By Rabbi dr. Tzvi Marx… In his very last speech to his people Moses enjoins them: “set your heart to all the words (ha’devarim) wherefore I testify against you this day… to observe to do all the words of this Torah” (Deut. 32:46). In this same way as he began, he concludes his long discourses that constitute the book Deuteronomy, which in Hebrew is therefore called Devarim, or “words” (Deut. 1:1).
Interestingly, the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments, or better: Ten Words) which constitutes the text of the Sinai Covenant (Ex. 20:1 ff) also begins with that very term “words”: “And God spoke all these words…” What then is the relationship between the Words at Sinai, the Decalogue, and “all the words of the Torah” that Moses referred to?
The essence of the Torah?
At first glance, it is natural to consider the Decalogue as embodying the essence of the Torah. Its importance in this sense can be seen in the comparison with another important biblical text, Leviticus 19, which is referred to as the Holiness Code because it begins with the words, “You shall be holy…” Like the Decalogue, this Holiness Code was also “spoken in the presence of a gathering of the whole assembly” (Lev. 19:1) either because most of the essential principles of the Torah attached to it or because the Decalogue are included therein.
The Decalogue not more important
Nevertheless and despite its dramatic import as the focus of the Covenant at Sinai, the Jewish tradition stressed that the Decalogue was not more important than the rest of the Torah. That is why the Talmudic sages made it a point not to stand for the reading of the Decalogue in the synagogue even during the festival of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), that commemorates the Revelation at Sinai. This festival is referred to in Jewish tradition as the “Season of the Giving of the Torah” and not “the giving of the Decalogue.” In ancient times, the Decalogue was recited daily in the liturgy. This practice was annulled so as not to give credence to those who declared that only the Decalogue is Divine. Keep in mind that it is the Jewish practice to read the entire Torah, the Pentateuch, in the synagogue during the course of the year. Thus, the Decalogue (when it appears in Ex. 20 and Deut. 5) is routinely read as part of this reading cycle. Maimonides, the great rabbi of 12th C. Spain, forbade standing for this reading and was critical of those who ascribed special significance to the Decalogue by standing.
613, and not merely 10, Commandments (Mitzvot)
According to the Jewish tradition, there are not ten commandments, as they are popularly called, but six hundred and thirteen, referred to in abbreviation as Taryag. The primary source for this comes from a Talmudic text:
“Rabbi Simlai said: Six hundred and thirteen precepts (Heb. taryag mitzvot, mitzvah, singular) were communicated to Moses. Three hundred and sixty five negative precepts (prohibitions) correspond to the number of the solar days of the year, and two hundred and forty eight positive precepts (commandments) correspond [in a general sense] to the limbs and joints of a person’s body.”
Commenting on this, Rabbi Hamnuna finds a hint for this number in a Biblical text: Moses commanded us Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob (Deut 33:4). Torah is in numerical letter-value [gematria] equal to six hundred and eleven. In this understanding Moses mediated those 611 mitzvot for the Israelites. He heard them from God and transmitted them to the Israelites. However, the first two declarations of the Decalogue ‘I am the Lord your God’ and ‘Thou shall have no other gods before Me’ were heard directly from the Almighty, thus making a total of six hundred and thirteen.
Classifying the specific mitzvot
Identifying exactly which statements in the Pentateuch formally constitute the specific mitzvot was not easy, since there are literally thousands of legal prescriptions (thou shalts and thou shalt nots) in the text. This difficulty inspired many books by great scholars over the ages. The most famous is Maimonides’ Book of the Mitzvot. There was even one such effort in the Netherlands in 1745: Torat Kattan, written by Rabbi Gedalia of Amsterdam. And it is not only the number of mitzvoth (precepts), but even the minutest details that were ordained on Mount Sinai, say the Talmudic sages. The relationship between Decalogue and Pentateuch is that of the general rule to the detail. The Pentateuch is but the amplification of the Decalogue and embraces the entire legal system of the Torah.
The ten Words imply all mitzvot
While in the Middle Ages this manner of treatment became fairly general, the earliest attempt to classify and group the mitzvot under the general headings of the Decalogue is by Philo. Grouping the laws of the Torah under the generalized headings of the Decalogue is seen as an integral aspect of the traditional view of Torah as a whole. What God expressed must be all embracing, perfect and complete and should be intelligible without addition.
So we even have a view that within the first two statements of the Decalogue, alone, which were spoken directly to the Israelites at Sinai, the complete range of the 613 mitzvot were implied. If this is so, what then was Moses’ role? Through the agency of Moses, God showed them how to understand and apply His Word. He “showed him in advance all the subtle details of the Biblical Law and its scribal interpretation” we are told, by classic rabbinic sages. These Words embody all the sacred texts of the “Written” Torah (the holy Scriptures) and the teachings of the “Oral” Torah ( Mishna, Tosephta, Aggada), indeed “all that a conscientious student may develop in the future”. One writer imaginatively proposes that it is in the spaces between the separate declarations (of the Decalogue) where all the precepts of the Torah in all their particulars were enclosed.
