Page 1


Design by Daniel Safran | safran.daniel@gmail.com Illustration credits: Eye Speech Bubble by Nick Bluth from the Noun Project, Tablets (modified) by Ben Davis from the Noun Project, No Thinking (modified) by Corpus Delicti from the Noun Project, Exodus by Andrew Doane from the Noun Project, Cloud (modified) by Alexander Moers from the Noun Project, Buddha by Bradley Avison from the Noun Project, Message by Ravindra Kalkani from the Noun Project, Shabbat by Gilad Fried from the Noun Project, Family Love, Murdered Man, Pickpocket, Rich, Terrorist by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project, Heart Broken (modified) by Bezier Master from the Noun Project, Eye Roll (modified) created by Faisalovers from the Noun Project


CONTENTS Introduction 3 Belief in God 5 Do Not Worship Other Gods 7 Do Not Take God’s Name in Vain 9 Keep the Shabbat 11 Honour Your Parents 13 Do Not Murder 15 Do Not Commit Adultery 17 Do Not Steal 19 Do Not Bear False Witness 21 Do Not Covet 23 List of the Ten Commandments 25 Breakdown between the Divine and Civil Commandments 25 Endnotes 28

INTRODUCTION Back to Basics Revolutionary. Foundational. Pivotal. All-encompassing. These are just some of the ways in which we view these hallowed principles. They have shaped the moral backdrop of the entire western world and can be found in monumental documents such as the Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence. The Ten Commandments and what they represent are one of the greatest contributions that the Jewish people have ever shared with humanity, and they continue to reverberate across the ages. As irony would have it however, for much of my life, I, like most people, was unable to name the Ten Commandments. In the current age of apathy and disconnect, the quest to reengage our youth with their Jewish roots and inspire ourselves is often characterised by a move towards innovative education and technology to stimulate our otherwise dulled senses. Whilst this is a necessary phenomenon of the modern era, it is a double-edged sword that can sometimes come at the expense of genuine learning and understanding of the basics. Jewish literacy is the key to unlocking the world of Jewish thought, which can be more enriching, inspiring and timeless than any website or app. So what is a good place to start?

•3•


Why Shavuot? Tradition maintains that the Torah was given on Shavuot.1 The prayer services of the day refer to the festival as the ‘time of the giving of the Torah’ and the focus of the unique festival is this sacred scroll, with a widespread custom to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot to focus on learning.2 To get the most out of this rather under-observed festival, we need to make sure that the Torah is both accessible and meaningful to us, and the best way to do that is through clarifying the basics. Indeed, the mere fact that the festival of Shavuot does not receive the same cross-spectrum observance as its counterpart festival of Pesach, seven weeks prior,3 could rightly be attributed to a lack of literacy. It is no wonder that people do not approach the ‘festival of Torah’ when they see themselves as under-educated and the Torah as inaccessible at best, and irrelevant at worst. The pages that follow attempt to share an understanding of the basics, as we return to our sources and begin to verse ourselves in the fundamentals of our faith. It is my ardent hope that one who reads these pages

will be inspired just enough to recognise that regardless of their level of religious observance, they too have a share in the democratic document that we call Torah.

The Ten Commandments The recounting of the giving of the Ten Commandments takes place twice in the Torah – in the Books of Exodus4 and Deuteronomy.5 There are some differences in the wording of the commandments in each of these accounts. Where they differ, I will provide the formulations as they appear in each book. Each commandment will be accompanied by an explanation highlighting its meaning, importance and relevance in the broader context of the Torah. The breakdown of the commandments into two sets of five is quite deliberate. The first five are commandments between people and God, and the second five are between people and their fellows. This breakdown is respected in this booklet, with an explanation of more specific categorisations where relevant.

•4•

To get the most out of this rather under-observed festival, we need to make sure that the Torah is both accessible and meaningful to us. Commandments, as their name suggests, are beyond creed and are ultimately intended not just to be learned, but lived. For those commandments which require a positive action,6 I have given a short explanation of how to fulfil the directive. For the commandments requiring abstention from action,7 I have clarified the way in which the prohibition is violated, and ultimately how to avoid the transgression. Some commandments are more technical in nature and elicit a more technical explanation.8 Where relevant, I have expounded upon the philosophical and ethical ideas expressed by certain commandments rather than the technical know-how.


Belief in God I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.9

This commandment is unique and perhaps strange in that it comes across as more of a statement than a commandment. In truth, however, the Hebrew term Aseret HaDibrot means the ten utterances or statements. This terminology may more accurately reflect the nature of these fundamental precepts, but the question still remains as to why the first one is formulated differently from all the others. Two

•5•

of the greatest codifiers of Jewish law – Maimonides and Nachmanides – debate whether this statement should be included in the list of the 613 commandments. Maimonides not only sees it as a commandment, but he counts it as the very first commandment in his Sefer HaMitzvot.10 Nachmanides, on the other hand, points out that this statement is not given in the imperative (command) form and notes its omission by earlier authorities as proof that it is not one of the 613


Since one cannot command an involuntary emotion (faith/ belief), this commandment is fulfilled by studying, investigating and acquiring an understanding of the Torah… Belief is an outcome of the commandment to learn.

