Aseret ha-Dibrot: The "Ten Commandments"
There are 613 commandments, not 10
The "Ten Commandments" are categories
The 10 are divided into duties to G-d and duties to people
Different religions divide the 10 in different ways
According to Jewish tradition, G-d gave the Jewish
people 613 mitzvot (commandments). All 613 of those
mitzvot are equally sacred, equally binding and equally the word of G-d. All of
these mitzvot are treated as equally important, because human beings, with our
limited understanding of the universe, have no way of knowing which mitzvot are
more important in the eyes of the Creator. Pirkei Avot, a book of the
Mishnah, teaches "Be as meticulous in performing
a 'minor' mitzvah as you are with a 'major' one, because you don't know what
kind of reward you'll get for various mitzvot." It also says, "Run after the
most 'minor' mitzvah as you would after the most 'important' and flee from
transgression, because doing one mitzvah draws you into doing another, and
doing one transgression draws you into doing another, and because the reward
for a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the punishment for a transgression is a
transgression." In other words, every mitzvah is important, because even the
most seemingly trivial mitzvot draw you into a pattern of leading your life in
accordance with the Creator's wishes, rather than in accordance with your own.
But what about the so-called "Ten Commandments," the words recorded in Exodus
20, the words that the Creator Himself wrote on the two stone tablets that
Moses brought down from Mount Sinai (Ex. 31:18),
which Moses smashed upon seeing the idolatry of the golden calf (Ex. 32:19)? In
the Torah, these words are never referred to as
the Ten Commandments. In the Torah, they are called Aseret ha-D'varim (Ex.
34:28, Deut. 4:13 and Deut. 10:4). In rabbinical
texts, they are referred to as Aseret ha-Dibrot. The words d'varim and dibrot
come from the Hebrew root
Dalet-Beit-Reish, meaning word, speak or thing;
thus, the phrase is accurately translated as the Ten Sayings, the Ten
Statements, the Ten Declarations, the Ten Words or even the Ten Things, but not
as the Ten Commandments, which would be Aseret ha-Mitzvot.
The Aseret ha-Dibrot are not understood as individual mitzvot; rather, they are
categories or classifications of mitzvot. Each of the 613 mitzvot can be
subsumed under one of these ten categories, some in more obvious ways than
others. For example, the mitzvah not to work on
Shabbat rather obviously falls within the
category of remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. The mitzvah to
fast on Yom Kippur fits into that category
somewhat less obviously: all holidays are in
some sense a Sabbath, and the category encompasses any mitzvah related to
sacred time. The mitzvah not to stand aside while a person's life is in danger
fits somewhat obviously into the category against murder. It is not
particularly obvious, however, that the mitzvah not to embarrass a person fits
within the category against murder: it causes the blood to drain from your face
thereby shedding blood.
List of the Aseret ha-Dibrot
According to Judaism, the Aseret ha-Dibrot identify the following ten
categories of mitzvot. Other religions divide
this passage differently. See The "Ten Commandments"
Controversy below. Please remember that these are categories of the
613 mitzvot, which according to Jewish tradition are
binding only upon Jews. The only mitzvot binding upon gentiles are the seven
- 1. Belief in G-d
- This category is derived from the declaration in Ex. 20:2 beginning, "I am
the L-rd, your G-d..."
- 2. Prohibition of Improper Worship
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:3-6, beginning, "You shall not have
other gods..." It encompasses within it the prohibition against the worship of
other gods as well as the prohibition of improper forms of worship of the one
true G-d, such as worshiping G-d through an idol.
- 3. Prohibition of Oaths
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:7, beginning, "You shall not take the
name of the L-rd your G-d in vain..." This includes
prohibitions against perjury, breaking or delaying the performance of vows or
promises, and speaking G-d's name or swearing unnecessarily.
- 4. Observance of Sacred Times
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:8-11, beginning, "Remember the
Sabbath day..." It encompasses all mitzvot
related to Shabbat, holidays, or other sacred
- 5. Respect for Parents and Teachers
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:12, beginning, "Honor your father and
- 6. Prohibition of Physically Harming a Person
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:13, saying, "You shall not murder."