The king’s scroll
As a result of grouping the 613 Mitzvot under the Decalogue, the words Torah, Taryag (613) and the two Tablets of Stone came to be regarded as synonymous. “Taryag becomes inseparable from the Decalogue,” explains one modern author. In this way, a problem is cleverly solved regarding the Torah scroll which the king is obligated to have with him at all times (Deut. 17: 19). How could he continually drag around a heavy Torah scroll? The French scholars of the 12th C. (the Baalei Hatosafot) explained: There was written on the king’s scroll only the Decalogue. But since from the first words of the Decalogue, “I am,” to the last words, “thy neighbour,” there are 613 letters, which represent the 613 Mitzvot, it is called a Torah scroll.
The equation of 613 (Mitzvot) with the Decalogue gave rise to a form of literature called Azharoth. These are a form of Piyyut (hymn, poetry) which takes each declaration of the Decalogue to refer to a group of mitzvot, or each letter of the Decalogue to represent a particular mitzvah and lists the mitzvot accordingly. Curiously the gematria (numerical value) of the term Azharoth is 613 making it poetically appropriate to use this word for this particular kind of religious hymn.
Rav Saadiah Gaon of the 10th C. composed not one but two Azharoth. His view is that the Law engraved upon the stone tablets was in reality only the 613 in the form of an Azharah. He classified all the 613 mitzvot within the framework of the Decalogue and grouped them under the ten headings of the Decalogue. For instance, he sets all the marital laws under the prohibition of adultery in the Decalogue.
Therefore on Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) the Decalogue was amplified in many synagogues by reading the Azharoth that followed the reading of the Decalogue in the Torah. In this way the custom of standing for the Decalogue no longer posed a threat to belief, since this protocol was directed to all the mitzvot and thus the custom to stand could be reintroduced.
What, then, is so special of the Decalogue?
If the Decalogue was of no higher status or of more religious import than the rest of the Torah and the mitzvot, the question remains: what was so special about these Ten Declarations, this Decalogue? Why were these particularly engraved upon the Tablets as a symbol of Covenant? It seems to me that the answer to this question lies in the urgency of that moment at Sinai. Seven weeks after liberation from slavery, this newly formed people was to constitute a polity, a community that could break with the habits of slavery and dependency. What basic guidelines were needed to begin this liberation process in their hearts and minds?
As it is popularly observed: you can take the people Israel out of Egypt, but can you take Egypt out of the people Israel? That was the difficult task faced by Moses. When we read through the Pentateuch, we see that it was in fact not possible to truly liberate from slavery those who had spent too much of their lives adapting themselves to the habits of slavery. Eventually the generation of the physical liberation (those over twenty at the exodus) had to die to make way for a new generation born into freedom.
A code of liberation from slavery
What is it that a slave needs to hear to begin a rehabilitation process? The very first step is to de-legitimate slavery itself. The great Nachmanides, Rabbi Nachman ben Moses of 12th C. Spain, stresses the injustice of slavery on the basis of the Decalogue. The opening statement, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt “ implies “if I the Lord freed you from slavery, you have no right to enslave others.” Rabbi Hayyim ben Moses Attar, born in Morocco in 1696 and author of the biblical commentary Ohr haChayim, comments that one who permits himself to be sold into slavery is an individual who always had a “slave mentality.” It is not coincidental that the first legislation, following the epiphany at Sinai, has as its subject the laws governing slavery. (Ex. 21:1-11). The mere setting of a term to the period of slavery, six years, is already a measure of relief, in comparison to the life sentence of bondage under Pharoah.
The slavish mentality overcome
A slave has no sense of self. He is property to a master. Slavery can be addictive. Note how it may happen that when a slave reaches the time of liberation he may nevertheless feel: “I love my master…I will not go out free” (Ex. 21:4). The proclamation, “I am the Lord your God…” and “You shall have no other gods (masters) before me” speak directly to the slavish mentality that must be overcome. The sages explain that when Moses has to defend his right to deliver the Decalogue from its heavenly abode in the possession of the angels to the earthly Israelites, he argues: “What is written therein? `I am the Lord…who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ Did you, the angels, go down to Egypt; were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why then should the Torah be yours?”
