Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Ethanan 5770/ July 24, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Ten Commandments—or Five and Five?*


Menahem Ben-Yashar

Ashkelon College

The Mekhilta on Parashat Yitro, [1] as well as other rabbinic sources, present two opinions about how the Decalogue was written on two tablets. [2]   One is the familiar idea of five on each tablet.  The other, less-known explanation is ten on each tablet.  The latter view is acknowledged by Dr. Meshulam Margaliyot to be the plain sense of the text: [3]   the tablets of the Covenant, after all, are the document attesting to the covenant between the Holy One, blessed be He, and Israel, and in a mutual pact each party receives a copy of the contract. [4]   The two tablets were laid in a place shared by the Lord and Israel:   the Ark of the Covenant (or “Testimony”) in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, in a divine place that was also amidst the children of Israel.

The other view, five and five, is explained in the Mekhilta by matching parallel commandments:  “I the Lord am your G-d” is paired with “You shall not murder;” You shall not murder a person who is made in the image of G-d (based on Gen. 9:6).   The prohibition against idolatry, which Scripture often compares to infidelity, [5] is paired with “You shall not commit adultery.”  “You shall not steal” is matched with “You shall not swear falsely,” for thieves are likely to swear falsely in the name of the Lord.   “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is matched with the Sabbath, which attests as a witness to Creation and the Creator.  The fifth pair, in which honoring father and mother is matched with “You shall not covet,” seems a forced comparison in this homily. [6]   Were I permitted to introduce innovations in the homilies, I would say that both commandments come to safeguard and preserve the family and its inheritance intact.

Between Who and Whom?

Medieval commentators, such as Nahmanides and Abarbanel, [7] ascribed the division of the Ten Commandments over two tablets to the nature of the commandments:  five deal with the relationship between human beings and G-d, and five with relations between one person and another.  It is most interesting that I could not find this famous distinction between mitzvot bein adam la-makom and bein adam la-havero  in the sources of the Sages, neither with regard to the Decalogue in particular nor for the commandments in general, save for one matter:  forgiveness and atonement on the Day of Atonement. [8]

Something resembling the above motif of five and five is found in Pesikta Rabbati: [9]   the first five are directed only at Israel, and in honor of Israel they mention the name of G-d.  The last five are directed at all the nations of the world in that they express basic moral values, and therefore do not mention the name of G-d.   However, according to the Midrash, even the last five were refused by the other nations.  Incidentally, this distinction attests to a stylistic difference as well:  the first five are all lengthy, comprised of complex sentences that include words of explanation or warning.  The last five are all simple, short sentences. [10]

The following idea, along the same lines as the above homily from Pesikta Rabbati, is presented in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin: [11]

When the Holy One, blessed be He, said:  “I the Lord,” and “You shall not make,” the nations of the world said:   He is saying this to honor Himself.   When He said, “Honor your father and your mother,” they recanted and acknowledged the first utterances.

Four and Six?

Unlike the homily in Pesikta Rabbati, this homily divides the commandments into the first four and last six, adding honoring father and mother to the commandments that were given for the edification of human beings.   Indeed, Nahmanides and Umberto Cassuto, each in his own way, say that this commandment links the first group of commandments between human beings and G-d to the second group, those obligations of one person to another.   Nahmanides, on one hand, says in the beginning of his comments on the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:11):

Having completed all our obligations regarding the Creator Himself and honoring Him, He turned to command us regarding His creatures, beginning with one’s father, who is to his offspring as the Creator is to Creation.  For the Lord is our first Father, and he who begets us, our latter father. [12]

On the other hand, in his remarks on “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal,” (Ex. 20:13), Nahmanides says:

Of the Ten Commandments, five are for honoring the Creator and five for the benefit of human beings; “Honor your father” is for honoring G-d, because it is in honor of the Creator that He commanded us to honor one’s father, who takes part in creating us.  Five more remain for human needs and benefit.

