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The Ten Commandments - set in Stone?

Author: Esther Ehrman, Sivan 5777/June 2017

We speak of the ‘seventy faces of the Torah’ to indicate its multi-faceted character. We study the explanations and interpretations of the Oral Law, encapsulated in the Talmud and in the many commentaries. However, the question arises, how can we ‘discuss’ the direct communication of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. When G-d speaks, what is there to discuss?

Bible commentators do not take that view, even though they are, of course, aware of the special place that this Revelation holds. It is interesting to see to what extent they agree in their understanding of the text, stressing what they see as ‘set in stone’, as immutable and unappealable. Let us look at a few examples from the Decalogue and from the commentaries.

“I am the Lord your G-d, of who took you out of the land Egypt, out of the house of bondage”

  • Rashi (11th century France) explains that, since G-d was the One who took us out of Egypt and He was also the one at [the crossing of] the sea, we should not be tempted to see two manifestations as denoting more than One power.
  • Ramban (13th century Catalonia) explains that the Exodus, referred to in the first commandment, is evidence of G-d’s EXISTENCE and of His CREATION of the world, since the fact that He intervened in nature showed that He controlled it. Had He not created it, He could not have altered nature in accordance with His will. And all of this was witnessed by the Israelites.
  • Sforno (16th century Italy) makes the same point, adding that G-d’s omnipotence shows His SOVEREIGNTY Hirsch (19th century Germany) also speaks of G-d as ‘disrupting the forces of nature’, to bring us out of Egypt, which is why He is the One whom we are to acknowledge as the sole Guide of our fate for all time’.

Creation, existence, sovereignty are eternal verities and that is why the commentators concentrate on these. There is no mention of the fact that G-d is here speaking to the assembled Israelites, to whom, alone, He was then giving the Torah.

“Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord in vain, for He will not hold guiltless him that taketh His Name in vain”.

This is the third of the Commandments. The second had spoken of idol worship which would be punished to the third and fourth generation, while loyalty to G-d would be rewarded to the thousandth generation. Both Sforno and Hirsch explain that taking the Name of G-d in vain, which means taking an oath, constitutes a DENIAL OF THE EXISTENCE of G-d.If you swear that something that cannot otherwise be proved, is true, just as G-d is true, and you are actually lying, what you are saying is that both halves of the statement are not true. Which is why taking the Name in vain ‘cannot be forgiven’. It is more serious that idol worship, terrible as that is; the punishment there is continued for three, even four generations. Ramban points out that, if the sinner has a righteous son, who does not commit this sin, the punishment does not continue What the commentators do not mention is that, since G-d is speaking to the Israelites, these two commandments apply only to them, not to the idol worshiping nations, that do not know G-d.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy ... for [in] six days the Lord made the heavens and the earthand ... rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it” (Text in Exodus, 20,1 ff)

  • Rashi comments that If G-d rested, man should certainly rest, implying a self evident relationship between man and G-d.
  • Ramban again refers to the CREATION. There is no be in the the text, which reads ki sheshet yamim, not be sheshet yamim. Rather, he explains, ‘ the sense of the verse is: G-d made six days and on the seventh day He ceased (creating, and rested)’
  • Sforno writes ‘ and the purpose of these (six days of CREATION) was for man to be similar to his CREATOR as much as possible’
  • Hirsch of course, agrees.’Thus, for six days you shall exercise, in the service of G-d, your dominion over the things in your world, which He conferred upon you. You shall utilise them for your own purposes and , like a CREATOR, modify them for these purposes. You are to shape them all into servants of your might. But the seventh day is to put a stop to all these activities of yours; on it you are to desist from your CREATING in order to render homage to the Lord your G-d’.

As this commandment gives Creation as the basis of the Shabbat, that is what the commentators stress here. Only Sforno points out the new relationship; the Sabbath elevates man and allows him to act like the Creator. Again, none of them speak of the fact that the Sabbath was given to the Israelites alone - a non-Jew should not observe the Sabbath, our sages teach.

The version of the Ten Commandments that Moses tells the Israelites in Deuteronomy 5,6 ff gives a different reason for the Sabbath; not Creation, but so that you manservant and your maidservant may rest like you and you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt....; therefore the Lord your G-d commanded you to keep the Sabbath.

  • Rashi paraphrases this, so ‘that on account of being redeemed, you would serve Him and keep His commandments’.
  • RambaN writes: ’the commandment contains a reminder of the CREATION because of the fact that we rest on the day that G-d ceased from work thereon and rested …; the Lord therefore commanded you ... so that the congregation of Israel be the partner to the Sabbath ... as is hinted at in the words of our Rabbis (in Bereshit Rabba).
  • Sforno explains ‘behold, the commandment that the animal should also rest was given so that the servant should also rest; and this commandment (that the servant should rest) was given in order to remember the Exodus from Egypt, whereby the Lord caused the slaves to cease from their labours’.
  • Hirsch has no comment here.

Only RambaN speaks of the partnership between G-d and the congregation of Israel.

The fifth commandment is ‘Honour your father and your mother so that your days may be long on the land which the Lord your God gives to you’.

We naturally assume that ‘the land’ that G-d gives us is the land of the destination of the Exodus, the land of Canaan/Israel. That is how Sforno understands it: ‘by observing the first five commandments you shall merit the length of days' i.e. you shall not be exiled from it. RambaN ‘Since the commandment is to creatures on the earth, He has designated its reward to be the prolongation of life on earth which He will give us ... But [according to] our Sages (Kiddushin 31b), if we observe this commandment, G-d will fulfill our days in this world and prolong them in the world to come’.

RambaN here deliberately takes away the connection of the commandments to the Israelites, giving it a universal interpretation. It would, indeed, seem from their comments that all four commentators looked at do present a universal, ’set in stone’ understanding of the Ten commandments, very largely ignoring the Israelite context.