Yitro: There’s Nothing Obvious About The Ten Commandments

Even more than what's included in the top ten, we can learn from how they’re weighted and ordered.

Lots of people claim they don’t need Torah study to follow the Ten Commandments. They’re wrong.

Table for Five: Yitro 

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist 

You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. – Ex 20:13

Rabbi David Block, Head of School, Shalhevet High School

This isn’t just a list of Don’ts. As my rebbe, R. Fohrman, magnificently highlights, these commands mirror their horizontal counterparts on the other tablet. The first five commandments articulate values as they manifest in our Divine relationship, while the second five commandments articulate precisely those same values in our humanrelationships.

Take 1 and 6. 6: Don’t Kill. Don’t deny the existence of another. In the spiritual realm, even if we’re not interested in God, if we feel like life would be easier without God, we still can’t murder God. But we can choose to live without God, and thus deny God’s existence. Command #1: I am God. Don’t deny My existence.

2 and 7. 7: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t take the most sacred human relationship and betray it. In the spiritual realm: Don’t take the most sacred relationship you have with God and betray it. Command #2: Don’t commit idolatry.

3 and 8. 8: Don’t Kidnap. Don’t take one’s body, don’t hold hostage or desecrate the essence and expression of oneself. And in the spiritual realm? God has no body, but God’s most authentic expression of self in this world is through God’s names (Kuzari 4). Command #3: Don’t “take” (tisa) God’s name in vain. Don’t violate God’s expression of self in this world.

I leave it to you to uncover the rest. But the lesson is clear: Our human relationships should be microcosms of our Divine relationship, and our Divine relationship a teacher for our human relationships.

Ilana Wilner, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admission/Yeshiva University

The literal interpretation of Lo Tignov, You shall not steal, seems to make many commentators uneasy. Rashi, Sforno, Ibn Ezra and others prefer to interpret it as kidnapping. They seem to struggle that on the surface the command to not steal doesn’t belong on the list with murder and adultery. It appears important to them that all prohibitions in our verse are comparable, and the prohibitions carry the same penalty: capital punishment. But perhaps what binds these prohibitions is not the severity of their punishment so much as the nature of the injury.

If we look at the earliest accounts of stealing in the Bible, we find Rachel stole her father Lavan’s idols, and next Yaakov plans to run away and steals Lavan’s heart “vayignov et lev Lavan”. Many commentaries, grappling to understand how a heart can be stolen, explain that Yaakov concealed but did not actually steal anything from Lavan.

Gnivat lev. How does one steal the heart of another? Theft perhaps is any instance where we benefit ourselves by diminishing the other. This can be as severe as taking another life, carrying the most extreme penalty or it can be something smaller. Lavan’s reaction to the gneiva speaks volumes of the damage to the relationship and the impact of the injury. Yaakov took from Lavan his family, his beliefs and his connection. The question then becomes not whether Yaakov was right in leaving, but rather, could he have done it without diminishing Lavan’s heart?

Judy Gruen, Author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”

At first glance, the two tablets of the 10 Commandments seem to focus on two different themes. The first five appear to stress the hierarchical relationship between human beings and God, while commandments six through ten focus on social laws– lateral relationships between people. However, Rabbi David Fohrman of AlephBeta.org teaches that in reality there is one single unifying principle of all ten. That theme is respect.

This deeper layer of meaning emerges when we read the commandments across, rather than down. For example, the first commandment, “I am your God,” connects to number six, “Do not murder.” God created all life; human beings were created in His image. Therefore, erasing an individual through murder is also, in a way, erasing the foundational idea of God as that Creator of all life. The second commandment, “Do not worship any other gods” relates to the seventh, “Do not commit adultery.” How so? Idolatry and adultery both weaken (adulterate) relationships that are meant to be exclusive.

Without a God-based morality, all values become relative. Reinforcing the concept of respect for God in the first five commandments is vital because once we let that respect slip away, we easily elevate our self-interest over God’s laws. Commandments six through nine warn us how easily we can begin to violate other people: their bodies; their sacred relationships; their property; and their reputations. The 10 Commandments teach us that everyone has a spark of the divine.

Salvador Litvak, Writer, Director, Accidental Talmudist

It is extraordinary that this single verse – 11 Hebrew words – contains four of the Ten Commandments, and covers most of the ground from which U.S. law fills dozens of thick volumes. It’s true that Jewish law also elucidates these four at length, but that applies equally to the other six commandments, and they are far wordier. Our question is, why was God so terse re criminal law, and so verbose regarding faith in Him, keeping Shabbos and coveting?

The Torah distinguishes between mishpatim, laws we intuitively grasp like “you shall not murder” and chukim like “you shall not wear a garment made of linen and wool.” The former we’d legislate anyway. The latter we obey simply because God said so, and the majority of the Ten Commandments fall into that category.

There’s no self-evident reason to worship a hidden God, nor to rest on the Seventh Day. And what legislature would ever pass a law ordering us not covet our neighbor’s stuff? That’s a thought crime! Even honoring one’s parents doesn’t come naturally – certainly not to the degree demanded by our Sages.

So why all these chukim? The answer lies in the most fundamental commandment of our relationship to God, “you shall love the Lord.” How do we fulfill it? By loving what God loves, mercy and justice. By caring for His creatures. And by obeying all those chukim because He said so.

Back to the four mishpatim of our verse. If they’d be legislated by all societies anyway, why did God include them in the Ten Commandments? To remind us that the other 6/10 of the law is even more important, and requires constant devotion to fulfill. Good Shabbos!

Nina Litvak, Writer

Why is the prohibition against stealing included in the Ten Commandments? It seems to be a fundamental code of human behavior. Parents everywhere tell their children not to take what doesn’t belong to them; it’s hard to imagine that a society can survive without a taboo against stealing. Do we really need to be told not to steal?

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, in his book “Understanding Judaism,” explains that “Ten Commandments” is a misnomer. A commandment is a mitzvah but we don’t say “The Ten Mitzvot.” A better translation would be “The Ten Sayings,” with each of them representing a major category or principle.

“Do not steal” encompasses more than just taking something that doesn’t belong to you. For instance, according to Italian commentator Sforno (circa 1500), deliberately lying to someone is considered stealing, because you are stealing their mind by making them believe lies are truth. “Stealing” also includes slander since you are stealing someone’s reputation. Another form of stealing is being late, as we’re stealing time from the person who is kept waiting.

For many of us who try to live by the Ten Commandments, the prohibition against stealing seems like an easy rule to follow. Most adults don’t literally steal things from others. But how many can say we’ve never told an untruth or kept someone waiting? When we understand the “commandments” as “categories,” we see that none of them is simple or easy, yet all of them bring us closer to God in a myriad of ways.

With thanks to Rabbi David Block, Judy Gruen and Ilana Wilner

Image: Sal holds actual tablets from Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments. With thanks to Cedars Sinai Hospital

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