18.4. The Special Significance of the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments clearly occupy a unique place in the Torah, for the following reasons.

  • Although the Jews received the Torah as a whole indirectly through Moses, the Ten Commandments were the revelation that the entire people received directly from the Almighty.
    • o There are varying opinions in the Midrash as to which part of the Ten Commandments the entire nation received directly.

According to one interpretation, all of the Ten Commandments were communicated directly by God to the people.

A second opinion states that this applies to the first two commandments exclusively (this view is based on the fact that in the first two commandments God speaks in the first person, which is understood as direct Revelation, whereas the third and following commandments refer to God in the third person).

A third opinion believes that the entire nation heard only the very first word Anochi, “I,” or perhaps even just the initial letter aleph of this word. All the rest they received through Moses.

However, a simple reading of the text of the Torah would seem to indicate that the entire Ten Commandments were received by the people directly from God.

  • Besides being communicated orally, the Ten Commandments were also written by the Almighty Himself onto two stone tablets.
    • o The Torah as a whole was recorded in writing by Moses, but the Ten Commandments were written directly by God.
  • The daily service in the Temple began each morning with the reading of the Shema and the Ten Commandments (Mishnah Tamid 5:1).
    • o This daily reading of the Ten Commandments was not, however, incorporated into the standardized Jewish liturgy. The apparent reason is that precisely because of their supreme importance, there was a danger that placing special emphasis on the Ten Commandments could lead to neglect of the Torah’s other commandments (see below).
  • The cantillation system that is used for the text of the Ten Commandments is different from that of the rest of the Torah (see below).

The purpose of the Ten Commandments is not to teach the Jews the foundations of morality. Even before receiving the Ten Commandments the Jews were well aware that it was forbidden to kill, to commit adultery, to steal, and so on (the ethical systems of other civilizations have similar precepts).

Rather, the meaning of the Ten Commandments is the making of a covenant with God based on those selfsame principles.

The Torah itself (34:28) calls the Ten Commandments aseret ha-dibrot, “the ten sayings” (not “commandments”). This creates a certain parallel with the Ten Utterances by which God created the world (Gen. Ch. 1; Mishnah Avot 5:1). Thus, the making of the Sinai covenant with the Jewish people is comparable in its importance to the creation of the entire universe.

Even so, there are two opposing points of view in classical Jewish literature on the status of the Ten Commandments: (1). The Ten Commandments occupy a uniquely elevated position in the Torah (we have already explained the rationale for this position). (2). The Ten Commandments, and the level of their Revelation, are not a whit higher nor lower than all the rest of the Torah. Any other verse in the Torah is exactly equal in value and in weight to the Ten Commandments.

In light of these two opposite viewpoints, local customs vary concerning the reading of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue (within the regular annual cycle of Torah readings, and also on the festival of Shavuot).

In deference to the first of the two opinions just mentioned, it is customary in many communities to stand when the Ten Commandments are read publicly from the Torah, in recognition of their special status (notwithstanding that, in general, there is no requirement to stand during the reading of the Torah).

But according to the second opinion above, one should conduct himself during the public readings of the Ten Commandments exactly the same as he would during any other Torah reading. In particular, one need not – indeed should not – rise for the reading of the Ten Commandments, so as not to give the impression that the Ten Commandments are in any way more important than the rest of the Torah.

The second of those two viewpoints, which emphasizes that all the words of the Torah have equal weight, wants to disabuse us of any notion that the Ten Commandments are the main attraction, and the rest of the Torah is less important.

The approach that stresses the singularity of the Ten Commandments is often found in Christianity, in its popular, prosaic form, at least. But it actually arose much earlier.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) relates that King Manasseh, as early as the seventh century BCE, questioned the relevance of the verse “and Lotan’s sister was Timna” (Gen. 36:22) and other verses of similar character. That is, Manasseh advocated an approach to the Torah text that seeks to distinguish between passages that are pivotal and those that are “merely tangentially informational.” To prevent such an approach to the Torah from gaining traction among the population, and to affirm the sanctity and divinity of all parts of the Torah without exception, the Sages took the emphatic position that the entire Torah is everywhere exactly uniform in its level of Revelation, and that, in particular, the Ten Commandments are on even footing with the rest of the Torah text.

It is crucial that we learn to integrate both of these approaches. We must understand that the entire Torah is equally sacred, and that no part of the Torah text is by any measure extraneous, even those verses that would seem, at first glance, ancillary. We must be aware of the importance of every letter and every word of the Torah (it is not by mere happenstance that the Sages attribute the neglect of individual verses of the Torah to King Manasseh, a confirmed and renowned idolater).

But at the same time, we must also not overlook that each passage of the Torah has its own unique meaning, and its special influence that it exerts on the world. It is here that the difference between passages comes to the fore. It is obvious that the influence of the Ten Commandments as the central institutions of the Torah is enormous, in light of their unquestionable significance for all of Western civilization.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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