commandments. Certainly, both agree that it is important to believe in God, but they disagree as to whether it is a mitzva in and of itself or merely a prerequisite to observing the other mitzvot.11 Aside from the technical disagreement laid out regarding this commandment, Rabbi Chasdai Crescas points out two philosophical problems with counting this as a commandment. Firstly, the logic is circular; if one believes in God and accepts the authority of His commandments, then he has already fulfilled the commandment to believe in God and there is no need to command him. If he does not believe in God, he will not accept the authority of the commandments, including this one commanding that he believe. You can imagine the circular conversation: ‘You have to believe in God!’ ‘Says who?’ ‘Says God!’ ‘But I don’t believe in Him, why should I listen to what He says?’ Crescas’ second challenge is much simpler – how can you command an emotion? Belief is something you either have or don’t have and

•6•

thus you cannot command something over which you have no control.12 I n c i d e n t a l l y, Abrabanel answers one of Crescas’ challenges by explaining the manner in which one fulfils this commandment. He explains that since one cannot command an involuntary emotion (faith/belief), this commandment is fulfilled by studying, investigating and acquiring an understanding of the Torah. Abrabanel writes that through this process, one will arrive at a belief in God. Belief is an outcome of the commandment to learn. This is a very powerful idea in and of itself. Firstly, it teaches the importance of the process over the result, and secondly, it recognises that studying Torah is an important Jewish value even if you do not yet believe in God.13 So the first step and perhaps the fulfilment of the commandment, like learning to love or have faith in any relationship, is to get to know the other – in this case, to get to know our Creator through learning His guidebook for living – the Torah.


Do Not Worship Other Gods You shall have no other gods before me.14

The second commandment holds the distinction of being the first on the list of ‘cardinal sins’.15 The Talmud teaches that ‘With regard to all  other  transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told, “Transgress  this prohibition and you will not be killed,” he may transgress  that prohibition  and not be killed,’ because the preservation of his own life overrides all of the Torah’s prohibitions. This is the  halacha (Jewish law)  concerning all

•7•

prohibitions ‘except for those of idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. Concerning those prohibitions, one must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress them.’16 The difficulty with idol worship appearing on the list is that it seems entirely out of place. Whilst everyone can agree on the severity of rape and murder on account of the terrible harm that they cause, idol worship seems to be a sin that harms no one. What is so bad about idol worship that earns it its place amongst the greatest evils of man?


Historically, the reason for the severity with which Judaism views idol worship may be linked to the idolatrous cultures that the Jewish people encountered during biblical times. From the infanticidal worship of the cult of Molech,17 to the followers of Baal Peor, who served their god with excrement,18 the heinous idolatrous cultures of old represented the very lowest of moral standards. To worship an idol, historically speaking, was to declare moral bankruptcy and to ascribe to a tradition devoid of an objectively ethical code. Perhaps for this reason alone our sages required that one sacrifice their life rather than associate with such a despicable ilk. More important, perhaps, than who we as the Jewish people are trying not to emulate, is the direct opposite – the responsibility we carry of being an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.19 We are obligated to teach the ways of ethical monotheism; that not only is there one God, but that He is a God who makes ethical demands of all of us

– as individuals and as a nation. Judaism does not demand that others convert and recognise the truth of Judaism, and for that reason we appreciate other faith systems that too provide their adherents with a message of ethical monotheism. Idol worship, however, is the very antithesis of this message – it teaches that the elements are to be worshipped and appeased even at the expense of objective morality and that one can shape one’s morality in accordance with the god that provides him with the most freedom. Judaism sees in idol worship the complete perversion and usurpation of its eternal national mission, to make the world a moral and ethical place.20 Having established the severity of idol worship in the Jewish tradition, it is now important to understand its relevance in a contemporary context. The Talmud recounts that the Jewish people lost their desire to worship idols long ago and indeed it seems that the rest of the world has also largely moved away from idolatrous practices. Whilst of course one would violate the

•8•

prohibition through classical idol worship – bowing, pouring libations or burning incense to an idol – these situations are not common in our modern world.21 The talmudic tradition, however, is filled with examples of modern-day idol worship, famously referring to anger and miserliness as being akin to idolatry.22 While of course both are different in practice, their commonality is a disregard for the divine will as the ultimate authority and source of objective morality. This is antithetical to the Jewish mission described above, and while one may not technically have to sacrifice one’s life in order to avoid the ‘idolatrous’ act of getting angry, the talmudic dictum is a lesson in the severity of the idolatry of the modern era. Furthermore, our society has grown to worship many other idols – from ‘American Idols’ and other celebrities, to ourselves, through narcissism and egocentrism. The idolisation of others, and the need to focus on the self and to please and gratify every one of our own wishes, is pervasive, and the commandment to refrain from idolatrous behaviour is perhaps more relevant today than ever before.


