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Differing Interpretations of the Ten Commandments

As Jews prepare to celebrate Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, it is appropriate to reflect on this important document which has been in the news of late.   

When an Alabama court judge demanded a right to post the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, a number of critics asked, "Which Ten Commandments?" These critics know something that many Americans do not: there are different versions of the Ten Commandments. The version of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus (chapter 20) differs from that in Deuteronomy (chapter 5).

For example, in Exodus we are told to "remember the Sabbath day...because God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them in six days and rested on the seventh day" whereas in Deuteronomy we are told to "observe the Sabbath that you will remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt...."

What is the significance of the differences between these versions and which is the authentic version?

Furthermore, different religious traditions divide the commandments differently. Judaism considers Exodus 20:2, "I am the Lord your God Who led you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" to be the first commandment. How can a declaration be a commandment? There are two ways to answer that question. The first is that these teachings are not called the Ten Commandments (aseret hamitzvot in Hebrew) in the Torah, but the Ten Sayings (aseret had'varim).

However, later Jewish tradition does indeed consider this verse to be a commandment. The medieval scholar Moses Maimonides, for example, cites this verse as the source of the first positive commandment, to believe in God. So even though it is not written in the form of a commandment, it has been understood that way in Judaism.

Christian churches, however, do not consider that verse to be a commandment. The Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran traditions, following the system first proposed by Augustine, consider the declaration, "I am the Lord your God..." to be part of the prologue and the admonitions not to have any other gods (verse 3) and not to make a graven image (verses 4-6) together as the first commandment. In order to still end up with ten, the commandment to covet is divided into two: coveting your neighbor's house and coveting your neighbor's wife, etc.

Other Protestant churches consider "You shall have no other gods beside Me" (verse 3) to be the first commandment and "You shall not make a graven image..." as the second commandment and both parts of the commandment to covet to be one commandment.

Another difference between religious groups concerns the translation and interpretation of prohibiting homicide. The King James translation and many other versions translate this commandment "Thou shall not kill." Most Jewish versions, however, prefer the translation "murder," based upon the Hebrew term tirtzach, which usually refers to unauthorized killing. Indeed, other scriptural passages mandate the taking of life in certain circumstances, which would indicate that the translation "murder" is more accurate.

Nevertheless, this commandment has been used by some individuals to oppose capital punishment or to support pacifism. While religious arguments can be made with regard to these issues, it is not clear that this commandment can be legitimately used in support of such arguments.

While the Ten Commandments are read in synagogue on Shavuot (in addition to when they are read in the regular weekly cycle), they are not as prevalent as they once were in Jewish life. According to the Talmud, the Ten Commandments were recited daily in the Temple prior to the Sh'ma (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One...). However, when certain sectarian groups claimed that they were the only commandments revealed by God, the rabbis--who believed that all of the Torah's commandments were revealed by God--decided not to include the Ten Commandments in the daily synagogue liturgy.

Nevertheless, in most synagogues, the Ten Commandments are prominently displayed above the ark or on the front wall, serving to remind worshippers of their central place in Judaism.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Rabbi Bruce Kadden
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