Whose Ten Commandments?

Whose Ten Commandments?

Every so often, there is a renewed push somewhere in the United States to enshrine the Ten Commandments on public property, within a courthouse, or on the classroom wall.

But no one ever seems to ask the questions, “Which Ten Commandments?” or “Whose Ten Commandments?”

This week’s parasha, Va’et’chanan, gives us reason to raise these questions, for within it we find a second iteration of the Ten Commandments (which is one of the reasons the rabbis call the fifth book of the Torah Mishne Torah, and similarly in English it is called Deuteronony – both of names conveying the meaning of repetition or doubling).

The most obvious difference (among several) between the deuteronomic version of the Ten Commandments and the “original” one in the Book of Exodus is found in our fourth commandment – the one dealing with Shabbat. Here we find the word “shamor” (“observe” or “keep” the Shabbat day…) in contrast to the Exodus exhortation “zachor” (“remember”). But this relatively minor difference that looms so large in our tradition overshadows the purpose of Shabbat that follows: in Exodus the reason given for the institution of Shabbat is God’s creation of the world; in Va’et’chanan the justification for Shabbat is our slavery in Egypt and God’s deliverance. (Both reasons are incorporated into the Friday night kiddush: zikaron l’ma’aseh v’reishit and zeicher li’tzi’at mitzrayim – a remembrance of the works of creation and a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, respectively.)

So, “Which Ten Commandments?” or “Whose Ten Commandments?” – the deuteronomic formulation or the one found in the Book of Exodus?

These questions are actually quite a bit more serious than you may think. The Torah itself never refers to these two passages, which recount the beginning of revelation at Sinai, as “Ten Commandments” – that would be Aseret haMitzvot in Hebrew – but as Aseret haD’varim – the Ten Statements or Utterances (see Ex. 34:28, Deut. 4:13, and Deut. 10:4). This Hebrew title/description accords well with the Jewish tradition’s enumeration of the Aseret haDibrot, which consists of one statement (“I am Adonai, your God”) followed by nine commandments.

But Christians, wedded to the literal notion of Ten Commandments, do not count “I am Adonai, your God” as their first phrase, and consequently, they divide them differently in order to account for their Ten Commandments. Protestants divide our second commandment into two parts: “You shall have no other gods before Me” is their first commandment, and “You shall make no graven images”; after that, their version agrees with ours: (3) Do not take the name of Adonai, your God, (4) Remember/observe Shabbat, (5) Honor your parents, (6) Do not kill, (7) Do not commit adultery, (8) Do not steal, (9) Do not bear false witness, (10) Do not covet. And Catholics, adhering fairly closely to the paragraph divisions found within the Masoretic text, divide “You Shall Not Covet” into two parts to arrive at their Ten Commandments.

So the next time you hear about an effort to erect a Ten Commandments monument on public property, or to place them anywhere else in public, ask its proponents, “Which Ten Commandments?” or “Whose Ten Commandments?” And then tell them they would do better to keep the Ten Commandments “in their hearts,” as the Sh’ma (which is also found Va’et’chanan) commands us.