Weinfeld, in his book on the Ten Commandments, notes that the first five commandments, which are lengthy and contain the name of G-d, begin by mentioning the exodus from Egypt and conclude with the Lord giving the land to the children of Israel; i.e., with the two acts of G-d which the Torah sets as the basis for faith and for obeying the commandments. [13]   Indeed, according to the plain sense of the text, the promise, “that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your G-d is assigning to you” (Ex. 20:12), is not a reward to the individual, rather to the nation:  that the people of Israel may enjoy many generations of living in the land of Israel. [14]   In the case of honoring one's parents, the reward “that you may long endure on the land" is also a result:   if children honor their parents, they will naturally learn Torah, morality and the commandments from them, and naturally the next generation and those that follow will not disown their Jewish roots, and thus will not be exiled from the land, neither of their own free will nor by coercion. [15]

Classifying Commandments

Even though the Lord’s commands stand forever, the reasons for the commandments, as well as their classification, are in the hands of commentators and philosophers and change according to the generation and the school.  For many generations, until about one generation ago, most of humankind considered that arbitrarily taking human life or harming family unity to be serious crimes, and the sixth and seventh commandment were held to be societal laws, between one person and another.  Our post-modern generation, however, views euthanasia as a good deed, while in the eyes of the Torah it is murder.  

Regarding “You shall not murder,” the Mekhilta (see above) says:   “Thus, whoever sheds blood is viewed by Scripture as detracting from the image of the King, for it says, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did G-d make man” (Gen. 9:6).  So it turns out that “You shall not murder” always concerns relations between human beings and G-d, for it expresses respect for the image of G-d and the sanctity of Israel.  

The same can be said of adultery: neither our permissive society nor liberal secular legal systems forbid what the Torah calls adultery.  Adultery is forbidden by what is said at the beginning of the first codex on illicit sexual relations (Lev. 18:2-3):

I the Lord am your G-d.  You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.  My rules alone shall you observe and faithfully follow My laws:   I the Lord am your G-d.

The concluding verse for the second codex on illicit sexual relations reads:   “You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Lev. 20:26). G-d is thus invoked to justify refraining from illicit sexual relations. Classifying adultery in the Ten Commandments as pertaining to commandments “between one person and another,” i.e., as hurting one’s fellow person, is dependent on societal conventions of the generation and culture.

How should one classify the commandment, “You shall not covet”?  This depends on how one reads the commandment.   Some interpret it as referring to taking something from its owner against his will yet with his begrudging consent, coerced from him by physical or psychological pressure. In effect, it is toned-down theft, which makes it a commandment pertaining to relations between one person and another.  That is how the Mekhilta reads it, [16] Maimonides rules accordingly, [17] and commentators such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch also interpret it this way. 

Other commentators, first Philo, [18] and following him Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, Shaddal, Benno Jacob, Cassuto and others, view “You shall not covet” as only forbidding jealous thoughts, without taking actual steps to implement what is in one’s mind; if so, this is a commandment between a person and his/her conscience, and perhaps also pertaining to relations with one’s Creator, but not between one person and another.

This discussion of classification is complicated by two factors.  Firstly, many commentators view “You shall not covet” as an inner matter, explaining this prohibition on the grounds that evil thoughts might lead to evil deeds.  According to this view, how are we to classify this commandment?  Secondly, according to the formulation of the Ten Commandments as they appear in this week’s reading, after “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” (Deut. 5:18), the Torah continues and commands us, “you shall not crave your neighbor’s house, etc.”  Midrash Tannanim comments: [19]   “craving [Heb. ta’avah] is in one’s thoughts, for thus it says, ‘for you have the urge [ ki te’ave nafshekha]’ (Deut. 12:20), and coveting is in deed, for thus it says, ‘you shall not covet [using the same Hebrew root] the silver and gold on them and keep if for yourselves’ (Deut. 7:25).”   Maimonides in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot lists two negative commandments:   number 265, with regard to coveting in deed, and 266, with regard to craving in one’s thoughts.

The Sabbath

We conclude with a look at the fourth commandment, the Sabbath.  In the version of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus (20:8-11), the first word, “remember,” zakhor, is indicative of relations between human beings and G-d.  We are to remember Creation, mentioned in verse 11, and according to the concluding words of the commandment – “therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it” – Israel is to sanctify the Sabbath in accord with the concluding verse of the account of Creation:   “And G-d blessed the seventh day and declare it holy” (Gen. 2:3).

