The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, are considered the most important laws in Judaism. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: the Ten Commandments in Judaism are fundamental biblical laws that establish the relationship between God and the Jewish people, containing both religious precepts and ethical guidelines for behavior.
In this comprehensive article, we will take an in-depth look at the origins, meaning, and significance of each of the Ten Commandments in Judaism. We will explore where the Decalogue appears in the Torah, what each commandment entails, how they have been interpreted over time, and why they remain integral to Jewish theology and practice today.
Background and Origins of the Ten Commandments
The Giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai
According to the biblical book of Exodus 19, God revealed the Ten Commandments to the Israelites on Mount Sinai 50 days after their exodus from Egypt. This was a pivotal moment establishing the special covenant between God and the people of Israel.
While gathered at the foot of the mountain, the Israelites saw thunder and lightning as God descended on the mountain peak in a cloud of smoke and fire. The scene highlighted the awesome power of the divine presence. Out of this cloud, God pronounced the words later recorded as the Ten Commandments.
Covenantal Significance of the Decalogue
In Judaism, the Ten Commandments signify a formal agreement between God and Israel. By giving the Decalogue, or Ten Words, God set forth the laws and principles Israel should live by as part of this covenantal relationship.
The first few statements outline fundamental duties toward God, while the later statements lay out proper conduct toward other people. Together they encapsulate a framework for righteous living in devotion to God and through ethical actions like honor one’s parents, not murder, not commit adultery, and not steal.
Textual Sources in the Torah
The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah – once in the book of Exodus and again in Deuteronomy. The most well-known version comes from Exodus 20, as part of Moses’ delivery of various laws and ordinances.
A slightly different version arises forty years later on the plains of Moab, as Moses recapitulates the Decalogue to the younger generation of Israelites before they cross into the land of Israel. This account comes in Deuteronomy 5.
The Ten Commandments List and Meaning
1. I am the Lord your God
The first commandment establishes that there is only one God, the God of Israel, who brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. This commandment forbids the worship of any other gods or idols.
2. You shall have no other gods
This commandment elaborates on the first by expressly forbidding the worship of any god other than the God of Israel. It prohibits idolatry and polytheism.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
This commandment prohibits using the name of God in vain. It aims to prevent the inappropriate or flippant use of God’s name. Swearing falsely is also considered a sin.
4. Remember the Sabbath day
The fourth commandment establishes the Sabbath day, the seventh day of the week, as a day of rest and worship of God. The Sabbath commemorates God’s day of rest after the six days of creation.
5. Honor your father and mother
This commandment requires honoring one’s parents through obedience and respect during childhood, and care and consideration in their old age. It connects the relationship between human generations with the Israelites’ covenant with God.
6. You shall not murder
This straightforward commandment prohibits the unlawful killing of another human being. However, the taking of a life is permitted in certain cases like self-defense, just wars, and the death penalty.
7. You shall not commit adultery
Adultery refers to having sexual relations outside marriage. This commandment forbids both adultery and coveting another’s spouse. It aims to protect the sanctity of marriage.
8. You shall not steal
Stealing is the taking of someone else’s property without permission. This commandment forbids theft and deceitfulness in financial matters. It encourages respect for others’ property.
9. You shall not bear false witness
This commandment prohibits lying or bearing false witness, especially in legal proceedings. It forbids perjury, slander, and lying. Honesty and truthfulness are highly valued.
10. You shall not covet
Coveting means desiring something that belongs to someone else. This final commandment forbids greed and envy. It encourages contentment with one’s own possessions.
Analysis and Interpretation
Categorization into Religious and Interpersonal Laws
The Ten Commandments are often divided into two categories – laws governing the relationship between God and humans, and laws governing interpersonal relationships. The first four commandments about not worshipping other gods, observing the Sabbath, respecting God’s name and honoring one’s parents fall under the religious laws.
The other six commandments forbidding murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, and coveting fall under the ethical and interpersonal laws (Exodus 20:1-17).
Oral vs. Written Tradition
There has been an ongoing debate among scholars about whether the Ten Commandments were originally an oral or written tradition. Some argue the covenant at Mount Sinai was most likely oral, only later recorded in writing.