Do Not Take God’s Name in Vain You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold one who takes his name in vain guiltless.23 Following on from the previous commandment, the focus is not just on not worshipping others in place of God, but on ensuring that the way we worship is appropriate. The question that needs to be asked, however, is what does this prohibition truly mean? Is this prohibition violated every time I exclaim ‘Oh my God!’ in anger or frustration? Is there something inherently wrong with saying God’s name outside of the context of prayer or religious

•9•

instruction? Why the need for such extreme care around the mere mention of God’s name? Incidentally, this third commandment is paralleled nicely with the third blessing of the Amida. Present in all prayer services, 365 days a year, at least three times each day, the third blessing reads ‘For You are holy, and Your name is holy, and holy beings shall praise You daily for all eternity.’24 It is clear that we seem to have a fixation with God’s name, both in the prohibitive and ritual sense. Let’s try and understand why.


As Shakespeare so poignantly asked, ‘What’s in a name?’25 Names are signifiers. This means that mentioning them conjures up an image, both in the mind of the one saying them and of the one hearing them. In that way, names create meaning.26 For signifiers to retain their narrow and exact meanings they must be used precisely and in specific contexts. This is why when mentioning God’s name, we are commanded to be precise and to not use it inappropriately. We use God’s name daily, only at specific moments, in order to express appropriate significance and to internalise its true meaning, namely, holiness. In Judaism, the word for holy is kadosh, which is often translated as ‘separate’.27 When mentioning God’s name, it expresses an elevation to holiness, a separation from the mundane. The name ‘God’, or any of its various iterations, should therefore not be thrown around lightly and used in a mundane manner. Rather, it should be reserved for those contexts which highlight our separateness, our uniqueness. To be sure, this does not mean that we should avoid mentioning His name. On the contrary, the onus

We use God’s name daily, only at specific moments, in order to express appropriate significance and to internalise its true meaning, namely, holiness. is on us to constantly seek ways to highlight our uniqueness and to separate and sanctify our actions with the same Godliness inherent in His name. When I was a child, my friends and I used to make fanciful and elaborate claims; from crazy facts to purported celebrity encounters. But how were we to prove to our friends that we were telling the truth? We used to have a phrase that seemed to magically give credence to even the most far-fetched claims: ‘I swear! Ten fingers on the Torah. Emet Adoshem’ Setting the tautological nature of the statement aside, looking back I realise that even young children recognise the significance of invoking the name of God. Interestingly, it seems that this is precisely what the Torah is forbidding

• 10 •

in the third commandment, namely, the invocation of God’s name for an untruthful or perverse purpose. Using God’s name to further one’s own agenda demonstrates a lack of understanding of the precise purpose of this commandment – to internalise the perception of God as holy and separate. You might invoke the authority of an adult or an expert to give your words more credence, but using God in the same way demonstrates that you have not internalised the paradigm of the difference between the mortal and the Divine. It seems that the third commandment comes as a practical application of the first two commandments – to believe in God as the only God and to internalise His uniqueness. How so? To avoid secularising Him by using His name in vain, in a way that brings Him down to the level of a human for our own selfish use. We should rather bring our behaviour up to His level, emulating the Divine in all we do.


Keep the Shabbat Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it.28

Guard Shabbat to sanctify it.29

In discussing the uniqueness of the Jewish people, the Talmud describes Shabbat as a mitzva given specifically to the Jewish people, as a type of gift.30 The commandments in the Torah, however, give two seemingly incongruous formulations. In the first instance of the Ten Commandments, we are instructed to proactively remember (zachor) the Shabbat, whilst the recounting of the Commandments

in Deuteronomy insists that we guard (shamor) the Shabbat by refraining from prohibited activities. What is the meaning behind this difference in formulation? Is there perhaps a dual nature to this unique gift of Shabbat?31

• 11 •

There are two parallel processes which occur in Judaism whenever we wish to sanctify something: first we separate and


Had God only commanded us to refrain from work on Shabbat, one would have been able to sit back all day, provided no active steps were taken to violate Shabbat. Can we really say though that such a person has experienced Shabbat? then we designate. When a man and woman wish to marry, the woman is first betrothed, at which point she is separated from all other single women. At this stage, though, the couple is still not married and may not yet live together. Under the chuppa the second process, designation, takes place. Only after both of these stages are complete is the couple married and bound to one another. A similar dual process occurs on Shabbat. In Deuteronomy we are instructed to ‘Guard Shabbat,’ to abstain from certain behaviours and actions, and thus, Shabbat becomes identifiably different from all the other days.32 This is the process of separation. In Exodus we are commanded to actively ‘Remember the Shabbat,’ to designate Shabbat as a day of rest and sanctity by making Kiddush, enjoying festive meals, dressing up in smart clothes, singing zemirot and engaging in Torah study.33 Together, and only together, these complementary processes bring about the

sanctification of Shabbat, a day gifted by, and dedicated to, God. Had God only commanded us to refrain from work on Shabbat, one would have been able to sit back all day, provided no active steps were taken to violate Shabbat. Can we really say though that such a person has experienced Shabbat? The command to ‘remember’ reminds us that the void left by separation must be filled with positive and spiritual actions that make Shabbat truly meaningful. There are thirtynine bibl i c a l categories of creative work, based upon the thirtynine categories of activities involved in the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle),34 that are prohibited in order to guard – or separate – the Shabbat day.35 These are preserved by the set of muktzeh prohibitions added by

• 12 •

our sages in order to safeguard one against breaking the Shabbat.36 Unless a person’s life or health is at risk, these activities should not be performed on Shabbat. Proactively ‘remembering’ – or designating – Shabbat begins during the preceding week. As the Talmud states, ‘When (the great sage) Shammai would acquire nice food during the week, he would set it aside and say, “This will be (eaten) in honour of Shabbat.” If the next day he encountered better food he would eat the first and designate the second for Shabbat.’37 In this manner he actively ‘remembered’ Shabbat during the entire week. According to Maimonides, we fulfil our obligation to remember Shabbat throughout the week by reciting the daily psalms – prayers in the Shacharit morning service. In addition, we ‘remember’ the Shabbat several times on the day itself, by sanctifying it through Kiddush, eating three festive meals, singing Shabbat songs and engaging in Torah study.


