The Ten Commandments Part II

Once again we find ourselves reading the Ten Commandments this Shabbat. Deuteronomy means deutero nomos, or second word, and it is often a repetition of what came before. However, there are some key differences between this version of the Ten Commandments and the one we have in Exodus, and I’d like us to look at why they are different. In Deuteronomy Moses says he will serve as the people’s intermediary because they were afraid and would not go up to the mountain an account of the great fire.[1] We do have a parallel to this in Exodus, where the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us and we will obey; but let not G-d speak to us, lest we die.”[2] However, prior to that Moses says to G-d
“The people cannot come up to Sinai, for You warned us, saying ‘put boundaries around the mountain and sanctify it.”[3] Why would Moses say in Deuteronomy that the Israelites had an option to ascend and chose not to when in Exodus he asserts that G-d forbade them from ascending?

Perhaps another difference between the texts will shed light on this. In Exodus G-d is proclaiming the words, whereas in Deuteronomy it is Moses. According to Midrash, the people heard the first commandment from G-d and could not take it-their souls departed from them. After the angels revived them, G-d said the second commandment, and the Israelites’ souls departed again. Finally they pleaded with Moses to say the rest of the commandments, and he did so. This is one source for the 613 commandments, for the gematria of the word תורה is 611, corresponding to the 611 commandments that Moses taught them, whereas the additional 2 corresponds to the commandments they heard directly from G-d.[4]

The next difference of note is that the Exodus text takes place at Mount Sinai, whereas the Deuteronomy text occurs at Horev. Ibn Ezra responds to this conundrum by stating that Horev is just another name for Sinai.[5] However, perhaps Horev was a different place where the Israelites made a covenant with G-d before accepting the commandments. Moses is speaking to the next generation of Israelites here (as the ones at Sinai had already died in the desert) so he is emphasizing that this covenant was not only with that generation but to those that followed. Further illustrating this point is that the commandments are referred to in Exodus as d’varim,[6] or statements, just referring to those words alone, whereas in Deuteronomy Moses refers to hukim v’mishpatim, [7] an inclusive term for all of the commandments. Moses is now addressing the Israelites with all of the commandments so that they will observe them when they enter the Land of Israel.

Now we examine the content of the commandments themselves. The first major change (besides just the absence of a “vav”) is in the fourth commandment, where in Exodus it says zachor (remember) whereas in Deuteronomy is says shamor (observe).[8] The well-known Midrash to this is that G-d said both words at the same time, something which the mouth cannot say and the ear cannot hear. After all, this is G-d saying the words, and G-d had the power to communicate in ways that we as mere humans cannot. We refer to this in Lecha Dodi when we proclaim שמור וזכור בדבור אחד, ‘observe’ and ‘remember’ were said with one word. The next major difference is that the passage in our parsha focuses on the importance of one’s slaves resting on the Sabbath day because we were slaves in the land of Egypt.[9] It thus ties our redemption from slavery to our giving our slaves a respite from labor on the Sabbath. While we no longer have slaves, this same law would apply to our servants as well. In contrast, the Exodus text has our resting on the Sabbath as an act of imitatio dei, following in G-d’s example of resting on the Sabbath.

The next change of note comes in the ninth commandment, where in Exodus the word שקר is used for not being a false witness whereas in our portion the word  שואis used. שוא was previously used in the third commandment for not taking G-d’s name in vain. The Yerushalmi takes a similar line of thought as to what we previously discussed, stating that the words שקר ושוא were both said at the same time.[10]

Finally we reach the tenth commandment, which uses the word תחמוד, or “covet,” when referring to one’s neighbor’s house. However, in our parsha it uses תתאוה, speaking about an inappropriate desiring, when referring to one’s neighbor’s wife, as opposed to Exodus, which uses תחמוד again. The Torah Temimah indicates that desiring leads to coveting which leads to taking by force.[11] Hence, one cannot even have desirous thoughts about one’s neighbor’s wife. Generally Judaism does not penalize people for their thoughts but here an extra fence or precaution is taken to prevent someone from engaging in an inappropriate act.

Why so many differences in the two sets of 10 commandments-especially if the tablets were stored in the Ark which followed the Israelites throughout their journeys? It appears to me that the differences indicate that one should not place too much import on these commandments. It is true that they are the basis for creating a just society, but they are not the be all and end all. This is the reason why the recitation of the 10 commandments was taken out of our daily liturgy, as people were ascribing too much import to these commandments and not all the other aspects of living Judaism. We should learn from this that while we stand for these commandments and relive their majesty each time they are read, we cannot stop there but rather must utilize it as a base point for increasing our observance and turning to all of the mitzvot. As we turn towards the coming year 5777, let us determine how we want to strengthen our Jewish observance in the year ahead. How do we want to make Shabbat, Kashrut, Prayer or Hagim more integral parts of our lives?

[1] Deuteronomy 5:5

[2] Exodus 20:16

[3] Exodus 19:23

[4] Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24a

[5] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 5:2

[6] Exodus 20:1

[7] Deuteronomy 4:45

[8] Mechilta Exodus 20:3

[9] Deuteronomy 5:14-15

[10] Yerushalmi Nedarim 3:2

[11] Torah Temimah on Exodus, Page 265

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s