- 7. Prohibition of Sexual Immorality
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:13, saying, "You shall not commit
- 8. Prohibition of Theft
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:13, saying, "You shall not steal." It
includes within it both outright robbery as well as various forms of theft by
deception and unethical business practices. It also includes kidnapping, which
is essentially "stealing" a person.
- 9. Prohibition of Harming a Person through Speech
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:13, saying, "You shall not bear false
witness against your neighbor." It includes all forms of
lashon ha-ra (sins relating to speech).
- 10. Prohibition of Coveting
- This category is derived from Ex. 20:14, beginning, "You shall not covet
your neighbor's house..."
The Two Tablets: Duties to G-d and Duties to People
Judaism teaches that the first tablet, containing the first five declarations,
identifies duties regarding our relationship with G-d, while the second tablet,
containing the last five declarations, identifies duties regarding our
relationship with other people.
You may have noticed, however, that the fifth category, which is included in
the first tablet, is the category to honor father and mother, which would seem
to concern relationships between people. The rabbis teach that our parents are
our creators and stand in a relationship to us akin to our relationship to the
Divine. Throughout Jewish liturgy, the Creator is referred to as Avinu
Malkeinu, our Father, our King. Disrespect to our biological creators is not
merely an affront to them; it is also an insult to the Creator of the Universe.
Accordingly, honor of father and mother is included on the tablet of duties to
These two tablets are parallel and equal: duties to G-d are not more important
than duties to people, nor are duties to people more important than duties to
G-d. However, if one must choose between fulfilling an obligation to G-d and
fulfilling an obligation to a person, or if one must prioritize them, Judaism
teaches that the obligation to a person should be fulfilled first. This
principle is supported by the story in Genesis 18, where Abraham is communing
with G-d and interrupts this meeting to fulfill the mitzvah of providing
hospitality to strangers (the three men who appear). The Talmud gives another
example, disapproving of a man who, engrossed in prayer, would ignore the cries
of a drowning man. When forced to choose between our duties to a person and our
duties to G-d, we must pursue our duties to the person, because the person
needs our help, but G-d does not need our help.
The "Ten Commandments" Controversy
In the United States, a controversy has persisted for many years regarding the
placement of the "Ten Commandments" in public schools and public buildings. But
one critical question seems to have escaped most of the public dialog on the
subject: Whose "Ten Commandments" should we post?
The general perception in this country is that the "Ten Commandments" are part
of the common religious heritage of Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism,
part of the sacred scriptures that we all share, and should not be
controversial. But most people involved in the debate seem to have missed the
fact that these three religions divide up the commandments in different ways!
Judaism, unlike Catholicism and Protestantism, considers "I am the L-rd, your
G-d" to be the first "commandment." Catholicism, unlike Judaism and
Protestantism, considers coveting property to be separate from coveting a
spouse. Protestantism, unlike Judaism and Catholicism, considers the
prohibition against idolatry to be separate from the prohibition against
worshipping other gods. No two religions agree on a single list. So whose list
should we post?
And once we decide on a list, what translation should we post? Should Judaism's
sixth declaration be rendered as "Thou shalt not kill" as in the popular KJV
translation, or as "Thou shalt not murder," which is a bit closer to the
connotations of the original Hebrew though still not entirely accurate?
These may seem like trivial differences to some, but they are serious issues to
those of us who take these words seriously. When a government agency chooses
one version over another, it implicitly chooses one religion over another,
something that the First Amendment prohibits. This is the heart of the
But there is an additional aspect of this controversy that is of concern from a
Jewish perspective. In Talmudic times, the rabbis consciously made a decision
to exclude daily recitation of the Aseret ha-Dibrot from the liturgy because
excessive emphasis on these statements might lead people to mistakenly believe
that these were the only mitzvot or the most
important mitzvot, and neglect the full 613 (Talmud Berakhot 12a). By posting
these words prominently and referring to them as "The Ten
Commandments," (as if there weren't any others, which is what many people
think) schools and public buildings may be teaching a message that Judaism
specifically and consciously rejected.
© Copyright 5762-5771 (2002-2011), Tracey R Rich
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