The Structure of the Ten Utterances

  • Rav Michael Hattin



Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi


The Structure of the Ten Utterances

By Rav Michael Hattin





As Bnei Yisrael journey through the wilderness and come to Rephidim, the marauding tribe of Amalek suddenly attacks them.  The weak and weary, who straggle along at the rear of the camp, are their target of choice.  Quickly, Moshe commands Yehoshua to muster a fighting force to repel the assailants, and as the battle rages, Moshe ascends a hill and raises his arms in a gesture of victory.  The Amalekites are routed, and Moshe erects a commemorative altar to God.  The section concludes with a Divine oath that the war against Amalek will continue until the end of days, at which time the aggressor will be vanquished and God will prevail.


So concluded last week's Parasha, thus providing a fitting if unsettling introduction to the Revelation at Sinai of which our Parasha speaks. 


"In the third month after the Exodus, on this very day, the people came to the wilderness of Sinai.  They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, and there encamped opposite the mountain.  Moshe ascended to the Lord, and God addressed him from the mountain saying: 'thus shall you say to the House of Yaakov and speak to the children of Israel: 'You saw what I did to Egypt, how I bore you on the wings of eagles to bring you to Me.  And now, if you carefully hearken to My voice and observe My covenant, then you shall be My special treasure among the nations, for all of the earth is Mine.  You shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'  These are the things that you shall speak to Bnei Yisrael.'" (Shemot 19:1-6)


It will be noticed that the location of Rephidim, the site of the battle against Amalek, is the reference point here employed by the text to describe the beginning of the journey towards Sinai.  In other words, these two events, the war of Amalek and the Sinaitic Revelation, are antithetical episodes that are mutually exclusive.  A world bereft of God's word, His absolute moral standards and His attendant expectations hurtles along a dangerous trajectory that must end in brutality and bloodshed.  Where there is no obligation to God's law, the cruel rule of nature, the calculated survival of the 'fittest,' prevails.


The Ten Commandments vs. the Ten Utterances


This week we shall investigate the core of this Sinaitic Revelation, the so-called 'Ten Commandments,' which form the foundation of every functioning moral system.  We shall discover that the Torah is very deliberate in its choice of laws to include among these ten, and orders them consciously according to a structural model that is in itself significant.  The reader is encouraged to read through the ten principles now, in order to follow the discussion more easily. 


It is important to point out that, contrary to popular misconception, the Torah never refers to these ten things as the 'The Ten Commandments,' which would have been 'Aseret Ha-Mitzvot.' Invariably, they are called the 'Words or 'Utterances' (Devarim 5:19; 9:10), or the 'Ten Words or Utterances' (Devarim 10:4). The term 'Aseret HaDiBRot' (or Aseret HaDeVaRim), frequently translated as the 'Ten Commandments,' is therefore a usage that has absolutely no basis in the Torah or in the later traditional literature.  This is because that while bearing in mind the fundamental importance of these ten things, we must remain cognizant that they are but the foundation of a much larger edifice.  To mistakenly refer to them as the 'Ten Commandments' is to imply that only these ten things are ultimately important, while the rest of the Torah's legislation can be dismissed as non-binding or irrelevant. In an earlier discussion (See Parashat Bemidbar, 2000 for the full treatment of the issue), we developed the thesis that the root DBR actually means 'to lead' or 'to guide,' and it is this root that forms the basis of the word 'DeVaRim' or 'DiBRot.'  We might therefore be more accurate grammatically as well as thematically by translating this important term as 'the Ten Guiding Principles.'  This rendition, while stressing the centrality of the ten things, would nevertheless make it clear that they are but the fundamental framework of a grander system that seeks to address and to elevate every aspect of our lives.


The Structural Basis – Two Sets of Five


Perusing the ten items, a number of general features can be easily confirmed.  First of all, the ten items seem to conveniently break down into two parallel groups of five.  Thus, in Parashat Ki Tisa, we read of Moshe's descent from Mount Sinai in possession of "the two tablets of the Testimony…tablets written on both sides…with God's script" (Shemot 32:15-16).  It is reasonable to assume that if there are ten items written on two tablets, that each tablet contains five of the things. 


Interestingly enough, such a straightforward assumption is bolstered by the fact that the first five items address primarily our relationship with God, while the final five speak of our obligations towards other people.  Thus, we are to acknowledge God (1), not serve other gods (2), nor take God's name in vain (3), as well as to observe God's Sabbaths (4).  These clearly all fall within the realm of connection to God.


On the other hand, we are enjoined not to kill (6), not to commit adultery (7), not to steal (8), not to bear false witness (9), and not to covet our neighbor's spouse or property (10).  Without exception, these five address interpersonal relationships and have little direct bearing on our relationship with God.


The fifth commandment, to honor one's father and one's mother, is the natural connection between the two groups.  Clearly, our first and most formative relationship is with our parents, and is therefore given special attention here.  At the same time, our treatment of our parents also impinges upon our relationship with God, for as the Ramban (13th century, Spain) indicates:


"The Torah begins the list of our interpersonal obligations with a commandment concerning our parents, for a parent with respect to a child is similar to a creator who participates in the creative process.  God is, so to speak, our first parent, and our human genitor is our last parent…and therefore we are obliged to show honor and reverence to our father and mother" (commentary to Shemot 20:11). 


In other words, our approach towards our parents is to be directly modeled after our deference to the Deity, for in both cases we acknowledge the source of the most precious bequest of all, the gift of life that they bestow.


