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Aseret HaDibrot: Mankind’s Most Important List

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, contains the section of the Bible, known to the world as the “Decalogue,” or the “10 Commandments.” While it is fair to say that this portion of the Torah is widely referred to in all parts of the civilized world, its true content and structure are not well known. For example, when we think of the very physical form of the stone tablets on which the Decalogue was first written, we picture chiseled stone that was rounded on top. This image came from the artist Michael Angelo. In fact the Talmud says the stone tablets were square.

Another misnomer about the Decalogue is that it contains 10 commandments or mitzvoth. This fact is also incorrect. The expression “Ten Commandments“ is a Christian term. In Judaism, this section of the Torah is known as the “עשרת הדברות , Aseret HaDibrot or 10 Statements.” These 10 statements actually contain numerous mitzvot. For example, the phrase “don’t bow down to any idol,” is counted in our system of 613 commandments as a separate command from “don’t worship idols,” although they are both written in the same Statement. “Don’t make any graven images,” also mentioned in the second of the 10 Statements, is counted as yet another separate mitzvah. Clearly then, the common conception of the 10 Commandments is false and misleading.

Another false idea that permeates the common understanding is that these 10 Statements are the most important in all the Torah. Originally, reciting the Aseret HaDibrot was included in the daily morning tefilah. They were read together with the Shema. At a certain period of time in our history, many Jews mistakenly attributed special significance and importance to this section of the Torah over every other portion. To dissuade us of this false notion, our great sages removed their recitation from our tefilah service.

There remains a dispute to this day among our Torah scholars whether or not one should stand during the public reading of the Aseret HaDibrot that takes place this week, on Shavuot, and again late in the summer when we read them in the Devorim, parshat Va’etchanan. If they are chanted with “tam elyion,” the upper cantillation notes for chanting Torah, then we stand for the reading of the Aseret HaDibrot.  If however, they are read with the regular “tam tachtone,” the lower cantillation notes, then we should sit for the reading.

What is the difference between these two ways of reading the Aseret Hadibrot? The upper cantillation groups the Aseret Hadibrot into 10 broad statements as originally said by God on Mt. Sinai. On the other hand the lower cantillation breaks the verses into individual sentences, the way Moshe wrote them in the Torah. Most authorities agree that on Shavuot we stand and use the upper cantillation.  These two requirements go together. It makes sense on Shavuot to read the Aseret HaDibrot in this manner. On Shavuot we are recreating the event of the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. All of Israel stood when they were spoken by God.

There is however a unique quality to these 10 Statements. The verse just prior to the listing of the Aseret HaDibrot says, “And God spoke all the following words…” The word “all” in this verse does not mean “all” as a quantitative sum of individual commands that happen to total 10. “All” in this verse has the sense of intrinsic unity and oneness in totality as we say in the Aleinu prayer, “All mankind should call upon Your name.” Hence we have the Midrash that God spoke all 10 Dibrot simultaneously, something no human can do.

Rav Soloveitchik explained the above Midrash in the following way. One must accept the Aseret HaDibrot in their entirety. To accept some precepts while ignoring other is absurd. All 10 were promulgated and pronounced in one indivisible utterance. What is the implication of this idea? We, as Jews, the God given inheritors of the Torah, reject the notion of a secular social morality. One cannot divide the Aseret HaDibrot into separate social norms and theological norms. There is no difference between “Thou shall not take My name in vain,” and “Thou shall not steal.” Man must accept the Almighty as the legislator of all moral norms as well as the authority for his religious practices. Otherwise we are left with the molding of our moral conscience to man-made relativistic norms. Such man-made systems, no matter how noble the initial intention in their creation was, have all lead to the cruel and abusive treatment of fellow human beings.

Marxism, for example, is fundamentally a system of ethics. Justice underlies its code. Yet this ethical doctrine turned into one of the harshest and brutal systems ever imposed on mankind. Why? Its social system is man-made divorcing morality from God.  What is considered an act of stealing or what constitutes premeditated murder are not issues that turn on the whim of any individual or group. They must be defined as precisely as the question of what constitutes “chametz” or what satisfies the requirements for a kosher Sukkah.

When we hear the Aseret HaDibrot this week at our synagogues, let us renew our commitment to embracing the entire Torah in the same way. It is all “dvar Hashem,” “the word of the living God of the universe.” In this merit may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews, and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan