Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Finally God commences the process of Revelation with the transmission of the Ten Declarations to the Israelites: “I am the Lord your God…; You shall have no other gods before Me…; Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…; Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…; Honor your father and your mother…; Do not murder; Do not commit adultery; Do not steal; Do not bear false witness against your friend; Do not covet….”
While the Ten Declarations are clearly singled out as the dramatic opening communication of Revelation, the rabbis in the Talmud debate as to how they were actually communicated. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Rabbi Yishmael maintain that the first two declarations (“I am the Lord…” and “You shall have no other gods before Me…”) were spoken by God directly to the nation, while the eight other principles were transmitted through Moshe. Their colleagues disagree, arguing that all ten principles were communicated directly by God to the people.
Whatever position we accept concerning their transmission, the very existence of these Ten Declarations as a unit creates a serious philosophical problem.
In total, God transmits to the Israelites six hundred thirteen commandments over the course of Moshe’s career. While some of these commandments might seem to us more important than others, in reality we have no way of judging the significance of specific mitzvot. Obedience to God demands that we treat all of the commandments with equal seriousness.
Why, then, does God single out ten mitzvot from among the six hundred thirteen for specific emphasis? Does He not, by doing so, create a hierarchical structure within the commandments as a whole? Why, in addition, does the Torah refer to these ten commandments in this context as dibrot (declarations)? Why not use the usual terms mitzvot (commandments), chukim (edicts), or mishpatim (statutes)?
The danger created by the singling out of these ten principles actually becomes evident later in Jewish history. While the Mishna states that the Ten Declarations were recited as part of the daily service in the Temple, the Talmud testifies that their recitation was later abrogated by the rabbis because of the attacks of heretics who claimed that only these ten principles, and not six hundred thirteen, were actually commanded by God.
Once again, therefore, we are forced to ask: why does God single out these principles for emphasis if all the Torah’s laws are divinely ordained?
The amount of literature written concerning the Ten Declarations is vast, and a full analysis is certainly well beyond the scope of our study. We will, instead, choose a few general thoughts from among the myriad of ideas suggested by the rabbis as to why these ten principles are singled out for emphasis.
While the Ten Declarations are mitzvot themselves, they can also be seen as chapter headings for the other six hundred three commandments. Numerous scholars maintain that, properly categorized, all six hundred thirteen commandments of the Torah can be subsumed under the rubric of the Ten Declarations.
This idea may well be reflected in the well-known debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva concerning the manner in which the six hundred thirteen mitzvot of the Torah were transmitted. Rabbi Yishmael maintains that the general principles of the law were transmitted at Sinai while the specifics were only given later to Moshe in the Sanctuary. Rabbi Akiva disagrees, arguing that both generalities and particulars were transmitted to Moshe at Sinai.
Both of these scholars, however, agree that the mitzvot were conveyed with distinctions between general principle and specific detail. The Ten Declarations can therefore be understood as an introductory overview to Jewish law which is then followed by detailed analysis.
With deliberate planning, God unveils the Torah step by step, so as to highlight both purpose and procedure. From this point on, His chosen nation will be challenged to blend detailed observance with overarching vision, to make lofty ideals concrete through painstaking ritual practice.
Before revealing the myriad details that will comprise the obligations upon the Israelites, therefore, God grants His people a glimpse of the law’s ultimate objectives. The purpose of the six hundred thirteen mitzvot will be to create a society that truly lives by the fundamental principles outlined in the Ten Declarations. With the vision of these principles before them always, the Israelites will never lose sight of the goals towards which their religious practice must lead.
At the same time, however, God embeds the entirety of the law within the Ten Declarations. The only way to really live by these overarching principles is to bring them to life through concrete, detailed daily observance.
The Midrash goes a step further by suggesting that the inclusion of all six hundred thirteen mitzvot in the Ten Declarations is symbolically referenced in the text itself.
The number of letters in the passage containing these principles equals six hundred thirteen plus seven – representing, says the Midrash, the total number of commandments plus the seven days of creation. Through the text of the Ten Declarations, God hints to the fact that the purpose of creation is now revealed in the unfolding commandments of the Torah.