Honour Your Parents Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.38

Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you.39

As mentioned in the introduction, one of the ways that the Ten Commandments can be structurally divided is into two categories – the first category being commandments relating to the Divine and the second category being commandments relating to other people. The obvious difficulty with this breakdown is the fifth commandment, to revere and honour one’s parents. Surely this

commandment would be more appropriately placed in the second half of the Ten Commandments, alongside the instructions that relate to other people?

• 13 •

T h e Ta l m u d teaches that there are three partners in the creation of every human being; one’s father, one’s mother and God.40 The part played by each is invaluable. Therefore, each must be


This unique commandment… reflects the immense sense of gratitude and endless awe reserved solely for those who have merited to partner with God in creating the greatest gift we have ever been granted, the gift of life. treated with equal respect and reverence.41 We recognise the tremendous responsibility our parents bear and the trust they receive from God when He grants them the gift of bringing life into this world. Our parents are in essence partners with God Himself and thus our reverence and honour towards them are rooted in our reverence towards God. This unique commandment, therefore, reflects the immense sense of gratitude and endless awe reserved solely for those who have merited to partner with God in creating the greatest gift we have ever been granted, the gift of life. It is for this reason that even though on the surface one would categorise this commandment as one that relates to other people, it is listed in the category of the Divine.

To what extent is one required to honour their parents? The Talmud answers this with an anecdote about Dama ben Netina, who wasn’t Jewish, and who rejected the offer of a large sum of money in order to avoid disturbing his father’s sleep.42 Rabbi Shimon Schwab explains that the reason the Talmud brings an example involving a gentile is to show that the obligation to honour one’s parents applies to all people with a natural moral compass, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish. In fact, ‘It is at the point where behaviour out of normal and intuitive gratitude ends, that the Torah dictated imperative begins.’43 Thus, the Torah obligation of honouring one’s parents must involve something even greater

• 14 •

than the actions of Dama ben Netina. This is reflected in the additional element of the command that requires us not just to honour or respect our parents, but to go one step further and ‘revere’ them.44 The Talmud states that reverence, or awe, is expressed by behaving in a manner that acknowledges the status of one’s parents, such as refraining from sitting in their seat without permission and from contradicting them. 45 Honour, on the other hand, is expressed through positive acts of service such as providing food, drink and clothing, and by accompanying them. 46 The Shulchan Aruch emphasises that performing these acts joyfully is essential; serving your parent a delicacy begrudgingly is not what the Torah is looking for. 47 It is important to note that children are not required to actually provide for their parents, but rather only to honour them. Therefore, one is not required to carry the financial burden of providing food and drink. Rather, the mitzva is about making it accessible and serving it to them.48


Do Not Murder You shall not murder. 49

Many people view this commandment as so incredibly basic that its inclusion in the Ten Commandments is unnecessary at best and insulting at worst. Almost every society from time immemorial has outlawed the taking of human life, so what is so revolutionary about the Jewish commandment to not murder? Surely this is the one commandment we could have thought of on our own? In essence, however, a slightly deeper

• 15 •

look into the customs of certain societies throughout history quickly refutes the rosy image that all societies condemned murder as wrong, and highlights the necessity of this commandment. Certainly, many nations outlawed the taking of human life, but not by divine decree. It was this ‘moral’ injunction against murder that allowed for the subjective definition of ‘life’, with various genders, races, cultures and creeds deemed sub-human and unprotected by the law. This was the case in pagan Rome and Nazi


Germany, and it unfortunately continues today in some places. Our sages teach us that each commandment corresponds with the one that was parallel to it on the other tablet. For example, the commandment to remember the Shabbat (commandment 4), which is a testimony to God’s creation of the earth,50 matches up with the commandment to not bear a false testimony (commandment 9). The most puzzling of these couplets though is commandment 1 and commandment 6. What does belief in God have to do with the prohibition of murder? Jewish tradition comes along and places the divine stamp of objective morality upon the categorical prohibition against murder. The reason one cannot murder is because ‘I am the Lord your God,’ not because you decided it, and not because it is what you happen to feel today, but because every human being is created in the image of God,51 and as such, man is not the arbiter of who lives and who dies. This is the ideology of ethical monotheism. In Judaism, belief in God is a fundamental tenet of the ethical commandments. The requirement to believe in God is key to the adherence to

