Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin
Faculty, Midreshet Lindenbaum
What is so special about the Aseret Ha’dibrot? Certainly the importance of these commandments lies in the fact that they comprise God’s communication to the Children of Israel, but that’s only begging the question: why did God choose these statements when addressing the nation at Sinai? Are the 13 verses in question holier than other parts of the Torah?
Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (15th century) explains that the Ten Statements were singled out for such special treatment because they include the 613 Mitzvot that God commanded His nation. Because God wanted Israel to recognize that He was the author of the entire gamut of Jewish law, He Himself introduced the Ten Statements which represent the rest of the Torah.
This idea that the Aseret Ha’Dibrot contain all the Torah’s commandments is a fairly old one, finding expression in the midrashim. For example, Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16 states: “The 620 letters from ‘Anochi’ (Shmot 20:2) to ‘kol asher le’rayecha’ (20:14) are parallel to the 613 Mitzvot. The seven extra letters represent the seven days of creation, teaching that the world only exists for the fulfillment of the Torah.”
By linking the 10 Statements to the 613 commandments, the midrash explains why the Aseret Ha’Dibrot were given special treatment by God – their importance is concealed in their depth of meaning. In what way do the Aseret Ha’Dibrot contain the range of God’s message?
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra and Avraham bar Hiyya (both 12th century) identify three types of Mitzvot: those of the heart, those of speech and those of action, each category manifested in positive and negative commandments.
The first type of Mitzvah – involving thought is represented in the Aseret Ha’Dibrot by the second statement – “You shall have no other God” (a negative command); the fifth statement – “Honour your father and your mother” (a positive command); and the tenth statement – “you shall not covet” (a negative command).
The second class of Mitzvah – governing speech – has two samples in our passage, both negative: the third statement – “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain”; and the ninth statement – “You shall not bear false witness.” The third category provides rules of action, manifested here by the sixth statement – “You shall not murder”; the seventh statement – “You shall not commit adultery”; and the eighth statement – “You shall not steal.”
Our commentators might have labeled “Remember Shabbat” a Mitzvah of thought since respecting the day signifies belief in the Torah’s claim that God created the world. It can also be categorized as a Mitzvah of speech since the phrase “Remember the Shabbat Day to keep it holy” is usually cited as the source for the Mitzvah of reciting Kiddush. And, of course, Shabbat observance demands avoiding a wide range of forbidden actions.
Verse 2 (Anochi HaShem Elokecha) might represent an introductory statement reviewing God’s relationship with the nation; or according to those who feel that this too is a command, it represents the ultimate Mitzvah of thought – belief in the existence of God.
The Aseret Ha’Dibrot thus represent all six possible types of Mitzvot – any of the other hundreds of Jewish duties can be labeled as belonging to one of the categories illustrated by the ten.
Other scholars are more specific in attributing the 613 Mitzvot to the 10 Statements. Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman 13th century) wrote an essay called Taryag Mitzvot Ha’Yotzim Mi’Aseret Ha’Dibrot. Ramban moves Dibrah by Dibrah showing how the philosophy of each statement finds expression in numerous individual precepts.
For example, Shabbat (Dibrah #4) represents concepts of holiness and rest expressed in the holidays prescribed by the Torah which are also deemed holy. Also included within the general command of Shabbat are Shmita and the laws associated with it such as the release of the Jewish slave, as well as observance of the Jubilee year and its restructuring of land ownership. The reminder that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth” serves as a warning not to mess with God’s creations through the hybridization of plants or animals. “You shall not do any work… your ox or your ass or any of your cattle” (Devarim 5:14) hints at the prohibition of plowing with an ox and a donkey together (ibid. 22:10).
Admittedly, this sort of approach can lead to some rather fantastic connections. Rabbeinu Bahye ben Asher (14th century) in his two essays on Shavuot in Kad Ha’Kemach links the 248 positive commandments to the three positive statements in the 10 (numbers 1, 4 and 5) and the 365 negative commandments to the other 7. One of his techniques is to identify associations based on the Torah’s terminology.
Thus, from the verse “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” Rabbeinu Bahye seizes on the words “Mei’eretz” – land, “Mi’beit”- from the house, and “Avadim” – bondage. “Eretz” includes all the agricultural laws that must be observed in Israel like Orlah, hybridization of plants and vines, resting the land in the seventh year; and all laws of sacrifices which are commandments incumbent only on residents of the Land of Israel. “Beit” represents two laws related to one’s house: Mezuzah and Ma’akeh (building a protective railing on a flat roof). “Avadim” of course relates to the laws of Jewish slaves like freeing them when their term is up and providing for them before they go, and treating female servants properly. It also hints at the slightly different rules governing a non-Jewish slave. This treatment of the Torah’s language is no more unusual than the Talmud’s derivations of halakhot from extraneous articles, or its transference of law details to multiple cases based on word repetition.
We have seen some commentators’ attempts to link the 10 Dibrot to the 613 Mitzvot – exercises which I believe were intended to defend God’s decision to directly speak only these statements to the nation.
But perhaps the idea that the ten are representative of many more messages has another purpose as well. A need to suppress an over-emphasis of the Aseret Ha’Dibrot is reflected in a current practice in our religion.
The question has been raised whether it is proper for people who usually sit during Torah reading to stand during the recitation of this passage. One might argue that this preferential treatment exhibits a belief in the divine authorship of these verses in contrast to the rest of the Torah. Still others believe that there is no such favoritism involved, and that standing merely represents an imitation of the original scene at Sinai when all of Israel stood to hear the voice of God. By standing we recognize that indeed only these verses were uttered by God. And if we accept the premise of the midrash as elaborated upon by the commentators in this essay we recognize that the Aseret Ha’Dibrot are really only an introduction of things to come.