Bein Adam LaMakom vs. Bein Adam Le-Chaveiro


The intrinsic bifurcation of the two sets of responsibilities, known in Hebrew tradition as 'Bein Adam LaMakom' – between a person and God, and 'Bein Adam Le-Chaveiro' – between a person and his fellow, is further reinforced by the fact that each of the first five utterances mentions God's name explicitly.  Thus, we have: 'I am God…' (1), '…for I God your Lord am a zealous God…' (2), 'Do not take God's name…'(3), 'The seventh day shall be a Sabbath unto God your Lord…'(4), '…in order that your days might be lengthened upon the land that God your Lord gives you' (5).  The last five commandments, in contrast, make no mention of God's name, for they deal exclusively with how we must address other people.


Remarkably, these last five are all negative commandments, which is to say that they enjoin us to desist from improper deeds rather than asking us to proactively take initiative to practice good ones.  Thus, they are characterized by the negation 'Thou shall not,' and stand in contrast to three of the first five, which stress active involvement in forging our relationship with the Creator.  "I am God,' 'Remember the Sabbath Day,' and 'Honor your father and mother' (and by extension, Me) are positive commandments that invite us to act, rather than demand of us to cease.  The implication of this simple fact is quite profound.  It implies that what is needed in order to fashion a moral society in which people can live together and be at peace is first and foremost a commitment not to harm others, neither with respect to their life, their trust, their property, nor their loved ones.  As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) insightfully points out: "The last five things make no mention of Divine punishment for non-compliance nor of reward for their realization, for these last five are for the direct benefit of human society.  Their fulfillment is their own reward" (commentary to Shemot 20:12-13), for in their absence discord and anarchy prevail, and human life and limb lose their transcendent value.


God as the Basis of the Moral Law


We must qualify the above analysis by pointing out that the Torah never explicitly sets a demarcation between the first and last five utterances.  They might be inscribed upon two different tablets, but those same tablets are always taken to be a complete and inseparable set.  This is indicative of a profound idea that the Torah regards everywhere as axiomatic.  Although we would like to believe that it is possible to found a moral and just society even in the absence of a relationship to the Divine, even without the need to acknowledge obligation towards a Higher Authority, the Torah indicates that it is impossible.  A moral atheist may indeed exist as an expression of a non-binding personal choice, but a society predicated upon exclusively human laws involving a concomitant rejection of God as the Source of Moral Absolutes, cannot survive for long as an exemplar of righteousness and truth.  If man is the source of moral law, then by definition that moral law must be relative, conditioned by the exigencies of time and place, and always subject to review and frequently to rewriting. 


Again we turn to the Ramban (13th century, Spain) who quotes from the Midrash:


"The matter may be compared to a king who entered a province and was welcomed by the people, who expressed a willingness to accept his laws.  The king, however, demurred, saying: 'If you will first accept my authority, then I will give you my laws.  For if you are not willing to embrace my supremacy, then how will you fulfill my laws?'  Similarly, God first stated to the people of Israel: 'I am God your Lord…you shall have no other gods before Me…' and then the rest.  In other words, only after you have acknowledged that I am the God who took you out of the land of Egypt, can you sincerely accept My other laws as binding' (commentary to Shemot 20:2-3).  Or, to adopt the startling formulation of the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain): "The first of these utterances declared by God includes all of the commandments that apply to the heart (belief and trust), to speech, and to action, for one who does not acknowledge God in his heart is not BOUND BY ANY COMMANDMENT" (commentary to 20:2).


Two Parallel Sets of Descending Order


Finally, we note another structural feature that is used to order these ten things.  Within both sets of five, the most critical items are introduced first, followed in descending order by those that are less so.  As Ibn Ezra comments concerning the first five:


"The acknowledgement of God implied by 'I am the Lord' is the basis of all else, namely that a person must recognize His authority and the Exodus that He wrought.  The second utterance that prohibits idolatry follows, for it is possible for a person to believe in God while mistakenly acknowledging the existence of other deities.  The third utterance prohibits the taking of God's name in vain, and implies a lack of respect towards God that is however less serious than the infraction of idolatry…the fourth utterance concerning Sabbath observance is next…for one who does 'melakha' on the Shabbat denies the act of Creation.  Finally, the fifth utterance mandates honor and respect towards one's parents, for their honor is a function of their creator role in bringing forth life and sustaining it…" (commentary to Shemot 20:2-3). 


Concerning the last five, the Ramban (13th century, Spain) explains: "These commandments are ordered according to their gravity, for after denouncing idolatry in all of its forms, the Torah prohibits murder, then proscribes adultery, then forbids kidnapping, then denounces bearing false witness and theft, and finally condemns covetousness, for a person that can eschew desire for his fellow's things will never come to harm him" (commentary to 20:12-13).  Clearly, the taking of a human life is the gravest violation against another, followed by betraying the sacred trust of marriage, and only then by theft and falsehood in all of its forms.  The infamous list is concluded with the prohibition of coveting, a state of mind that can quickly lead to the commission of more serious infractions.




This week we surveyed the Ten Utterances that form the essence of the Revelation at Sinai, and constitute the basis of the religious and ethical conduct of the Jew.  We were able to discern a number of significant ordering principles that the Torah employed in organizing the ten, and that shed additional light on their overriding importance.  Let us consider the matter from the hindsight afforded by the three thousand years of human history that have unfolded since their initial conferral.  We may say in response, without the slightest bit of exaggeration, that these things have not lost one iota of their relevance or necessity for the fashioning of a better world.  Often, the goal of becoming a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation' seems more elusive than ever, but in the end we must return for guidance to these fundamental ideas, that have animated every attempt at founding ethical societies, if we are to succeed.



Shabbat Shalom