God demands ethical behaviour – always. objective and eternal moral imperatives. ‘You shall not murder’ – not simply because you think it is wrong, and not only to remind us that every life is sacred, for however strong these beliefs are, human doctrine may change at any time, and you may change your mind tomorrow. Rather, we are instructed that murder is wrong, to show us that God demands ethical behaviour – always. You may think it quite straightforward, but in fact Judaism has its own understanding of the definition of murder, as well as its own jurisprudence and burden of proof. According to halacha, one has transgressed the prohibition of murder only if one kills another intentionally, unless the intentional act of killing

• 16 •

was in self-defence,52 or was as an avenger of blood.53 For conviction to occur, the requirements are that a warning was issued, that the relevant Torah verses were invoked and that two kosher witnesses witnessed the entire event.54 Nevertheless, even if a situation does not fulfil those criteria, and thus the person does not have punishment exacted upon them in this world, if they indeed killed another person intentionally and when unprovoked, then they are still objectively guilty. In those cases, where an individual manages to avoid conviction based on a technicality, the Talmud expounds on other judicial methods of punishment, as well as divine retribution.55 Extending the idea of this commandment philosophically, the Talmud compares embarrassing someone in public to murder,56 similar to what we today call character assassination. Therefore, while it is of course not the same as murder, one should be mindful of the dignity of others in every way possible. Contrary to the famous expression, while sticks and stones do break bones, words too can do immense damage, and it is upon us to be extremely sensitive in our speech.


Do Not Commit Adultery You shall not commit adultery.57

Neither shall you commit adultery.58

The seventh commandment is the second of the civil commandments between people. It is part of a broader category of prohibitions of ‘sexual immorality,’ which include bestiality and rape among others. While the moral depravity of those actions is scarcely disputed, one must ask if adultery really belongs in the same

category. Those other sexual transgressions are severe immoral iniquities that take advantage of a party that is unable to consent. Why should an adulterous relationship, as immoral and wrong as it may be, be considered equally evil when it is entered into by two consenting adults? 59

• 17 •


Whilst on the surface, the severity of an adult e r o u s relationship may not be immediately apparent, this is merely indicative of our moral deficit and inability to think beyond the scope of the adulterous relationship itself. One could quickly acknowledge that the victims in the other aforementioned encounters are the non-consenting parties. Unable to consent, they are taken advantage of and harmed. Similarly, in the case of an adulterous relationship, notwithstanding the fact that consenting adults are involved, there are often numerous other parties who are harmed by the act. In every adulterous relationship, there are at least three and sometimes four parties – the people engaged in the activity, and the spouses of those that are married. The impact or harm extends even further where there are children and other family members. Whether the affair is known or unknown, the spouse of the adulterer suffers from the lies, betrayal and

The spouse of the adulterer suffers from the lies, betrayal and ultimate breakdown of what was once a relationship based on trust.

ultimate breakdown of what was once a relationship based on trust. An adulterous relationship thus causes multiple layers of emotional, psychological and sometimes even physical harm. This underpins the rationale behind this commandment and is the reason why it joins the ranks of some of the worst sexual transgressions. In the strict sense, this prohibition is transgressed by a man sleeping with a married woman. 60 This is not to say that a married man who engages in relations with an unmarried woman is free of transgression, but he

• 18 •

has not transgressed this particular commandment. 61 Transgressors must be appropriately warned and witnessed in order for any punishment to be determined in a court of law. 62 Extending the idea of this commandment, one should be careful to always sanctify the uniqueness of one’s relationships, in all of the interactions that they involve.


Do Not Steal You shall not steal.63

Neither shall you steal.64

The placement of the prohibition of stealing amongst the heinous capital crimes of murder and adultery65 makes us ask the question of whether, like those crimes, the punishment for theft is also the death penalty. And if so, does that really fit the crime? Indeed, two chapters after the first instance of the Ten Commandments, the Torah is quite clear that the punishment for theft is a monetary

one – the stolen object or its value must be returned, and a fine must be paid depending on the nature of what was stolen and how it was stolen.66 So what is this prohibition doing here?

• 19 •

In truth, it is a common misconception that the eighth commandment is a prohibition against stealing. Most societies throughout history have recognised the need to respect personal property and


therefore it is often wrongly assumed that the prohibition against stealing listed in the Ten Commandments is also referring to this fundamental moral wrong. To be sure, stealing is strictly prohibited by verses in both Exodus and Leviticus,67 and the punishment is as outlined above. The prohibition in the eighth commandment, however, is not referring to the same thing. Rather, it is the prohibition against stealing people; in other words, kidnapping or human trafficking. Rashi points out, based on the Talmud, that this must be the case as a crime with a mere monetary punishment would be out of place in this list.68 Why is kidnapping seen as so heinous and why does it attract such serious punishment? A recurring theme throughout the Ten Commandments is the way in which they add or detract from the ultimate Jewish message and mission.69 The positive commandments contained in the list are there to highlight our mission as the Jewish people, and the negative commandments singled out are seemingly the antithesis to that very same mission.

Human trafficking... is abhorred in Judaism because it subverts two of the most fundamental human rights – the free agency of every human being and the right to live with dignity. Human trafficking, a severe transgression in almost all contexts, is abhorred in Judaism because it subverts two of the most fundamental human rights – the free agency of every human being and the right to live with dignity. These principles are affirmed from the very outset of man’s creation, when the Torah revolutionarily tells the world that God created man in His image, endowing him with inalienable rights.70 In fact, some of the greatest thinkers point to human free will as a foundational element of Judaism, giving man the autonomy to change and be the master of his own destiny.71 One who kidnaps a person and enslaves them undermines this fundamental Torah foundation by depriving the person of their indisputable right to freedom and to a life with dignity. It is for this reason that the eighth commandment is a capital offence, akin to taking a life.