Others point to archaeological evidence of early alphabetic writing, suggesting it was first written and then transmitted orally. Either way, the written version became the central touchstone of ethics and morality in Judaism.
Observance and Violation
Observance of the Ten Commandments is considered a sacred duty by religious Jews. Some even see their ethical laws as the building blocks of an orderly, civilized society. Surveys indicate that in America, nearly six in ten can recall all ten and most say they make an effort to live by them.
However, like laws elsewhere, no society achieves 100 percent compliance. Their violation is considered sinful or immoral, bringing divine punishment or social stigma.
Ongoing Relevance and Influence
|Still primary religious code after 3,000 years
|Influenced Jesus’ teachings and church doctrine
|Similar principles undergird Five Pillars and Sharia Law
|Echoed in legal codes of Western nations
Clearly, the Ten Commandments maintain an exceptional hold over faith and ethics today. Their simplicity, memorability and universality are a large part of their continuing power and attraction. They remain Judaism’s most influential religious code, while also contributing moral and legal principles that radiate into secular philosophy.
Truly, their relevance spans the religious and the secular.
The Decalogue in Jewish Practice
Public Recitation and Private Study
The Ten Commandments hold a central place in Jewish life and liturgy. They are recited out loud in synagogue during the Shabbat and festival morning services. The Ark containing the Torah scrolls is opened specifically during the public reading of the Decalogue, and the congregation stands in respect.
This ritual highlights the importance of the Ten Commandments in Jewish tradition. Many Jews also make a point of reading the Decalogue privately each day, often before morning prayers. Some have the custom of standing while reciting the Ten Commandments at home to show proper reverence.
Studying and meditating on the meaning of each of the Ten Commandments is considered an important spiritual exercise.
Integration into Liturgy and Rituals
In addition to public recitation and private study, the Ten Commandments are integrated into Jewish liturgy and rituals in various ways. For example, a passage about honoring parents (based on the Fifth Commandment) is included in the daily morning prayers.
Passages about not worshipping idols and observing the Sabbath (the First and Fourth Commandments) are part of the bedtime Shema prayers. The Ten Commandments also show up in blessings over food and mitzvot.
Placing a mezuzah containing passages of the Torah (including the Decalogue) on doorposts of Jewish homes is another way the Ten Commandments are ritually observed. Overall, the ubiquitous nature of the Decalogue in prayers and rituals underlines its significance as a core text of faith and practice.
Incorporation into Legal Codes
Beyond liturgy, the Ten Commandments have significantly shaped Jewish law over the centuries. According to tradition, the oral and written Torah given at Mount Sinai together encapsulate the 613 commandments binding upon Jews.
The Decalogue is considered the foundational summary of the entire corpus of biblical and rabbinic dos and don’ts. As such, the Ten Commandments form the backbone of major codes of Jewish law that emerged during the medieval and modern eras, including Mishneh Torah by Maimonides in the 12th century and Shulchan Aruch in the 16th century.
Contemporary Jewish legal guides continue to be anchored in the principles embodied by the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God.
Role in Shaping Jewish Ethics and Values
Lastly, the Ten Commandments have played a profound role in shaping Jewish morals, ethics and values over the millennia. They encapsulate core humanistic values like honoring parents, respecting life, fidelity in relationships, honesty, fairness, and living with consideration for others.
According to the Jewish sages, the 613 commandments of the Torah can be seen as elaborations on the Ten Commandments and their underlying ethical messages. As such, the Decalogue is considered Judaism’s ultimate moral code.
Studying and living by the Ten Commandments is seen as the pathway to righteous and ethical living in accordance with God’s will.
In closing, the Ten Commandments constitute the most seminal body of law in the Jewish tradition. Given directly by God to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, they solemnize the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Both profoundly theological and deeply ethical in nature, the Decalogue establishes core tenets of the Jewish faith and way of life that remain central today. From weekly Shabbat observance to bearing honest witness, from revering parents to rejecting idolatrous worship, Jews continue to shape personal behavior, communal norms, and spiritual practice around these ancient dictates.