the People of Israel in the Book of Devarim, and refers to the events described here the first time around, in the Book of Shemot) simultaneously, which is impossible for a human being to do, and yet the Jewish People were enabled to understand the Command. This is to teach that to “Remember” Shabbat, which relates to the positive aspects of Shabbat and to “Guard Shabbat”, which relates to the prohibition side of Shabbat, are both essential aspects of the Holy Day.
The way to fulfill the Commandment of “Remember the Shabbat” is to recite the Kiddush at the Shabbat table. This is the minimum requirement; for other aspects of this command, see Remember the Shabbat.
Shammai the Elder used to say, “Remember the Shabbat” before it comes, and “Guard it” once it has come. It was said about Shammai the Elder that the remembrance of Shabbat “never left his mouth.” He would buy a nice item, and say “this is for Shabbat.” And they said further about Shammai the Elder that he would eat all week “for the honor of Shabbat;” he would buy a nice cow, and he would say, “This is for the honor of Shabbat.” Then if he found a nicer one, he would eat from the first and set the second aside for the Shabbat. But Hillel the Elder had a different characteristic; he would trust Hashem to provide the best for each day on that day, and would say, “Blessed is Hashem each day.”
Turnus-Rufus, the Roman official, asked Rabbi Akiva concerning the Shabbat, “How is one day different from any other day?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “How is Tunnus-Rufus different from other men? Turnus-Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva to clarify his meaning. Rabbi Akiva said, “You asked me, ‘How is the Shabbat different from other times?’ and I asked you, ‘How are you different from other men?’ ” Turnus-Rufus angrily responded, “The Emperor wishes to honor me!” To which Rabbi Akiva answered, “The King of Kings wants the Jewish People to show honor to the Shabbat.”
5. “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you.” (Shemot 20:12)
“Honor your father and your mother;” and it is also written “a person should revere his mother and father.” What is reverence and what is honor? “Reverence” includes such behaviors to be avoided as not to stand in their place or sit in their place, not to contradict them and not even to lend your support to what they have to say. “Honor” includes such actions as to provide food and drink, indirectly and even directly, to provide clothing and even, if necessary, to dress them, to cover them, to bring them in and take them out, etc., etc., in accordance with their needs.
“They asked Rav Ulla, ‘To what extent is a child obligated to honor his or her parents?’ He answered, ‘go and see how a certain non-Jewish resident of Ashkelon behaved, and his name was Dama, son of Nesina. Once the Rabbis wished to purchase an object from them for ritual purposes, for the sum of six hundred thousand “shekalim,” let’s say, dollars, but the key to the safe was under the head of his sleeping father, and Dama would not disturb his father!’ ”
“They asked Rabbi Eliezer, ‘To what extent is a child obligated to honor his or her parents?’ He said to them, ‘to the extent that even if the parent would throw the child’s wallet into the ocean for no reason, the child should not embarrass the parent!’ ”
6. “You shall not murder!” (Shemot 20:13)
This is one of the three cardinal sins in Judaism, for which an individual is obligated to give up his life. This means that if Person A approaches Person B and says to him, “I will kill you if you do not kill person C,” Person B should allow himself to be killed, rather than murder Person C.
7. “You shall not commit adultery!” (Shemot 20:13)
This is the third of the three cardinal sins in Judaism, such that if Person A approaches Person B and says to him, “I will kill you if you do not commit adultery with the wife of Person C,” Person B must allow himself to be killed rather than commit adultery.
8. “You shall not steal!” (Shemot 20:13)
This form of stealing is the stealing of souls; that is, kidnapping, for which the penalty is “bet-din,” Jewish Court-administered death. Stealing of money, for which the penalty is financial, is referenced elsewhere in the Torah.
9. “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow!” (Shemot 20:13)
Jewish Tradition holds that one is not even allowed to speak favorably about other individuals, because that too can relatively easily lead one to speak ill of that person. For example, if one says, “What a nice house (car, job, wife, etc.) so-and-so has,” it is easy to see how that can lead to feelings of jealousy and “lashon hara,” unfavorable speech, or worse.
10. “You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow!” (Shemot 20:14)
In the Devarim version of the Utterances, or Commandments, a different verb is used. Here the prohibition is “Lo Tachmod!,” “Do not actively desire!” There, in Devarim, the verb is “Lo Titaveh!,” “Do not desire in your heart!” For there is a causal chain – if one allows himself to desire someone else’s property, etc., that will lead to more active desire, which will lead to stealing, etc., etc.
How is it possible to command someone concerning his or her emotions? First of all, it is possible, as we see from other commands, positive [such as "You shall love your neighbor as yourself!"] and negative ["You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart!"]. Alternatively, the meaning here is that one should distance the thought of possessing some “thing” “belonging” to someone else so far outside the realm of possibility, that the thought actually recedes from one’s imagination.
A Poetic Description of the Giving of the Torah