How important are the Ten Commandments in Jewish tradition? Despite the drama of the revelation at Sinai in Exodus 19-20, as well as the ubiquity of depictions of the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) found in many synagogues, the Sinai event is not a major biblical theme. While one finds references and allusions to the exodus from Egypt in almost every book of the Tanakh, the revelation at Sinai rarely appears outside of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Indeed, in biblical summaries of the history of Israel, this event is often left out (Deut. 26:5-9; Joshua 24; Psalms 78). While many holy days are explicitly meant to remind Israel of the exodus from Egypt (Shabbat: Deuteronomy 5:15; Passover: Exodus 12, Deuteronomy 16:1-3; Sukkot: Leviticus 24:42-43), there is no feast day in the Bible to commemorate the revelation at Sinai. Despite the apparent prominence of the Sinai event in Exodus, our earliest traditions do not make much of this story in general, or of the Ten Commandments in particular.
By the first century of the Common Era, a number of Jewish texts interpreted the Decalogue as representing all of the commandments. Philo of Alexandria saw the Ten Commandments as inclusive of all of the mitzvot of the Torah (Decalogue 154). The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs summarizes God’s commandments in short lists of rules similar to the Decalogue (Testament of Issachar 5:2; Testament of Dan 5:3). The Ten Commandments loom large in rabbinic literature, where Shavuot is reinterpreted as a festival commemorating the revelation at Sinai. Following the pattern found in Philo and others, the Ten Commandments are often presented as the basis for all 613 commandments. Yet, even as the rabbis raise the Sinai revelation and the Decalogue in importance for Jewish thought and commemoration, they never present these “Ten” as more weighty or important than other commandments. According to the Mishnah (m. Tamid 5:1), there was an early practice of a daily recitation of the Decalogue accompanying the recitation of the Sh’ma (a practice that may be confirmed by the Nash Papyrus, which contains the words of the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma). This practice was discontinued because of the “minim…lest they claim that these alone were given to Moses at Sinai.” (y. Berakhot 1.8, 3c; b. Berakhot 12a)
It seems likely that the “minim” in this Mishnah were Christians. The third-century Didascalia Apostolorum contains an explicit argument that only the laws of the Decalogue came from God and continue to apply for Christians, as opposed to the ritual laws that came only after the sin of the golden calf and were meant to be temporary (Didascalia 26). But the idea that the revelation at Sinai makes those commandments more significant than others can be found already in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 4-6). According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus stood on a mountain and presented his followers with a set of laws. Indeed, Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses throughout his gospel. A century later, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, taught that the Decalogue was replaced by the Sermon on the Mount (Epideixis 87; Against the Heresies iv 15-16). Clement of Alexandria went further in his argument that the mature Christian no longer needs the Decalogue (Stromateis vi. 133- 148), as such a person would already embody what it meant to be inculcated by these laws.
Despite the rabbinic desire to de-emphasize the singularity of the Decalogue so as to enhance the sense of obligation for all the mitzvot, the Ten Commandments and the Sinai revelation remained significant in Jewish memory. Shavuot is a yearly commemoration of the events at Sinai. And, though the practice was debated by some in the Middle Ages, most congregations have the custom of standing when the Ten Commandments are read from the Torah scroll — even if they generally sit for the reading of the Torah. While the recitation of the Decalogue was removed from the central part of the morning liturgy, in many siddurim it was added in the recitation of the reading of the daily sacrificial offerings. Additionally, many rabbis sought to sum up the mitzvot in shorter lists of commandments. For example, one midrash (b. Makkot 24a) teaches that David reduced/contained (he’emidan) the commandments in ten categories describing those who are worthy of dwelling in God’s tent (Psalms 15); Micha took that number down to three (Micha 6:8). Isaiah had two commandments (Isaiah 56:1), and Amos and Habakkuk each had one (Amos 5:4; Habakkuk 2:4). While all mitzvot are accorded equal weight (at least, theoretically), certain laws, such as faith in God and love of neighbor and acts of justice, were understood as more basic and central.
Jewish tradition retains a dialectical relationship with the Decalogue. Though removed from the liturgy, the Ten Commandments are found in our prayer books and depicted in the art of our synagogues. The symbolic power of the covenant at Sinai and the particular teachings of the Decalogue have retained a hold on the Jewish psyche and tradition — even while the obligation to all of the mitzvot remains.email print