Torah from around the world #202

by Rabbi Sheryl Nosan-Lantzke, Jewish Spirituality Australia (in Perth, and Worldwide at


This week’s parasha, Yitro, brings us to revelation at Sinai, but doesn’t reveal tablets of “The Ten Commandments.” We hear God’s instructions (including direction to worship only God, sanctify Shabbat and honour parents as well as prohibitions against murder, theft and coveting, Exodus 20:2-14). However, we’ll pass through nearly two


– four chapters and scores of mitzvoth – before any tablets (


in Hebrew) are mentioned or seen (Exodus 24:12). Surprisingly, Yitro doesn’t include the terms


, “ten” (


in Hebrew) or “commandment/s” (


). Additionally, the Torah never delineates a particular set of ten injunctions as “the ten commandments” here or anywhere (see also Deuteronomy 5:6-18).

The very phrase “the ten commandments” misleads us, obscuring The Holy One’s stated purpose at Sinai. Only peeling away the distorting “ten commandments” label allows higher aims of Sinai reveal themselves. Simply re-discovering the Sinai Revelation in its own terms: described by God as “


” (Exodus 19:6) and later by Moses as “

aseret ha’d’varim

” (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4) will clear the way to new heights and insights.

Regardless of convention, we’re ill-advised to use the phrase “the ten commandments.” In fact, various faith traditions specify over half a dozen different sets of “the” commandments! With so many sets of “ten” we’d best ask “which ‘ten commandments’” are being discussed in any particular setting. In public and interfaith spheres especially, non-Jewish renderings (which exclude Exodus 20:2 or Deuteronomy 5:6) pervade. Those unacquainted with distinctions between “sets” may inadvertently grant authority to dominant non-Jewish interpretations, unintentionally burying Jewish heritage and tradition.

Bearing in mind that no phrase specifying “the ten mitzvot” appears anywhere in Yitro or Torah, we must reconsider the phrase “ten commandments.”  Afterall, God does not describe the content of Revelation as


, but as “


” (Exodus 19:6). We know that “


” generally means “words” or unspecified “things”.  (For example our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, Genesis 22:1, opens with “

Vayahi achar ha-



…” meaning “it happened after these


[that G-d tested Abraham]…” Similarly, Pirke Avot 1:2 teaches “

Al shloshah


ha’olam omed

” meaning “the world stands on three


” [emphasis added]). Perhaps it’s time to remove the misleading label “commandments” from our description of Sinai, realizing that some-


different is at hand.


Aseret Ha’dvarim

does include mitzvot, but how many? Simply reading the 13 relevant verses of Exodus 20:2-14 challenges us to isolate ten commandments among over 16 “thou shalts” and “shalt nots” we find. Absence of punctuation in Torah Scrolls further confounds our efforts. While traditional and contemporary commentators labour over valuable categorizations, implications and insights relating to Sinai’s ten-ness, “the ten” are not at all obvious when we simply read the Torah.


Mishneh Torah

extracts at least a dozen commandments from

Aseret Ha-D’varim

in his authoritative enumeration of the 613 mitzvot (specifically, mitzvot numbers 2, 27, 28, 29, 88, 91, 210, 473, 476, 482 and 584). Some mitzvot Maimonides derives from Exodus 20 seem tenuously linked to Yitro. Specifically, the

Mishneh Torah

derives Havdalah obligations (mitzvah #91) and kidnapping prohibitions (mitzvah # 473) to Exodus 20:8 and 20:13 respectively, although Yitro mentions neither Havdalah nor kidnapping. “Mitzva Watch”, an Orthodox online resource, specifies “15 Mitzvot of the Decalogue” (sic.

).  If our heads spin in the “not-ten-not-commandments” calculations, at least we are in good company: Ibn Ezra writes in his commentary on Exodus 20:13 that even


had to grapple with parts of this text for years! (Nechama Leibowitz,

New Studies in Shemot Exodus

vol. 1, Haomanim Press, Jerusalem, 1976, p. 335).

Clearly, we need to grapple with the “tens” concept relative to

Aseret Ha-D’varim

. Many of us were taught that


literally means “ten”. Few of us though were taught the subtle difference between “


” and “


.” Derived from “


”, “


” can mean a ten-member grouping or several groupings-of-around-ten. In Hebrew, “


” functions like the English term “


” which can mean precisely 12 (as in “I just bought a dozen eggs”) or can mean an unspecified number roughly between 30 and 80 (“I’ll need dozens of eggs for Passover”).

In the Tanach, “


” means “ten,” but “


” can mean “lots of” (for example, describing lots of deceptions, fighters or fields in Genesis 31:7, 41, Judges 1:4, 4:10 and Isiah 5:10 respectively). Translating “


” as “ten” in describing God’s


of Exodus 20 simply does not add up mathematically; more than ten divine directives are articulated in Exodus 20 and tens of dozens of mitzvot are revealed in the 14 chapters between Yitro and the first occurrence of the phrase “

aseret ha-d’varim

.” Our translation must convey sense of “lots of” “dozens of” or “scores of” to make sense in describing the “things” offered by God at Sinai.

If the quantity of


, ten, was critical, wouldn’t it be voiced by God closer to the Exodus 20 directives, not hinted at by Moses using a different term 14 chapters later? Unexpectedly, we discover that neither “ten-ness” nor “commandments” are the primary Jewish Sinai issues. We needn’t be confused by the Christian Greek term “Decalogue” – coined by a 2nd century Church Father – which over-emphasises ten-ness (Plaut,

The Torah: A Modern Commentary- Revised Edition

, p. 469). We needn’t be misled by the label The Ten Commandments (first introduced in the noteworthy 16th century Geneva Christian Bible) which discounts the breath of Exodus 20’s interpretations, over-emphasizes quantity and mistranslates “



We might begin translating Moses’ phrase

aseret ha-d’varim

as The Collection of Divine Declarations, The Tens of Teachings, The Scores of Sacred Statements, for “The Ten Commandments” label may have worn out its usefulness for us.

If quantity and mitzvah are not central to Revelation at Sinai, what is? Tens of hundreds of responses wait to emerge, but here is mine: Revelation at Sinai is about hearing, holiness and hope in Sinai’s broader context. As Exodus 19 opens, we’re busy setting up camp near the mountain (Exodus 19:2). God calls to Moses to convey this message to us: “If you will listen – really LISTEN to my voice and guard my


covenant, then you will be uniquely precious to me, amongst all peoples – as for you all, you must be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19:5-6). Four verses later, God tells us to do our laundry in anticipation of Revelation, and we do (Exodus 19:10, 14). Eleven verses later, Revelation begins (Exodus 20:1).

Somewhere, sometime between setting up camp and doing laundry, we too may be able to hear, if we REALLY listen. We can be holy. We can be precious. We can be something unique in this world. We can be partners in covenant with the Holy One. We can be part of a kingdom of priests and a holy people. The rest is commentary. Now, let us learn.

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