• 20 •

This commandment is violated on the capital level when one kidnaps another person, whether a man, woman or child, and sells them.72 It is of course prohibited to kidnap a person even if the intention is not to actually sell them into slavery, but one who does so has not violated the prohibition to the extent that he or she incurs the death penalty. Extending the philosophy behind this commandment, one should be careful regarding what ‘property’ they ‘steal’ from others, whether it is innocence, time or dignity. This applies especially to that which may be so easily taken from children. We must be careful to protect the intangible aspects belonging to every person.


Do Not Bear False Witness You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.73

Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour.74

In our string of misunderstood commandments, we reach number nine, which is of course no exception to the rule. Most who try to remember back to their school days probably remember being cautioned not to lie, because to do so would be to break one of the Ten Commandments. As with other commandments,75 it is important to note that indeed, lying per se is wrong and even biblically prohibited.76 That being said, this

commandment is speaking about a very specific context for lying, namely, within a court of law. One who lies in a court of law has transgressed a particularly severe form of deceit and is liable for a very interesting form of punishment as outlined below.

• 21 •

A court of law is unique in that the potential consequences for lying are extreme. One who lies, whether to their parent, spouse or friend,


Someone who chooses to lie in court may cause a defendant to be wrongfully convicted. False witnesses cause a complete perversion of the justice system, leading to a disintegration of the moral fabric of society. has damaged their relationship by breaking down the essential trust that existed between them. At the end of the day, however, the damage is usually limited to their relationship alone. Lying in a court of law is quite different. Someone who chooses to lie in court may cause a defendant to be wrongfully convicted. False witnesses cause a complete perversion of the justice system, leading to a disintegration of the moral fabric of society. The most interesting thing about false witnesses is the unique punishment levelled at them. The Torah tells us that such people are to be punished ‘in accordance with their plot’, meaning, whatever punishment they tried to exact on an innocent defendant through their false testimony, is now carried out upon them.77 If it was a monetary case, in which they

falsely testified about a person causing them to be punished with a property seizure, the false witnesses will have their property seized to the same value. Similarly, if false witnesses testified in a capital case leading to a defendant becoming liable for the death penalty, they are killed in the same manner in which they would have seen the innocent defendant killed. This serves as both a stern warning to any witnesses who are considering perjury, as well as an expression of a foundational tenet of Judaism – our treatment of others should be a reflection of how we ourselves would like to be treated.78 To be disqualified from testimony one must simply be caught lying during the examination process of the court. Most of these instances, however,

• 22 •

would not qualify one as a deliberately ‘false’ witness, and in such a case one would not be subject to the punishment laid out above. Whilst the laws are lengthy and thoroughly debated throughout the scope of Jewish literature, the general consensus regarding punishing false witnesses in accordance with Deuteronomy 19:19, is that both of them (there must always be at least two witnesses in cases of Jewish law) must be caught lying in a very specific manner, knowingly and wilfully. The plot must be discovered before the punishment is carried out upon the victim.79 Unlike most other prohibitions, however, conviction does not require that warning is given prior to transgression.80 It is important to remember that the beginning of societal deceit is interpersonal deceit, and therefore in each of our interactions we must be extremely cautious not to be deceitful in any way.


Do Not Covet You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.81

Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbour’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.82

The prohibition of coveting, more commonly misrepresented as a prohibition against jealousy, again challenges us by seemingly commanding us to rule over our emotions. As explored in the first commandment, a command about how one should think or

feel poses serious logical and theological questions. 83 What’s more, the rabbinic tradition singles out jealousy as one of the worst transgressions one can violate, stating that ‘Jealousy, lust and honour remove a person from the world.’ 84 To want an attractive object, however, is very normal and natural. How then could the Torah possibly prohibit it?

• 23 •


The Ibn Ezra provides a parable to explain the nature of the prohibition: Imagine that a king and his daughter, the beautiful princess, are travelling throughout his kingdom. They arrive at a small village and all the local villagers come out to greet them. Among those who come to see them is a young man who despite being of the same, marriageable age as the princess, has no assumptions or hopes of marrying the king’s daughter. He is well aware that that he has no entitlement to entertain such thoughts. Similarly, every person must know that God provides and caters precisely according to his or her need. 85 In a similar vein, the Sefat Emet points out the tremendous ingratitude associated with coveting. He notes that the appropriate remedy is to nurture an appreciation of God’s will, while at the same time cultivating a strong yearning for God, so that the thirst for the Divine overpowers and overcomes the other competing desires. 86

The appropriate remedy is to nurture an appreciation of God’s will, while at the same time cultivating a strong yearning for God, so that the thirst for the Divine overpowers and overcomes the other competing desires.86

Perhaps by exploring the halachic nature of the prohibition we might be able to develop a more technical answer to our original question of how one can be commanded to rule over one’s emotions. Indeed, Maimonides in his codification of the law is explicit that this commandment is not violated each time a person has a desire for another’s possessions. Rather, it is only when one’s jealousy is so

• 24 •

intense that it brings them to scheme towards actually acquiring the object, that one is in violation of the prohibition. 87 This of course does not diminish the severity of the prohibition as expressed in Pirkei Avot and its commentaries, 88 though it does quell the logical challenge regarding the command of an emotion. Either way, a rich person, as we learn in Pirkei Avot, is one who is happy with their lot, 89 and developing sensitivity in this area will teach us to be happy with what we do have, rather than what we think we can have.


