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Parshas Yisro (5775)

The 10 Commandments: An Early Christian Myth

“Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.” – H.L. Mencken

Mencken might have been a great essayist and satirist, but he got his ‘pleasant facts’ all wrong. He and many others like him think that there are only “Ten Commandments”, when in fact there are actually 613 commandments in the Torah.

The notion that there are only ten commandments is based on a gross mistranslation of the text and is an Early Christian myth, as we shall explain.

The introductory phrase to the Ten Commandments reads: “G-d spoke all these words [devarim], saying” (Exodus 20:1). Over the years this verse has been mistranslated and is commonly rendered “G-d spoke all these ‘commandments’”. But the Hebrew word for commandments is mitzvos, while the Torah here refers to these commandments as devarim, a Hebrew word meaning ‘words’ or ‘statements’. So it would be more accurate to say that the Jewish people received the Ten Statements at Mount Sinai, not the Ten Commandments.

[Referring to these statements as the ‘Ten Commandments’ is wrong for another technical reason as well. According to Maimonides’ listing of the 613 commandments, there are not ten but fourteen separate commandments contained within these ten statements! To view the entire list of the 613 commandments, click on: http://www.aish.com/h/sh/se/48945081.html]

So, you might ask, if there are 613 commandments in the Torah, why were these ten singled out at Mount Sinai?

Most Bible commentators explain that these ten statements are actually ten principles of Judaism which incorporate within them the rest of the Torah’s commandments.

Rash”i, in his commentary to Exodus 24:12, cites Saadia Gaon who composed a special poem of the 613 commandments called Azharos in which he specified which of the 613 commandments are connected to each of the Ten Statements.

Rabbi Joseph Albo, in his classic work Sefer Haikkarim, writes that these ten statements are general, all-inclusive principles which provide a moral and theological foundation for the rest of the commandments of the Torah. The first five of these principles deal with man’s faith in G-d, and provide the basis for his obligations toward G-d. The next five define the overriding principles governing man’s relationship to his fellow man, and are mandatory to the existence of an orderly life in any state or society (see Section 3, Chapter 26).

This idea that the entire Torah with all its commandments is contained within these ten statements is hinted at in the text itself in an amazing way.

The Rem”a in Toras Ha’Olah (3:38) writes that there are 620 letters in the Ten Statements, alluding to the 613 commandments of the Torah and the seven main Rabbinical commandments, which are: (1) Celebration of Chanukah; (2) Celebration of Purim; (3) Laws of Eiruv (carrying on Shabbos); (4) Washing the hands for bread; (5) Lighting Shabbos candles; (6) Recitation of the prayer of praise called Hallel on festive occasions; (7) Reciting a blessing before performing a mitzvah or partaking of food.

So how then is the ‘Ten Commandments’ an Early Christian myth?

The Mishnah in Tamid 32b states that the Jewish people used to recite these Ten Statements publicly in the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem), followed by the Shema, as part of the daily service. The Talmud in Berachos 12a states that the Sages wanted to institute this practice wherever Jews come to pray [even outside the Holy Temple and for all time], but that this practice was ultimately abolished because of taaromes ha’minim , lit. “the claims of the heretics”.

Rash”i explains that there was a concern that heretics would convince the uneducated Jews that the rest of the Torah is not true, G-d forbid, as evidenced by the fact that only these Ten Commandments are read publicly because only they come directly from G-d, to the exclusion of the other commandments.

Some scholars have suggested that the Hebrew word min, heretic (minim in plural), is actually an acronym for Maaminei Yeshu Notzri, ‘believers in Yeshu [Jesus] the Nazarene’, and refers to the early Christians who claimed that only the Ten Commandments were still morally binding but not the rest of the Torah.

Whether or not this theory about the origin of the word min is true, all agree that the Sages were concerned about the Early Christians who propagated this myth of the ‘Ten Commandments’ among the Jews in the hope that the ignorant ones might be deceived into thinking that one can be a complete and fulfilled Jew by keeping only the Ten Commandments and rejecting the rest of the Torah.

Sadly, what the Sages feared way back when has actually come to pass in our times, as the overwhelming majority of Jews today mistakenly believe that only the Ten Commandments (if that) are morally binding.

This Shabbos Parshas Yisro, as the ‘Ten Statements’ are read publicly in synagogues all around the world, let us not forget about all the other wonderful mitzvos in the Torah which govern and give eternal meaning and significance to every part of our lives.

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