The formulation in this week’s reading does not begin with “remember,” for the object of the act of remembering, namely creation of the world, is absent.   Perhaps it is hinted at by the words, “as the Lord your G-d has commanded you,” [20] which refer to the Ten Commandments as they appear in Exodus.   Creation of the world ought to oblige all the people of the world to observe the Sabbath, but the opening word of this commandment in Deuteronomy – “observe,” shamor– is directed at Israel, [21] and the continuation explains why only Israel is commanded to observe the Sabbath:   because the Lord delivered us out of bondage to Egypt so that we may serve Him.  Our new master, the Holy One, blessed be He, instructs his servants when to work and when to rest:  “therefore the Lord your G-d has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.”  However, the words, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” also raise a social motif:  observe the Sabbath “so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.”   Thus we see that the fourth commandment concerns both relations between human beings and G-d and between one person and another.

We have shown in our analysis of the Ten Commandment that their various classifications are always relative, and any approach should be taken with restraint and caution.


* Dedicated to my grandson Zohar, with the prayer that he live to joyfully accept the yoke of Torah and work, commandments and military service, marriage and good deeds.

[1] Tractate Ba- Hodesh 8, p. 234.

[2] Exodus Rabbah 47.6.  Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6.1; 23a; Sotah 8.3; 35b, and Song of Songs Rabbah 5.14.  Other views maintain that there were twenty or forty commandments on each tablet, but the view of the Sages in the Mekhilta is that there were ten on each tablet.

[3] Daf Shavua in English for Parashat Ki-Tissa 1998.

[4] “For the bride and groom; and for their two attendants,” according to the homily in Exodus Rabbah 41.7, Deut. Rabbah 3.16, and the commentary of Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn ( Maharzu), loc. sit.; Tanhumah (Buber) Ki-Tissa 12; Tanhumah Tissa 16; Ekev 10.

[5] Such as Jer. 3:1-10, 16, 23.  Hos. 1:1-4:15.   In the Torah, Deut. 31:16.

[6] These two commandments are paired by saying that a son who is born to a person who covets his neighbor’s wife and has relations with her will one day curse his father (whom he does not know).  Such a homily, however, is more appropriate to the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”

[7] Nahmanides on Ex. 20:11.   Abarbanel, loc. sit., verse 2.

[8] Yoma 8.9, which speaks of sins between Man and G-d and sins between Man and his fellow Man.

[9] Chapter 21, 99a-b.   For another source, in a different style, see Hizkuni on Ex. 20:11.

[10] The tenth commandment has several predicates but is not a complex sentence.

[11] 31a, and similarly in Pesikta Rabbati 23, 121a-b, as well as Midrash Rabbah 8.4.

[12] A similar idea was expressed by Philo; cf. Ketavim II, Al Aseret ha-Dbirot, ed. and translated [Hebrew] by Susan Daniel Nataf, Jerusalem 1991, vol. 2, pp. 106-107, 206.

[13] M. Weinfeld, Aseret ha-Dibrot ve-Keriat Shema:   Gilguleihem shel Hatzharot Emunah, Tel Aviv 2001.

[14] So we find in Ibn Ezra’s short commentary and in Nahmanides, as an alternative explanation; in Ibn Ezra’s long commentary, it is the only explanation.  Deut. 5:30, 11:9, 30:18, 32:47 all have in mind extended survival on the Land.

[15] The same general direction is taken by J. H. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy, 1996.

[16] See note 1, p. 235; Mekhilta de Rashbi on Ex. 20:14, Epstein-Melamed ed,   p. 153.

[17] Hilkhot Gezelah ve-Avedah 1.9-12.

[18] See note 12, loc. sit., pp. 142-153, 212-213.

[19] On Deut. 5:18, p. 24; a similar idea appears in the Mekhilta de Rashbi (note 16; loc. sit.).

[20] This addition also appears in the fifth commandment, with respect to honoring parents.   Tigay (note 15) observes that both these commandments are formulated as positive injunctions:  do such and such.

[21] Pesikta Rabbati 23, 115b:  'Remember' He gave to all the peoples of the earth, 'observe' he gave to Israel.”