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Parshat Yitro: How Many are the Ten Commandments?

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Exodusco-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

How Many are the Ten Commandments*

If an election were held among the peoples of the world to determine which was the most popular document in the universe, there is no doubt that some of the votes would be cast in favor of the Ten Commandments. It is the recognized cornerstone of the world’s great religions. It is a code which is accepted even by many atheists. It is the model for many great literary works. It is preached, and preached about, more than any other comparable document. Yet, curiously, the Decalogue or Aseret HaDibrot crops up in a Jew’s talk only in those weeks when the sidrot of Yitro and Va’etĥanan are read, for then the Decalogue too is read. Otherwise, the Ten Commandments are a relatively insignificant part of the Jewish religious vocabulary. At a brit mila we mention Torah and good deeds – not the Ten Commandments. To the parents of a young boy starting on his school career, we express our wishes for a future of Torah – nothing is said of the Decalogue. And to the Bar Mitzva, unless his birthday be in the week of Parashat Yitro, we speak of tradition, and education, and home, and Torah – not of the Aseret HaDibrot. Now, why is that? Why does the traditional Jew, despite his observation of them, not have such an attraction to the Ten  Commandments which his fellow Jews have? Why does the Orthodox rabbi preach about the Ten Commandments so much less frequently than does the Conservative or Reform rabbi?

The answer is, that the Decalogue as such and as it is commonly understood, is too simple a formula. There is something mighty suspicious about ten easy rules to this complex business of life. The traditional Jew, perhaps because of his tradition, or because of his background in scholarship, or because of his grasp of reality, is keenly aware of the fallacies of over-simplification, of its tragically disappointing results and consequences. Life is a harsh, intricate, complicated affair, and ten rules alone and by themselves are hardly sufficient to solve all of its formidable problems.

Our Rabbis already recorded a protest against this misunderstanding of the Ten Commandments as the wherewithal of religion, as the ten solitary steps with which to solve all problems and cure all ailments. The Talmud tells us (Berakhot 12a) that in the Temple, during the Shaĥarit service, it was customary to recite the Decalogue before Shema. But then the Rabbis decided to abrogate this traditional recitation because of the heretics, who pointed to this recitation of the Decalogue as proof that it was the only important part of Torah. This decision against the saying of the Decalogue was accepted by the generations, and even until this very day the Ten Commandments are not part of our liturgy. And all because of the minim, the heretics who over-emphasized these ten mitzvot to the detriment of all others, those people who sought too easy a cure to too great a problem, those who believed to the point of heresy. The Ten Commandments, by themselves, the Rabbis meant to tell us, are by far insufficient.

And our age is distinguished by precisely this malady of oversimplification. Ours is an age where attempts are made to solve all knotty moral problems and ethical questions by a few easy steps, by a “rule of thumb.” For in what age, other than one which looks for simple and childish rules, could a book like How to Win Friends and Influence People – a book that presents several disgustingly easy rules on how to become a social success and develop a magnetic personality – gain its phenomenal popularity? In what other age could such a tzimes be made about a book like Peace of Mind which reduces all of Judaism to a few neat psychological principles? And all of our Western culture is colored by Christianity, a religion which won its millions of converts by boiling down Judaism to its easiest regulations, by accepting the Ten Commandments – and even those not completely – and rejecting most of the rest of the Torah. The sagest advice our contemporaries seek is that currently available in most of our popular digest magazines – “Ten Ways to a Happy Married Life,” “Three Ways to Beat Cancer,” “Five Ways to Win the Love of Your Children,” and other such nonsense.

No, my friends, despite our unbounded reverence for the Ten Commandments, we must not over-emphasize them out of all proportion. It is not consistent with the intricacy of life and the complexity of moral and religious experience. And it can lead to outright heresy. But lest you leave today with the impression that the Rabbi this morning preached a sermon against the Ten Commandments, let me assure you that I am in good company. The Rambam, Maimonides, has preceded me on this matter. Only he was even more emphatic about it. He incorporated his opinion in a strongly-worded legal response to someone who asked him whether it is proper to rise when the reader reads the Decalogue in the Torah. You know, of course, that in this synagogue and in most synagogues, the congregation rises when the Decalogue is read. However, Maimonides believed that this was against the spirit of Jewish law. Allow me to quote to you part of his response (Teshuva 46) in English translation:

It is proper to abolish this tradition [of rising for the Decalogue] wherever it has taken hold, and to teach the people to sit, as they usually do…in order that there should not result a degeneration of the pure faith…the heretical belief that one part of the Torah is superior to another, a belief which is wrong and evil and deplorable in the extreme.