A declaration of independence
Every one of the ten declarations in the Decalogue similarly speak to this condition of slavery. Commitment in language, not to take God’s name in vain, is a luxury that a slave cannot be responsible for. He must be restored to his right and responsibility to commitment and integrity in communication. A slave has no control over his time and is more or less a machine. Giving him the right to cease working, the Shabbat speaks to this need and this right. A human being is not only a producer, a cog in the wheel of an economy. He is also a being with spiritual needs. “Not by bread alone does a human live…” (Deut. 8:3).
Recreating family life (honor your father and mother), morality, decency, respect for another’s property and relationship. All these are the basic needs of liberation. Hence, the Decalogue is a declaration of independence for a people that for hundreds of years has been conditioned to be serfs under a tyrant, Pharaoh, who was in his culture an absolute power, a veritable god with a whimsical control over life and death over each of his subjects and slaves. It proclaimed in a most dramatic setting, geared to inspire the liberated slaves, the urgent needs of the hour that would bring them out of the internal degradation that had been their lot.
It is this which sets the Decalogue apart. Curiously, though the sages, like the illustrious Pharisaic sage, the 2nd C. Rabbi Akiba, had stated that loving one’s neighbor as oneself, was in a nutshell the essence of the Torah, yet this teaching is not explicitly expressed in the Decalogue. Again, though there are also many dietary laws among the 613 mitzvot, not a single one is expressed in the Decalogue either. Nor is the “teaching of Torah,” which in rabbinic parlance is the weightiest of all the mitzvot and the equal of them all, as we are taught in a rabbinic text that is recited in the daily liturgy. How is one to explain it? It seems to me that the situation at that momentous occasion was of emergency proportions and of immediate urgency. This took priority over all other considerations: the rehabilitation of a weak, demoralized group of survivors. Like the survivors of the Auschwitz, Dachau and Sobibor they needed emergency therapy that spoke to their immediate reality, the recent liberation from slavery. Consistent with this, God introduced Himself in the Decalogue as “the Lord who took you out of Egypt, from out of the house of bondage” and not, what in cosmic terms should be even more impressive, “the Lord who created heaven and earth.”
In the larger picture of the biblical agenda for shaping the people Israel into an inspiring society (a light onto the nations), the mitzvot as a complex spiritual fitness program cannot be reduced to ten or any other number. Life is too complicated, people too varied, social and political realities to diverse. The six hundred and thirteen mitzvot can with imagination, as we have seen, be fitted into a framework of the Decalogue, but only if we remember that this is a teaching device only. In the earlier expressed view of Rabbi Simlai that six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were transmitted at Sinai a further discussion follows in the Talmud. The view is there expressed that when David, the sweet singer of Israel, came, he reduced these to eleven. The eleven that are identified are taken from the proof text of Psalms 15. The psalmist asks: who is worthy to come into Your presence? His answer is- a person with eleven virtues: uprightness, righteousness, truthfulness, doesn’t slander, nor do evil, is not critical, who despises the wicked, who honors the moral person, is honest, doesn’t lend money at interest, nor accepts a bribe.
If the Decalogue were the absolute essence of the Torah, why was not it, rather than Psalm 15, invoked as the compact essence of the Torah? In that text there is an even further reduction to six, three, two and one fundamental virtues. Interestingly, the one, to which all the six hundred and thirteen are reduced in this discourse, is that “the righteous shall live by his faith!” (Habakkuk 2:4). What we see in that rabbinic discussion is the view that depending on the situation and need, the mitzvot can, for the purpose of instruction, be distilled to certain points of emphasis, which means that they cannot absolutely be reduced at all. It is this entire complex network of demands and expectations that constitute the calling of God upon the Jewish people as a model for what is morally, ethically and spiritual possible for the human being. The menu of this call is very broad. The number 613 serves such a purpose. It is irreducible because as a prime number it cannot be divided by any number except itself and one.
613 spiritual possibilities
The Pharisaic sage, Rabbi Chanaya, the son of Akashya (2nd C.) explained that “The Holy One, blessed be He, was pleased to make Israel worthy; therefore, He gave them a copious Torah and many commandments.” Maimonides in his commentary on this says that we were given so many mitzvot so as to have the opportunity to become really excellent in, at least one, perhaps the one that expresses, for each one of us, his unique individuality. The Decalogue of Ten was only the first introduction to this vast array, six hundred and thirteen, of spiritual possibilities.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Marx is author of Disability in Jewish Law (Routledge, 2002) and publicist on Judaism in Holland since 1996 where he edits Tenachon, a quarterly magazine on Jewish themes and is on the advisory board of Berkeley California Judaica magazine, Tikkun. He teaches in various colleges, institutes and study groups in Holland and participates in interreligious activities internationally. Ordained at Yeshiva University, he received his PhD at the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht, was formerly Educational Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute (Jerusalem) and director of the Folkertsma Stichting voor Talmudica (Hilversum, Netherlands).