18.5. The Text of the Ten Commandments (20:1-14)
[In the following English translation, the angle brackets <…> indicate the division of the text into the Ten Commandments according to Jewish tradition.]
(1) God spoke all these words, saying:
(2) I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage:
(3) You shall have no other gods besides Me.
(4) You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.
(5) You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me,
(6) but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
(7) You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.
(8) Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
(9) Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
(10) but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.
(11) For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
(12) Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.
(13) You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
(14) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
(1) God spoke all these words, saying: The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah: here, in the book of Exodus, and again in Deuteronomy (5:6 ff.). The two texts differ in certain details. We will examine these differences in our commentary on Deuteronomy.
The generally accepted versification of the text of the Ten Commandments into thirteen verses (2-14) does not correspond, quite obviously, to the division of the text into ten commandments. This is because the longer commandments consist of several verses each, while, conversely, several of the shortest commandments (6, 7 and 8) are grouped together in a single verse.
It is important to note that the text of the Ten Commandments differs from the rest of the Torah also with respect to its cantillation symbols (and thus the melody used to chant them in public readings).
Unlike the rest of the Torah, in which one and the same cantillation system is consistently applied, the Ten Commandments employ two alternate systems of cantillation, known as the ta’am ha-tachton (the “lower cantillation”) and the ta’am ha-elyon (the “upper cantillation”). These two cantillation systems are used, respectively, for reading of the Ten Commandments within the normal weekly Torah-reading cycle, and for reading them on the festival of Shavuot (which commemorates the giving of the Torah).
Now, both of those systems include sof pasuq, “end of verse,” as one of the cantillation symbols, which in turn determines where one verse ends and the next one begins. Thus, one of the important differences between the Ten Commandments’ two cantillation systems is that the “lower cantillation” follows the accepted versification of the text, which, as already mentioned, does not divide the text evenly into ten commandments. But the “upper cantillation,” on the other hand, does in fact divide the text into exactly ten verses, such that each commandment occupies a single verse, and each verse contains a single commandment.
Because of that dichotomy, the numbering of the verses also differs between the two systems, and that difference continues until the end of the chapter. This is why the numbering of the verses in certain translations does not coincide with the versification of the Hebrew text, even when a given printed edition of the Torah presents those two texts of the Ten Commandments – the original Hebrew, and the given translation – in parallel.
Because the Ten Commandments are explained in great detail in a large number of available works, including English-language publications, our commentary that follows will note only the most essential points.
(2) I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: It was less than obvious to the Jewish people that it was God Who had brought them out of Egypt. Perhaps Moses himself had accomplished that, or other favorable circumstances had allowed it to happen. The first of the Ten Commandments therefore teaches us to see and believe that God intervenes in the course of history.
The first of the Ten Commandments also incorporates the ideal of freedom, while condemning the institution of slavery. Without freedom, both individual and national, spiritual progress is impossible.
(4-5) You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness … You shall not bow down to them or serve them: It is forbidden to create images for worship. But creating visual art for its own sake is not prohibited.
For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God: The more literal translation is “a jealous God.” The divine quality of “jealousy,” which is manifested with respect to the prohibition of idolatry, means that God does not tolerate religious syncretism (widely accepted in the Ancient World), and requires humans to worship only Him, the Almighty.
Nachmanides points out that God’s “jealousy” applies only to the people of Israel. Although idolatry is forbidden to all humankind (as one of the Seven Noahide Laws that are mandatory for Jews and non-Jews alike), the Almighty judges the Jewish people for transgressing that prohibition far more strictly, because it is the Jewish mission to transmit the Divine light to the rest of humanity.
Visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me: Literally, “of those who hate me.” However, this refers not to people who only harbor a “psychological feeling of hatred” toward God, but to those who actualize that hatred by putting it into practice.
As for visiting the sin of a father’s hatred upon his children, the Talmud explains: If the father hates the Almighty, and his son continues in the same path (he too hates God), then the son is punished for his own misdeeds and also for those of his father. But if the son does not share in his father’s hatred, and does not perpetuate that evil, then none of the father’s guilt will be visited upon him.
<2-3> (6-7) But showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me … You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name: The first two commandments are formulated in the first person (“I,” “me”), but from the third commandment onward, in the third person (“You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God”).
Some commentators explain this to mean that the Almighty spoke only the first two commandments directly to the entire people. This is because the people had no more strength to listen (see below), and they therefore received the eight subsequent commandments indirectly from God, as retold to them by Moses.
But other commentators assert that the Ten Commandments’ introductory wording “God spoke all these words, saying” indicates that the people heard all Ten Commandments directly from God.
A third possibility is that first the people heard God Himself speak all the Ten Commandments, but they understood only the first two, and Moses then had to repeat the remaining commandments in language comprehensible to them.
(8) Remember the Sabbath day: In the other version of the Ten Commandments (when they are repeated in Deuteronomy), this Sabbath commandment is worded not as “Remember the Sabbath day,” but as “Observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12). Remembering the Shabbat and observing it are two different but complimentary aspects of this commandment.
One remembers the Sabbath by rejoicing on it, by recognizing the Seventh Day as special and making it a celebration, by lighting the Sabbath candles (before sunset on Friday), and by honoring the Sabbath with meals that include the best food and drink one can afford.
Observing the Sabbath means not violating the Sabbath – that is, refraining from all manner of constructive labor and work that is prohibited on this day.
(10) But the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work: Precisely what “work” is forbidden on the Sabbath is not here specified. But kindling fire (35:3) and engaging in agricultural activity (34:21) are in fact later specifically prohibited. Also, the instructions given earlier (16:23,29) for collecting the manna indicate a ban on carrying items in a public domain, cooking, and walking beyond the limits of one’s immediate vicinity on Shabbat.
Later Jewish tradition, basing itself on the Oral Law received by Moses from God, expands on the above short list with a more general ban on thirty-nine general categories of constructive activity that are forbidden on Shabbat, representing all the fundamental categories of restructuring the world in the service of human needs (see Mishnah Shabbat 7:2).
(11) For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day: Here we see that the cosmic foundation of the Shabbat is the creation of the world, and that it is therefore relevant to all of humanity. But in the Ten Commandments of Deuteronomy the rationale given for the Shabbat is social: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (5:15). All of the latter obviously relates only to the Jews, whom God redeemed from Egyptian bondage. Thus, the command here in Exodus to remember the Sabbath applies to all of humanity, but Deuteronomy’s commandment to observe the Sabbath (to abide by its prohibitions) applies only to Jews.
(12) Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you: Honoring one’s parents is one of the few Torah commandments for which the reward is explicitly stated. We will examine this issue more closely in our commentary on Deuteronomy (22:6).
(13) You shall not murder: In Hebrew (as in most other languages, including English) there are two distinct verbs for the concept of taking a life: R‑TZ‑CH (“to murder,” i.e., to kill with criminal intent) and H‑R‑G (“to kill,” i.e., killing in general, irrespective of circumstances).
This sixth commandment of the ten is phrased as lo tirtzach, “You shall not murder,” and not as lo taharog, “You shall not kill.” Thus, this commandment does not prohibit killing an enemy in a situation of self-defense, whether individual or national (i.e., in war).
You shall not commit adultery: Lo tin’af. Strictly, ni’uf in Hebrew means adultery – a married woman engaging in sexual relations with any man other than her husband. In the broader context, however, this seventh commandment encompasses any of the most serious sexual relationships, especially those between close family members (i.e., incest).
 See, for example: Aseres Hadibros/The Ten Commandments: A new translation with a commentary anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources, Artscroll/Mesorah Publications, New York, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-0899061801.