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The Ten Commandments and Modern Judaism
A Critical Reading By Julian T. Rubin

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  • I read many times about the Ten Commandments in the past and from time to time even read the biblical text itself on different occasions but in a superficial way because of the prevailing idea that everything have been already said over the years and the feeling that nothing new could be found in this simple and crystal clear text.

    So, I have decided that's the time for a critical reading of the Ten Commandments in a complete unbiased mode detached, as much as possible, from any commentary, opinion or scholar work. Only me and the pristine text in front of me and let's see where the ancient biblical text will take us.

    Before I begin it's only fair to state that I am a secular Jew not affiliated with any religious sect inside or outside Judaism.

    I used a Bible written in Hebrew for this investigation since it is more close to the original ancient text but the citations are taken from Kings James Version (KJV) of the Bible because most of the readers are not versed in Hebrew. Hebrew readers have to take in account that there are some differences between the KJV and Hebrew versions of the Bible relating to lexicology and division into verses.

    The Social and Ethic Nature of the Ten Commandments

    The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17 KJV; Deuteronomy 5:4-21 KJV) or the Decalogue are a set of precepts that God inscribed them on two stone tablets, which he gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.

    Following is a short description of the commandments:

    The first three commandments introduce God and his might, forbid idolatry and using his name in a blasphemously way and all this in order to present the divine authority behind the Ten Commandments.

    4. Keep the Sabbath (Saturday) as day of rest

    5. Honor your father and mother

    6. Forbids murder

    7. Forbids adultery

    8. Forbids theft

    9. Forbids perjury

    10. Don't covet your neighbor's wife or house

    It's clear that besides the three introductory commandments the last seven are of a social and ethic nature, placed according to their relative importance, while religious rituals are totally excluded.

    Is it is possible to conclude, from this, that social and ethic norms are more important than religious practices in general?

    In order to answer this question we have to establish the validity of the Ten Commandments relatively to the other teachings of Torah (Mosaic Law) that sometimes state the contrary.

    The Validity of the Ten Commandments

    It is amazing that the Ten Commandments were delivered to the Israelites at Mount Sinai directly by God in his own voice (Exodus 20: 18-22 KJV) and this was the first and last time that God delivered his teachings directly to the People of Israel, whereas God's other laws where delivered by Moses. Moreover, the Ten Commandments were also written on two stone tablets by the finger of God himself (Exodus 31:18 KJV).

    Immediately raises the question: why did God deliver only the laws present in the Ten Commandments in such a special and awesome way?

    Maybe because the Ten Commandments are indeed special and awesome and should be regarded upon as such.

    From this we can conclude, for example, that the high revered festivals, in today Judaism, like Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and Passover (Pesah) that are excluded from the Ten Commandments are less significant and meaningful than the social and ethic commandments that are included. Moreover, the most important holiday is Sabbath because it is the only festival mentioned.

    Monotheism at Stake?

    Now let's go to the first commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." (Exodus 20: 3 KJV). And here I found a big surprise: "other gods" mean that there are other divine options in existence for the Children of Israel to worship besides God; namely the Hebrew Bible recognizes that God is not the only one on the market. In other words: the basic principle of monotheism, by definition, is compromised.

    Instead one would expect that in the first commandment God will declare categorically that only one God exists and it is him (like the prophet Zechariah said: " that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one." Zechariah 14:9 KJV) and rule out immediately other options by referring to them as deities or idols and not as Elohim (God in Hebrew) a name reserved only for the God of the Israelites.

    This impression gets support from: "Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods?" (Exodus 15: 11 KJV). Here again "among the gods" hints to some kind of a pantheon whereas "Who is like unto thee" refers to God's supremacy but not to exclusivity.

    "…and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment…" (Exodus 12: 12 KJV). Here is a recognition of the powers of other gods, in this case the gods of Egypt that Elohim is waging war against them. Should they have been totally powerless Elohim should not have any need to execute judgment against them. And the same idea again – the God of the Israelite is more powerful than the gods of Egypt but he is not alone in the divine world.

    When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh in order to free the Israelites from slavery Aaron's rod swallowed up the rods (serpents) of the magicians of Egypt (Exodus 7: 8-12 KJV). The Egyptian magicians and wise men posses some unnatural forces but they are overcome by Elohim's emissaries. The same theme repeats itself again.

    To sum up: the monotheism presented in the Ten Commandments is not fully fledged but rather represents some kind of a primitive infant monotheism.

    Sabbath (Saturday) as Day of Rest

    Today orthodox Jews, according to Halacha (the collective body of religious laws for Jews) besides refraining from work on Saturdays, refrain also from recreation activities like driving, watching TV, reading magazines, using telephones or surfing the web for pleasure, etc. - a day filled with stifling restrictions.

    But are those restrictions mentioned or hinted at in the Sabbath 4th commandment implicitly or explicitly? The "rest" here applies equally to masters, slaves, children and animals alike and it is clear that far-fetched restrictions do not make any sense here. "… in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. …" (Deuteronomy 5: 14 KJV).

    Moreover, the analogy drawn here between slaves and masters ("thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou") implies that since it is not logic to impose needles restrictions on slaves on their only rest day, the same applies to their masters.

