I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the US Congress.
– Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), attributed
The Aseret HaDibrot (commonly called “the Ten Commandments”) are the focal point of Matan Torah, God’s revelation at Har Sinai to the Jewish people.<1> In most synagogues, everyone stands when the Aseret HaDibrot are read as part of Keriat HaTorah for Yitro, Va’etchanan, and Shavuot. They’re pretty important for us.
And we’re not the only ones who view them as important. During the 1960s, hundreds of granite monuments of the Aseret HaDibrot were installed across America in parks, city halls, and courthouses. (Cecil B. DeMille, the director of the epic 1956 film “The Ten Commandments,” was one of the people involved in this effort.) While multiple court cases challenged these monuments as violations of the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause,<2> the United States Supreme Court eventually ruled that they are legal because the Ten Commandments have not only religious meaning but historic and social meaning as well.<3> In the words of Dennis Prager, who recently wrote a book about the Aseret HaDibrot, “The most important words ever written are the Ten Commandments. These words changed the world when they were first presented at Mt. Sinai to the Israelites, and they are changing it now. They are the foundation stones of Western Civilization.”<4>
Nevertheless, we have a tradition that there are 613 commandments, not just ten. The question then is what makes these ten stand out. In other words, why did God present this short list in such a dramatic way at Har Sinai, calling so much attention to it that the world would never forget? There are many ways to answer this question. I’d like to present three of them here.
THE KISS PRINCIPLE
The acronym KISS is sometimes understood to stand for “Keep it simple and straightforward.”<5> Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Aseret HaDibrot exemplify this principle perfectly:
What makes them special is that they are simple and easy to memorise. That is because in Judaism, law is not intended for judges alone. The covenant at Sinai, in keeping with the profound egalitarianism at the heart of Torah, was made not as other covenants were in the ancient world, between kings. The Sinai covenant was made by God with the entire people. Hence the need for a simple statement of basic principles that everyone can remember and recite.<6>
This simplicity is presumably what prompted Ronald Reagan to make the statement cited above. Lawyers and lawmakers aren’t known for being brief and succinct, to say the least. In contrast, Commandments 6, 7, and 8 have only two words each! Nowhere else in all of Tanakh is there a pasuk (verse) with only two words.<7> In this sense, the Aseret HaDibrot stand out from most other laws, including those of the Torah itself.
Often in the Chumash, a prohibition appears along with the punishment for violating it. Not here! Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains in his impressive summary book Biblical Literacy:
A striking feature of the Ten Commandments is the lack of judicial penalties associated with their violation. True, God promises to personally punish violators of Commandments 2 and 3, but this itself is distinctive from most biblical legislation, the violation of which is followed by a judicial punishment (for example, murderers are to be executed, and thieves ordered to pay a hundred percent fine).
Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld argues that the Ten Commandments had a more elevated purpose than merely designating the permitted, the forbidden, and the obligatory:
These commandments are . . . rather a formulation of conditions for membership in the community. Anyone who does not observe these commandments excludes himself from the community of the faithful. . . . [T]he definition of laws and punishments is given in various legal codes, but this is not the concern of the Decalogue, which simply sets forth God’s demands of His people (Deuteronomy 1-11, p. 248).
From this perspective, then, the Ten Commandments are more like the Declaration of Independence, in which listing a punishment for anyone who refuses to accept the principle that “all men are created equal” would be inappropriate; the rest of the Torah’s legislation, however, is more similar to that of the Constitution.<8>
In other words, by leaving out judicial punishments from the Aseret HaDibrot, God was presenting them as a proclamation comparable to the Declaration of Independence.
The Torah’s laws are similar in some ways to Ancient Near Eastern law codes, and different in other ways.<9> One of the similarities is having laws in the style that the scholars call casuistic (case-based). These are conditional laws, which typically start with “If” and proceed with “then.” They might be in the third person (“If someone . . .”) or the second person (“If you . . .”). Every law in the Code of Hammurabi is conditional. Many of the laws in the Torah are as well.
But there’s another style of law, which the scholars call apodictic (self-evident). These are unconditional laws, which command “Do” or “Do not.” This is unique to the Torah<10> and is the style of the Aseret HaDibrot. (For a chart that compares the differences between the two styles within the Torah, see this note: <11>.)
Interestingly, except for the Torah, neither ancient nor modern law codes present law in unconditional form. What are the implications for the Aseret HaDibrot? Dr. Joel Hoffman explains by connecting their unconditional style with the point we discussed above, their omission of punishments:
In light of Leviticus 5, which details the punishment for theft, the Ten Commandments might seem superfluous. Why say “Don’t steal” when another part of the Bible already has a punishment for stealing? The answer is that Leviticus 5 is a legal system, while the Ten Commandments are a moral framework. The point is that stealing is wrong. The severity of the offense has nothing to do with getting caught or punished. So even though the Ten Commandments at first seem like modern laws, they are in fact completely different. They are different, in fact, from every other system of law.<12>
To sum up, the Aseret HaDibrot stand out and make everyone pay attention. They are simple and easy to memorize, declarative, and unconditional. If only following them were equally simple!
1. See Rabbi Michael Susman’s discussion entitled “Yitro 5766.” http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=905
2. Rob Schmitz, “The Ten Commandments: Religious or Historical Symbol?” Minnesota Public Radio website, September 10, 2001. http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200109/10_schmitzr_laxten-m/
3. “Van Orden v. Perry,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Orden_v._Perry
4. Dennis Prager, The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code (Regnery Publishing, 2015), inside flap.
5. For the other phrases it can stand for, see “KISS principle,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KISS_principle
6. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Structure of the Good Society (Yitro 5775),” February 2, 2015. http://www.rabbisacks.org/structure-good-society-yitro-5775/
7. Dr. Joseph Ofer, “Upper and Lower Cantillation Marks on the Ten Commandments,” Bar Ilan’s Daf Parashat Hashavua, Shavuot 5758/1998. http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/shavuot/ofe.html (True, Commandment 4 – the one about Shabbat – is relatively long, but its ritual recitation as part of the Shabbat morning kiddush has made many of us very familiar with it.)
8. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997), p. 419.
9. Rabbi Hillel & Neima Novetsky et al, “The Torah and Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes.” http://alhatorah.org/The_Torah_and_Ancient_Near_Eastern_Law_Codes
10. Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, “The Origin of the Apodictic Law: An Overlooked Source,” Vetus Testamentum 23:1 (1973), p. 63: “What is unique in Israelite law is the formulation of the command in second person singular or plural, which is not attested in any of the ancient Near Eastern law codes.”
11. The following chart is from Dr. Daniel I. Block, “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” Ministry, May 2006, p. 7. https://www.andrews.edu/library/car/cardigital/Periodicals/Ministry_Magazine/2006/2006_05.pdf The chart was later reprinted with slight changes in his book How I Love Your Torah, O LORD!: Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy (Wipf and Stock, 2011), p. 31.
CONDITIONAL LAW UNCONDITIONAL LAW
Exodus 21:28 Exodus 20:3
If an ox gores a man or woman to death, the You shall have no other
ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not gods before me.
be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go
Exodus 22:26-27 Exodus 20:16
If you ever take your neighbor’s cloak as a You shall not bear false
pledge, you are to return it to him before the witness against your
sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his neighbor.
cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in?
Declarative mood Imperative mood
In third (or second) person In second person
Specific: based on actual cases, often with General: without
motive or exception clauses qualification or exception
Usually positive in form Often negative in form
Begin with “If” or “When” Begin with the verb (in the imperative)
12. Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010), p. 175.