LIST OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

BREAKDOWN BETWEEN THE DIVINE AND CIVIL COMMANDMENTS

I. Belief in God

Man and God

II. Do not worship other gods

I. Belief in God

III. Do not take God’s name in vain

II. Do not worship other gods III. Do not take God’s name in vain

IV. Keep the Shabbat

IV. Keep the Shabbat

V. Honour your parents

V. Honour your parents

VI. Do not murder

Man and his fellow

VII. Do not commit adultery

VI. Do not murder

VIII. Do not steal

VII. Do not commit adultery

IX. Do not bear false witness

VIII. Do not steal IX. Do not bear false witness

X. Do not covet

X. Do not covet

• 25 •


Exodus 20:2–14

Deuteronomy 5:6–18

I. Belief in God

2. I am the LORD your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

6. I am the LORD your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

II. Do not worship other gods

3. You shall have no other gods before me.

7. You shall have no other gods before me.

4. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;

8. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;

5. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,

9. you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,

6. but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

10. but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

III. Do not take God’s name in vain

7. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold one who takes his name in vain guiltless.

11. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold one who takes his name in vain guiltless.

IV. Keep the Shabbat

8. Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it.

12. Guard Shabbat to sanctify it, as the LORD your God commanded you.

9. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work;

13. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work;

• 26 •


10. but the seventh day is a Shabbat to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates;

14. but the seventh day is a Shabbat to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your donkey, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.

11. for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Shabbat day and hallowed it.

15. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Shabbat day.

V. Honour your parents

12. Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you.

16. Honour your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the LORD your God gives you.

VI. Do not murder

13. You shall not murder.

17. You shall not murder.

VII. Do not commit adultery

You shall not commit adultery.

Neither shall you commit adultery.

VIII. Do not steal

You shall not steal.

Neither shall you steal.

IX. Do not bear false witness

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour.

X. Do not covet

14. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.

18. Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbour’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.

• 27 •


ENDNOTES The date the Torah was given is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah itself. According to the text, Shavuot is strictly an agricultural festival. The Talmud in Yoma 4b however, puts Shavuot as the date of the giving of the Torah. 1

The custom to stay awake all night first appears in the kabbalistic works the Zohar, Shela and Sha’ar HaKavanot. The practice is codified by the Magen Avraham and is accepted nearly universally.

5

Deuteronomy 5:6-18.

on the First Commandment’.

6

Commandments 1, 4 and 5.

14

7

Commandments 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10.

15

Coverage of the minutiae in a fully comprehensive manner is beyond the scope of this booklet. 8

2

9

Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6.

Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 1. 10

Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7.

Unlike in Christianity where a ‘cardinal sin’ refers to one of the seven deadly sins enumerated by the desert fathers in the third century CE, in Judaism the term refers to the three gravest sins (idolatry, murder, adultery), each of which will be explored in greater detail. 16

BT. Sanhedrin 74a.

This despicable form of idol worship is singled out by the Torah in five places for specific condemnation. See Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5. 17

The date of Shavuot is determined by counting the omer, exactly seven weeks from the festival of Pesach. A 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that young Jews were much more likely to observe Pesach than any other festival; Lauren Markoe, ‘Passover Overtakes Yom Kippur As Most Meaningful Jewish Holiday For Younger Generation’, Religion News Service, April 9, 2013. 3

See Nachmanides’ glosses to Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 1. 11

This same question is asked in relation to the first line of the Shema, ‘And you shall love the Lord your God,’ (Deuteronomy 6:5). How can it be that one is commanded to feel an emotion?

18

For an in-depth answer to Crescas’ first challenge see Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh, ‘Is Belief in God a Mitzvah? Maimonides

20

12

13 4

Exodus 20:2-14.

• 28 •

See BT. Sanhedrin 106a for a story relating to the worship of Baal Peor through defecation. 19

Isaiah 42:6.

For a deeper discussion of the Jewish people’s mission of ethical monotheism, see Rabbi Ian Pear, The Accidental Zionist:


What a Priest, a Pornographer and a Wrestler Named Chainsaw Taught Me about Being Jewish, Saving the World, and Why Israel Matters to Both (2008).

28

Exodus 20:8.

29

Deuteronomy 5:12.

30

Some eastern traditions such as Hinduism and Shintoism do still retain these practices, and one should be careful to consult a Rabbi before travelling, regarding which practices one can participate in.

mandated prohibitions. For further explanation, see BT. Shabbat 73a. BT. Beitza 16a.

38

Exodus 20:12.

39

Deuteronomy 5:16.

BT. Shabbat 10b.

21

See Maimonides, Hilchot Deot 2:3 and BT. Ketubot 68a.