    It seems that the limits on Sabbath recreation activities practiced today by orthodox Jews are taken out of context (from the Ten Commandments point of view) and this commandment means more likely that Saturdays should be a real rest day from everyday activities like making a living, cooking, cleaning and other home maintenance chores and should be dedicated to rest, recreation, spiritual and religious activities, etc. subject to individual preference.

    But maybe "holy" in "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." (Exodus 20: 8 KJV) implies to something more than a simplistic rest day of leisure and recreation at will.

    The 4th commandment, about Sabbath, has an introduction stating the holiness of the day (Exodus 20: 8 KJV) then immediately comes the body of the commandment (Exodus 20: 9-10 KJV) and it's clear that its role is to elaborate further what "holy" is about and not to hint to something else; the commandment ends with theological reasoning for keeping Sabbath (Exodus 20: 11 KJV).

    But why is the Sabbath holy?

    One should remember that at ancient times (2nd thousand BCE) slaves, animals and children did not have any rights whatsoever - slaves (here manservants and maidservants), animals and even children were labored till exhaustion many hours a day. And categorically the 4th commandment recognizes, maybe for the first time in history, those rights. In other words, a fundamental social and human unprecedented revolution was invoked here.

    The 4th commandment is the only one defined as holy and it is no mere coincidence that it is placed right after the three first commandments concerning God, and thus is clear that it is the most important social and religious law besides God himself. The importance of Sabbath is also demonstrated by this that the commandment is the longest (four verses) and besides defined as holy also theological reasoning is provided at the end.

    To our question: "holy" could be interpreted as the most important according to ancient time practices.

    The Perfect Codex of Law

    Many times I asked myself in the past: how should a perfect divine codex of law look like?

    It is safe to assume that a perfect divine codex of laws delivered by God should be short, crystal clear and true for everyone, every time, any situation and any place without any need of further alterations, modifications, adaptations and additions. In short, God's laws should be eternal since God is perfect.

    The Jewish body of Halacha, for example, underwent constant change by sages over the years, in order to adopt it to different situations and needs, according to some divine rules according to tradition. But could any activity done by man be regarded as perfect? Of course not. Today the Jewish Halacha comprises hundreds of rulings, many of them large, awkward, complicated for practice and understanding like kashrut (the set of Jewish dietary laws) or how to observe Sabbath. According to this we can ask: is the Jewish Halcha as a whole perfect? It seems that is not.

    But surprisingly one small portion of Torah meets the demands for a perfect Codex of Law - the Ten Commandments because they are short, clear and do not need any further adaptation, and it seems that their significance is eternal for everyone, anytime and everywhere.

    The Sabbath as a rest day, "Thou shalt not kill" or 'Thou shalt not steal" look like some perfect clear divine laws because they are and will be always relevant for everybody and everywhere and do not need any kind of further explanation or adaptation by man. And indeed the Ten Commandment laws are observed in different ways by cultures outside the Abrahamic religions like Hinduism and more. It seems that we have here a set of universal natural laws that everybody understands their importance intuitively without any need of further education, indoctrination or intimidation.

    If there is in existence a divine law at all, then this is!


    1. The Ten Commandments have mainly a social and ethic nature.

    2. The Ten Commandments were delivered by God himself in his own voice and written by his own finger whereas God's other laws where delivered by Moses.

    3. The monotheism of the Ten Commandments represents a primitive kind of monotheism.

    4. The rest on Sabbath does not necessarily mean strict prohibition on certain recreation activities.

    5. The Ten Commandments simplicity and eternal relevance looks more like a divine perfect codex of law than any other Jewish religious teachings.


    One may wonder why this wide discrepancy between the ancient Ten Commandments and modern Judaism.

    One issue mentioned is the limited monotheism presented in the Ten Commandments in comparison with the more developed form in modern Judaism. Maybe the monotheism presented in the Ten Commandments represents a transitional phase from paganism to full monotheism. In any case, one can say that this is a kind of a cherished development in the perception of God by man – some kind of a theological unified theory.

    But on the other hand the social and ethical nature of the Ten Commandments has been tarnished and religious rituals have prevailed over the years in Judaism.

    And the question still remains: why this has happened?

    The books of Exodus and Deuteronomy in which the Ten Commandments were mentioned were written in the 6th century BC or even before but the Ten Commandments themselves probably were written a few hundreds of years earlier. But on the other hand the process of the canonization of the Hebrew Bible (by the Great Assembly according to Jewish tradition) occurred between 200 BC and 200 AD. So there could be a gap around 1000 years from the time the Ten Commandments were written and the time they were canonized.

    Is clear that Judaism as an authoritative doctrine does not begin with the Ten Commandments but with the Hebrew Bible that was canonized many years after. And in this gap of time different religious traditions leaked and crept into the emergent Judaism including from paganism - like offerings and sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem and circumcision - that consolidated.

    The Ten Commandments were regarded upon as holy only in retrospect when those early ritual biased traditions had been already well established and prevailed.


    1. It is important to note that the criticism in this article relates to the ritual aspects of Judaism only. It is clear that is almost impossible to base a civil legal system of a modern society on a very simplistic ancient set of laws alone. In this respect, Judaism offers a large body of civil law for everyday life incorporated into Halakha together with many other religious traditions and laws.

    2. Before I began this article I hadn't any idea where it will take me and the title was set after I finished it.

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    Last updated: June 2013
    Copyright © 2003-2013 Julian Rubin