The structure of the Ten Declarations carries significant lessons as well. According to most authorities, these laws were transmitted by God in two columns of five principles each, as follows:
1. I am the Lord your God… 6. Do not murder
2. You shall have no other gods before Me… 7. Do not commit adultery
3. Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… 8. Do not steal
4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy… 9. Do not bear false witness against your friend
5. Honor your father and your mother… 10. Do not covet…
Careful study of these columns reveals striking patterns:
1. The principles found in the first column are mitzvot bein adam la’Makom (laws between man and God), while the declarations in the second column are mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro (laws between man and his fellow man).
This distinction between laws governing our relationship with God and laws governing our relationship with man establishes, from the moment of Revelation, the majestic scope of Jewish law. Halacha governs every aspect of human activity and shapes each of the manifold relationships that we establish throughout our lives. The complete Jew is one who, in the words of King Shlomo, finds “favor and good understanding in the eyes of God and of man.”
One principle, however, seems out of place. Why is “Honor your father and your mother” included in the series of laws governing our relationship with God? Shouldn’t this principle be categorized among the edicts shaping our behavior towards those around us?
By including “Honor your father and mother” in the first set of declarations, the Torah underscores the unique nature of the parent-child bond within the panoply of human relationships. In many ways, our parents are God’s representatives within our world. They partner with God in our physical creation and they are the bearers of the divinely inspired traditions, values and practices that are meant to shape our lives.When we honor our father and mother, we honor the God with Whom they partner and Whose traditions they bear.
2. The first five commandments are specific to the Israelites while the second set is universal in scope.
As His chosen nation is forged at Sinai, God underscores a familiar defining balance first struck centuries earlier. At the dawn of Jewish history, the patriarch Avraham turned to his neighbors and declared: Ger v’toshav anochi imachem, “I am a stranger and a citizen together with you.” With these words the first patriarch delineated the tension essential to his descendents’ self-definition across the ages – a tension which, as we have seen, is reiterated over and over again as Jewish history unfolds (see Bereishit: Chayei Sara 1, Approaches E, F; Bo 3, Approaches H).
The Jew is, at once, “apart from” and “a part of” the society around him.
Echoing across the generations from the dawn of the patriarchal era to the dawn of the national era, this pivotal balance is reflected in the very structure of the Ten Declarations. God’s chosen people will only fulfill their ongoing role as a “light unto the nations” through constant, careful calibration between the exclusive and universal components of their own identity. Throughout their history, they will be challenged to map out a path allowing them to maintain their individuality even as they contribute to the world.
Once again, however, the commandment of “Honor your father and your mother” seems to be in the wrong column. Isn’t respecting one’s parents a universal obligation?
By placing this mitzva among the obligations specific to the Israelites, God underscores the overwhelming importance of the parent-child relationship within Jewish experience. This bond is the singular foundation upon which Jewish continuity rests. Central to the revolution wrought by the patriarchs and matriarchs was the determination that the home, rather than outside society, would raise their progeny. From that time on, the family has been the single most important educational unit in the survival of the Jewish people and the perpetuation of their heritage (see Bereishit: Vayechi 4, Approaches B).
As the Jewish nation is forged through God’s Revelation, the centrality of the home is underscored once again.
3. The Declarations are deliberately arranged into parallel columns of five so as to create pairs, each pair consisting of one mitzva from column A and one from column B. The mitzvot of each pair are thematically connected, each mitzva informing and elaborating upon its mate.
The Midrash offers this analysis:
“I am the Lord your God…” is paired with “Do not murder.” Each man, created in the image of God, is of inestimable value. If one individual murders another, he diminishes God’s presence in the world.
“You shall have no other gods before me…” is paired with “Do not commit adultery.” An individual guilty of idolatry betrays his relationship with God.
“Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…” is paired with “Do not steal.” Theft is the first step on a path that inevitably leads to denial and false vows.
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…” is paired with “Do not bear false witness against your friend.” By desecrating the Shabbat, an individual renders false testimony. His actions implicitly declare that God neither created the world nor rested on the seventh day.
“Honor your father and your mother…” is paired with “Do not covet…” A child reared in an environment of jealousy and bitterness will eventually denigrate his own parents and covet the parents of others.
Other suggestions concerning the significance of the paired declarations are offered by scholars across the generations.
In summary: the Ten Declarations are, in fact, ten mitzvot out of six hundred thirteen.
In their dramatic context at the moment of Revelation, however, these commandments are invested with heightened significance. They are transformed into “Declarations,” introducing the Israelites to the detailed laws that will follow and establishing fundamental principles that will course through those laws.