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The Ten Commandments

The Torah reading of Va’et’khanan continues the retrospective view of the 40 years in the desert, given by Moses and ending in a list of “commandments, statutes and ordinances.” This is rich material—not only the ten commandments, but also the Shema, the credo statement of Judaism; we even find the passage for “the wise son” in the Haggadah.

Let us focus on the ten commandments, quite enough to fill today’s ticket.

If you compare this version (Deuteronomy 5: 6) to the one in the book of Exodus (Exodus 20:2) you immediately notice the differences. As the old saying goes: If you have a watch, you know what the time is; if you have two watches, you no longer do. Because, if the watches disagree (quite likely!), which of them do you trust?

The differences between the two versions are small—but God’s words, like the time of the day, are supposed to be perfect. So we may well wonder, what did God say—“remember” the day of Sabbath, or “keep” the day of Sabbath? The first is in Exodus, the second in this portion of Devarim.

Thou shalt not be a “lying witness” against your fellow-man, or, a “false witness”? Thou shalt not “covet” your neighbor’s house, or not “desire” your neighbor’s house? And while both versions command “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” — was she mentioned after your neighbor’s house or before it?

No one knows the answer, and maybe these are some of the things that will be cleared up by the prophet Elijah before the final day of judgment. One tradition concerning the day of Sabbath was that God uttered a single word, which meant both “keep” (shamor) and “remember” (zakhor), which is why on Friday night we sing in Lecha Dodi: “Keep and remember in one divine word.”

There is one major difference between the versions, and it also concerns the day of Sabbath. In Exodus 20:11 the fourth commandment is explained in these words:

“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 and sanctified it.”

Very clear and explicit, but also quite different from what modern geology might tell. If it weren’t for the words from Mount Sinai—if the story of creation were only found at the beginning of the book of Genesis—one might argue that this was just a symbolic story, not to be taken literally. If however these are the very words of God, what is one to make of them?

But wait! None of this appears in the second version! In Devarim 5:14, quite a different reason is given. Starting at the end of verse 14, it says:

“… in order that thy man-slave and woman-slave may rest as well as thou. And thou shalt remember, that thou wast a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God brought thee out of there, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day. “

Quite a different reason: you were a slave in the land of Egypt, where slaves never got a day of rest. Now that you are free, you shall not do likewise, but shall keep the day of Sabbath, so that your slaves and animals can rest as well.

I won’t even try to reason out the difference. Let me just say, if you ever wondered why the Sabbath kiddush says (among other things) that we celebrate the day of rest “in memory of the exodus from Egypt,” now you know; it came from these lines of the Torah.

Now about the number of the commandments. We refer to them, of course, as the ten commandments, but no one is sure about how exactly they should divided up. Traditionally, they go:

1. I am the Lord; thou shalt not have any other Gods
2. Thou shalt not make any image of me, bow to it or worship it
3. Thou shalt not take thy Lord’s name in vain.
4. Keep (and remember!) the day of Sabbath
5. Honor thy father and mother
6. Thou shalt not murder
(“Thou shalt not kill” is an inaccurate translation)
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery
8. Thou shalt not steal
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness
10. Thou shalt not covet thy fellow-man’s wife, house, or anything that is his.

However, some people have divided the first and last in different ways. Notice also that after the first two commandments a subtle change occurs: in the first two God speaks in the first person, “I am the Lord thy God,” while after that He is only referred to in the third person.

In any case, in the Torah the number ten is only mentioned as the number of the words inscribed by God Himself on the tablets. For instance, in Devarim, 10:4 we read “The ten words which the Lord spoke unto you at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire.” This is why the scholarly term for the commandments is “Decalogue”, meaning (in Greek) ten words.

But why ten words, when the commandments contain many more? The same number of words, by the way, is also mentioned in Exodus 17:28. Of course, one can argue that nowhere does it say that God spoke only those ten words. So perhaps the tablets carried one word per commandment — just a reminder of the full text, you might say. That, at least, is the way the tablets are usually drawn in synagogue art. These days, that too is abbreviated to the ten first letters aleph through yod, which in ancient Hebrew doubled as the numbers one to ten.

In the 20th century, archeology has provided a number of other sources, from the “Nash papyrus” unearthed in Egypt, published in 1903, to the Dead Sea Scrolls. In some the Decalogue seems related to the Greek translation of the Septuagint, perhaps even retranslated to Hebrew.

Then, of course, there is the Samaritan version, which counts the commandments differently, making place for a new tenth commandment, sanctifying Mount Gerizim, the holy mountain of Samaritans. There even exists an inscription of the ten commandments found in Los Lunas, New Mexico, written in ancient Hebrew, the angular letters used before the Babylonian exile. How it got there, whether it is a Jewish or Samaritan version (no Mount Gerizim is mentioned), and above all, how old it is — maybe Elijah will tell.

Until then, we can only look at our two clocks and wonder what the time really is.

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