Maimonides, then, was also perturbed by this reliance on succinct formulas which result in naturally ignoring the rest of the Torah. And if such a reliance on preference is expressed by rising during the reading of a specific portion of the Torah, then it should be stopped.

The consensus of Jewish thought, then, is that there is no sufficient concise formula or rule which can serve as a key to all life or religion. We may say, with George Bernard Shaw, that the only Golden Rule is – that there are no Golden Rules.

Yet I am certain that there are certain questions of which you are aware which remain unanswered. You may wonder: why, then, were the Ten Commandments given separately? You may rightfully ask me: why was the giving of the Decalogue accompanied by all that flourish, by the elaborate preparation, by the strange celestial phenomena, by the aura of holiness, and the fearful display of the elements, which reached its climax in “Anokhi?” Obviously, there is something to the Ten Commandments we have thus far failed to mention.

The answer to that question was already given by the great Jewish philosophers. Philo, followed by Saadia Gaon, Abarbanel, and other beacons of Jewish thinking, insists that the Ten Commandments were more than ten. They believe, very reasonably, that in this case, ten equals 613. And this, according to the laws of religious arithmetic, is a great truth. You see, what they wanted to tell us was that the Ten Commandments mean more than what they say; they are more than a list of ten mitzvot – rather, they contain, in essence, all 613. They include remazim, hints, of all the other commandments. The entire Torah, all its mitzvot, are latent, in capsule form, in the Decalogue. Thus, for instance, the prohibition of idolatry includes the kernels of all laws related to idol worship and ritual, and all laws which, according to these thinkers, were promulgated as safe-guards against idolatry, and it prohibits the worship of gold and pleasure and beauty. “Thou shalt not steal” includes the prohibition of robbing, usury, interest, graft, and influence-peddling. “Lo tinaf ” implies all injunctions against adultery, incest, immodesty, un-chastity, and all forms of moral corruption. With this in mind, we can equate the Decalogue with the whole Torah, and therefore understand its biblical eminence and the great holy events attending to its giving. Without this realization that the Ten Commandments contain the seeds of all 613 commandments, they are simply ten of the mitzvot of the Torah – not an easy formula to a get-pious-quick type of religion.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells an interesting story of a pagan who approached the great scholar Shammai and said to him: “Convert me to Judaism on the one condition that you teach me the entire Torah during the time that I can balance myself on one foot.” The pagan wanted an easy formula, a simple rule which will ease his way into heaven – something like the abracadabra he had pronounced before his idol in his idolatrous days. And Shammai reacted to this request by pushing him away with a measuring-rod, or a construction-worker’s yardstick, which was in his hand. With this, Shammai indicated that any simple rules, like the Ten Commandments as they read literally, are far insufficient. They are like the architect’s measuring instrument – they can indicate the limits of faith, but not the body; they can indicate size, but not depth. They can tell you where to build, but not what kind of material to build with; they can give you a very general idea of Judaism, but you cannot be a Jew with them alone, just as you cannot build with a yard-stick alone.

The pagan then approached the other great religious thinker of that age, Hillel. Hillel, too, did not believe in choosing one mitzva above another, in facile prescriptions, in golden rules. But he knew the mind of this pagan, he understood his background, his pagan theology of simplicity. And so Hillel showed his great pedagogic genius. He told him: I’ll give you a rule even easier than the Ten Commandments, even easier than “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – and that is, don’t hate your neighbor, do not do to him what you would not have done to yourself. The pagan was happy beyond description – here it was, an easy cook-book recipe for Judaism. But then Hillel added something – “ve’idakh peirusha, zil gemor,” “all the rest of Torah is commentary, go and learn it.” Without Torah, this principle cannot be understood. It is meaningless. “Zil gemor.” Go ahead, my friend, and study that Torah, if you wish to understand the rule. For the rule I told you includes all of the commandments, and all the commandments include it. Without all the commandments, you remain a pagan, a heathen.

In the same way, the Ten Commandments can become the guiding light of our lives only if “idakh peirusha,” if they are taken not as ten easy rules, but as ten classes of laws which include all of Torah, which is their essential and vital commentary. To the question “how many are the Ten Commandments?” we must answer “613.”

There are no easy roads to the good life. There are only many hard, tough, unpaved paths – but these paths are steady, sure, and certain, and they lead to greater, holier, and loftier glory.

  • February 16, 1952