Torah from Around the World #176

by Rabbi Philip Cohen, Ph.D., rabbi of

Agudas Israel Congregation

, Hendersonville, North Carolina

Parashat V’etchanan contains the restatement of the Ten Commandments first articulated in the book of Exodus. The major difference between the two versions regards the command for Shabbat, and this difference is noteworthy.

In the first version of the Decalogue, Shabbat is related to creation. We should rest on Shabbat in imitation of God’s resting on the seventh day of creation, and as a result of that connection, ”

the Eternal blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it”

(Exodus 20:11).

Note the account of who rests in the Exodus version:

You shall not do any work, you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is in your midst

” (Exodus 20:10).

The second version explains Shabbat differently. Note how the text expands upon the Exodus text with regard to who shall rest, ”

You shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do”

(Deuteronomy 5:14). The number of those who rest in the second version is expanded by two, from seven to nine. But more important, the verse concludes by explaining that this rest enables one’s slaves to rest.  Moreover, the text continues by reminding the reader that ”

you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day”

(Deuteronomy 5:15).

The connection that the text makes here is between Shabbat and the Israelite’s liberation from slavery through God’s agency. Your slaves ought to rest because I, God, liberated you.

That this is significantly different from the Exodus version is clear. What it teaches requires some expansion.

The Torah, it goes without saying, contains the basis of Jewish ethics. So many passages teach us fundamental rules of justice. We are to leave some of our fields and vineyards for the poor. Slaves are ultimately to be released. We are to respect the elderly and not place a stumbling block before the blind. We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are not to stand by while our neighbor bleeds. Moral rules abound in the Torah then to be expanded upon and explored in subsequent Jewish literature throughout the ages. It is fair to say, as many have claimed, that one vital aspect of the Jewish tradition is Judaism’s deep regard for the ethical.

But the Jewish tradition has far more than a “regard” for the ethical. Both versions of the Ten Commandments begin with the statement, “I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

The Decalogue could have begun with something different “I am the Eternal your God who created heaven and earth,” for example. Were this the case, the statement would suggest fealty to God because of God’s creativeness. God’s creativeness, with all that that implies is not to be diminished. But such a statement is less appropriate to the moment for a group of ragtag ex-slaves standing before a mountain meeting God, the One Who had just a couple of months before liberated them. That God brought them out of bondage to this mountain suggests at least two things. First, that this group owes God something ultimate since God is their Liberator.  I, God is saying, am about to give you Law out of the matrix of our relationship of Liberator to liberated. This is the covenantal statement par excellence: Our new relationship is based upon the specific fact that I, the Eternal, rescued you from Pharaoh. You owe me your loyalty and I owe you My care, which will be based upon the rules I am about to set forth for you. Second, that the Israelites understand the meaning of being a slave out of their own experience.

The first version, remembering the Sabbath based upon God’s creativity is not unimportant, but nor is it world-shattering.

I would suggest that the Deuteronomic version, written much later in time than the book of Exodus, and therefore represents the later thought of the bearers of the Tradition, understands something that the Exodus version does not, that is, indeed, world shattering.

When I teach laws of the Torah, and my students and I come across mention of slavery, I frequently find myself explaining how it is that the Israelites could have had slaves. I point out that one needs to look at the flow of the texts to observe that slavery is dealt with internally, that by the time we get to the book of Deuteronomy, the understanding of slavery is different from earlier books. Though there are several indicators, the restatement of Shabbat in the Decalogue is one key example.

Understanding that Israelite slavery, actually more like indentured servitude, was a fact of Israelite social life, we are told to observe Shabbat in order that there will be one day a week in which everyone and everything rests: one’s family, one’s animals, one’s slaves, and the stranger. But we allow this rest, e.g., of the animals, not primarily because we are concerned in this case with animal rights (it may well be a secondary concern, but animal rights is not a primary concern here), but because when my children and wife rest, when my ox does not plow, and my sheep are not taken out to graze, then my slaves have nothing to do. They rest as I do. For this one day a week a sort of egalitarianism reigns.

This emphasis, coupled with the reminder that I, as an Israelite, owe my liberated condition to God, teaches us I would say two important things. First, as God is a liberator, I, too, must become a liberator, and I must pursue the understanding of what it means to be a liberator.  Two, that since I owe my liberated condition to God, and because I understand innately what it means to be a slave, then my role as liberator has to be a passion, not merely a concern.

Thus ethics in Judaism becomes a matter of passion, not merely a matter of concern.  Mere concern for ethics is insufficient to the liberated slave. Our condition as freed slaves has permanently pressed upon us the imperative to be passionately concerned about the evils of slavery and all of its implications, and to work toward the cessation of any human institution that promotes the enslavement of men and women.

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