Shavuot II

What the Israelites heard at Sinai has become known as 

the “Ten Commandments.”  

But this description raises obvious problems. 

• First, 

neither the Torah nor Jewish tradition calls them 

the Ten Commandments. 

The Torah calls them:

Aseret hadevarim (Ex. 34:28), 

and we traditionally say:

Aseret hadibrot, 


" the ten utterances.” 

Like a statement! A declaration!


• Second, 

there was much debate, especially between 

Maimonides and Halakkhot Gedolot as understood by Nahmanides, 

as to whether the first verse, 

“I am the Lord your G-d …,” 

is a command or a preface to the commands. 


• Third, 

there are not ten commandments in Judaism but 613. 

Why, then, these but not those?


It begins with a preamble stating who is initiating the covenant. 

That is why the revelation opened with the words, 

“I am the Lord your G-D.” 

Then comes an historical review stating the background and context of the covenant, in this case, 

“who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the slave-house.”


come the stipulations, 

first in general outline, 

then in specific detail. 

That is precisely the relationship between the “ten utterances” 

and the detailed commands set out in later chapters and books of the Torah. 

The former are the general outline, the final are the details. 


So the “ten utterances” are not commandments as such 

but an articulation of basic principles. 

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 was made by G-D with an entire people


the need for a brief statement of basic principles that everyone could remember and recite.

Usually they are pictured as 

two sets of five, 

the first dealing with relationships between us and G-d (including honouring our parents since they, like G-D, brought us into being), 

the second with the relations between us and our fellow humans. However, 

it also makes sense to see them as three groups of three.

1. The first three:

• No other G-ds besides Me, 

• No graven images, 


• No talking of G-d’s name in vain, 

are about G-d, 

the author and authority of the laws. 

* The first states that: 

Divine sovereignty  

( No other G-ds besides Me). 

* The second tells us: 

that G-d is a living force, 

not an abstract power 

(No graven images). 

* The third states:

that sovereignty means respect, reverence 

( Do not take My name in vain).


2. The second three: 

the Sabbath, 

honouring parents, 

and the prohibition of murder 

are all about the principle of 

the createdness of life. 

• Shabbat is the day dedicated to seeing G-d as creator, and the universe as His creation. 

• Honouring parents acknowledges our human createdness. 

• “ You shall not murder” 

murder is not just a crime against man but a sin against G-d in whose image we are created. 

So the fourth, fifth and sixth

tell us to remember where we came from if we seek to know how to live.


3. The third three 

against adultery, 


and bearing false witness 

establish the basic institutions on which society depends. 

Marriage is sacred because it is the human bond closest in estimation to the covenant between us and G-d. 

The prohibition against theft establishes the integrity of property, 

The prohibition of false testimony is the precondition of justice. 


Finally comes the stand-alone prohibition against 

envying your neighbour’s house, wife, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else belonging to him or her. 


The greatest challenge of any society is how to contain the universal  phenomenon of envy: 

the desire to have what belongs to someone else. 

Envy can lead to breaking many of the other commands: 

it can move people to:



false testimony,

and even murder. 

- It led Cain to murder Abel, 

- made Abraham and Isaac fear for their life because they were married to beautiful women, 


- led Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. 

It was envy of their neighbours that led the Israelites often to imitate their religious practices and worship their G-ds.


We are here because G-d wanted us to be. 

We have what G-d wanted us to have. 

Why then should we seek what others have? 

If what matters most in our lives is how we appear in the eyes of G-d, 

why should we seek anything else just because someone else has it? 

It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to G-d,

and start defining ourselves in relation to other people,

that competition and envy enter our minds, and they lead only to unhappiness.


Thirty-three centuries after they were first given, the Ten Commandments remain the simplest, shortest guide to the creation of a good society.