37

BT. Shevuot 20b; Rashi Nachmanides on Exodus 20:8. 31

and

32

Maimonides, Hilchot Shabbat 24:13.

40

BT. Kiddushin 30b.

33

Rashi on Exodus 20:8.

41

Ibid.

This was the temporary Sanctuary in which the Divine Presence dwelled during the Jews’ journeys through the desert.

42

Ibid. 31a.

35

Creative activity is prohibited on Shabbat, as Shabbat was the seventh day of Creation, on which God ceased His creation of the world.

44

A prohibition precluding one from touching certain prohibited objects on Shabbat, such as those which have no use on the day, in order to prevent people from inadvertently breaking Torah

45

22

23

Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11.

Amida, third blessing, Daily Prayer Book.

34

Ma’ayan Beit HaShoeva, Parashat Yitro, ‘Kabed et avicha ve’et imecha’. 43

24

25

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.

See Thwaites et al., Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: a Semiotic Approach (London: Palgrave, 2002).

Leviticus 19:3. Of course, in the case of a particularly irregular relationship between a parent and child, a local halachic authority should be consulted.

26

27

See Rashi on Leviticus 19:2.

36

• 29 •

BT. Kiddushin 31a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 240:4. 46

Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 240:4.


47

Ibid.

48

Ibid. 240:5.

49

Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17.

The Shabbat (day of rest) commemorates the seventh day of Creation, during which God ceased from creating the world and rested. 50

51

required in the case of most transgressions, and underscores the Jewish belief that even at the moment of iniquity, a person can resolve to change; see BT. Sanhedrin 40b-41a. The many conditions necessary for conviction explain why the Mishna in Makkot 1:10 says that a beit din (Jewish court of law) that convicted a person for a capital offence once in seventy years was called a ‘murderous court’.

Genesis 1:26-27.

The Talmud declares, ‘If someone comes to kill you, arise and kill him first’ (BT. Sanhedrin 72a). The Shulchan Aruch codifies this principle and rules that ‘If one sees that someone is pursuing him with the intention to kill him, he is permitted to defend himself and take the life of he who is pursuing him’ (Choshen Mishpat 125:1).

by the priest. If she lived, it indicated her innocence, or merit. If she died, it proved her guilt. Unlike the witch trials of the Middle Ages where tests such as drownings were used against women, the sota mixture contained no poisonous ingredients and the death described seems to have been supernatural, thus a woman would have survived the ritual if she was innocent. This sort of relationship is referred to as a beilat zenut or a ‘promiscuous relationship’ and is prohibited; BT. Yevamot 107a. 61

55

See BT. Sanhedrin 81b.

56

BT. Sota 10b.

57

Exodus 20:13.

62

See above, Commandment 6.

58

Deuteronomy 5:17.

63

Exodus 20:13.

64

Deuteronomy 5:17.

52

A similar question was asked above regarding idolatry in Commandment 2. 59

See above, Commandment 7, for an exploration of the categorisation of adultery. 65

This complex case allows for a person to avenge a family member who was killed through negligence; Numbers 35:19. 53

54

This warning, known as hatra’a, is

The unique sota ritual (Numbers 5:1131; Mishna Tractate Sota) was only carried out in the times of the Mishkan and the Temple. A woman accused of adultery would drink a mixture prepared 60

• 30 •

See Exodus 22:2-3. The Torah distinguishes between a robber (gazlan) and 66


a burglar (ganav), prescribing harsher penalties for the latter.

76

Derived from Exodus 23:7.

Deuteronomy 19:19; Maimonides, Hilchot Edut, ch. 20. 77

67

Ibid; see also Leviticus 19:11.

85

Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:14.

86

Sefat Emet on Parashat Yitro.

Maimonides, Hilchot Gezeila VaAveda 1:9; Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi ad loc. 87

See Rashi on Exodus 20:13 and BT. Sanhedrin 86b. 68

See Commandment 2 regarding the Jewish mission to spread ethical monotheism. 69

This sentiment is expressed throughout Jewish literature, including, but not limited to, Leviticus 19:18, Hillel’s statement in BT. Shabbat 31a, and Rabbi Akiva’s statement in JT. Nedarim 30b. 78

These laws are discussed extensively in the first chapter of Tractate Makkot as well as throughout Tractate Sanhedrin. They are codified in Maimonides, Hilchot Edut. 79

Genesis 1:26-27. This concept has been cited throughout history and appears in the US Declaration of Independence. 70

See for example Rabbi Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkarim 4:1-6. 71

Based on Exodus 21:16; see also Maimonides, Hilchot Geneiva, ch. 9. 72

73

74

75

For a full exploration of this phenomenon, see Rabbi Moshe Taragin, ‘Why are Eidim Zomemim Punished?’ Talmudic Methodology Lecture Series, Lecture 9. 80

81

Exodus 20:14.

82

Deuteronomy 5:18.

83

See Commandment 1.

84

Pirkei Avot 4:28.

Exodus 20:13. Deuteronomy 5:17. See discussion above, Commandment 8.

• 31 •

88

Pirkei Avot 4:28.

89

Pirkei Avot 4:1.


The Ten Commandments  
The Ten Commandments  
Advertisement