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Searching for Patterns in the Ten Commandments (Yitro)

How do we organize items, information and ideas? Every field has its answers. In philosophy, we have Aristotle’s suggestion that all of reality can be categorized according to ten criteria (including substance, time and place), and Kant’s attempt to whittle that list down to four (quantity, quality, relation and modality). In psychology, Gestaltists gave us four principles for the grouping of visual stimuli (proximity, similarity, closure and continuity), plus a few others, which were added on separately. In biology, researchers rely on the taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus, which greatly simplified the study of life by schematizing all organisms into a system of rigorous hierarchies (kingdom, phylum, class, etc.); in chemistry, Dimitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements accomplished a similar goal. In history, Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx and George Hegel all perceived patterns which reduce the mess of human events into neat, never-ending narratives (the Great Man theory, class struggles, and Hegelian dialectic, respectively), while in literature, Gustav Freytag’s dramatic structure (rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) and Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey (call to adventure, supernatural aid, crossing the threshold, etc.) guide our thinking.

In everything we do, we organize. Most of the time, we do this merely to make our lives easier. Sometimes, however, order not only contextualizes content, but also clarifies it, communicating, through its structure, ideas which we might have missed otherwise. This latter phenomenon we observe, for example, when we consider the Ten Commandments, delivered to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion:

ten commandments(1)   I am the Lord your God

(2)   Don’t worship idolatry

(3)   Don’t utter My name in vain

(4)   Observe the Sabbath

(5)   Honor your parents

(6)   Don’t murder

(7)   Don’t commit adultery

(8)   Don’t steal / kidnap

(9)   Don’t bear false testimony

(10) Don’t covet

In each generation, scholars have studied these commandments from multiple angles, grouping and re-grouping them into various arrangements in their search for a theme or pattern which underlies all ten. As it turns out, there are many ways to divide the Ten Commandments. Let’s look at three of those ways together – two by well-known contemporary commentators, and one original approach which we’ll develop here for the first time.

Approach #1: Sources of Moral Obligation

Traditionally, commentators divide the Ten Commandments down the middle, into two equal groups – as the Ramban explains, “five commandments are for the honor of the Creator, and five are for the good of mankind.” This division works, for the most part, since the first four commandments discuss God and the Sabbath, whereas the final five deal with issues of law and order. Of course, the fifth commandment, “honor your parents,” seems to belong to the second group (interpersonal commandments) more than it does to the first (religious commandments) – but there are dozens of articles which address that issue, and we won’t revisit it here. For our purposes, let’s accept the division of the commandments into two categories: spiritual (בין אדם למקום) and societal (בין אדם לחברו). If we do so, we must then ask why the commandments were arranged according to this theme. R. Akiva Tatz provides the following answer:

Why were there two tablets? [Because] there are two sets of obligation. The first category of obligation is God: the laws that He extracts and demands from me. But then there’s another set of obligations: you oblige me, inasmuch as you are a human. The thing to realize here is that respecting human life – it’s not only because God says, “treat him correctly;” it’s because he himself [i.e. the human being] obliges, inasmuch as he’s human… The difference is striking. If you fulfill interpersonal commandments because God commands you, then the other person doesn’t matter. Why are you visiting the person who’s sick? Do you care about him? No – he’s irrelevant! I’m visiting the sick because God commands me; he [i.e. the human being] is an object of my mitzvah. This sick individual is like an etrog, like a lulav – and when I visit him, I’m going to shake him, that’s what I’m going to do! And the sicker he is the better, because the more he needs me, the more he’s suffering – ‘ooh, it’s a juicy mitzvah!’ You see what the problem is?

According to this explanation, the Ten Commandments were divided into two groups in order to communicate their dual deontology. The difference between the “spiritual” and the “societal” commandments lies in the source of moral obligation: am I doing this for God, or for my fellow man? In a broader sense, this distinction teaches us that we aren’t only bound by “revealed” morality (that which God explicitly commands us to do) but also by “natural” morality (that which is decent and proper even without being formally defined as such from on high). Many commentators adopt this outlook. Recently, the textual evidence for such a position has been conveniently catalogued by R. Yehuda Amital, in a wonderful essay available both in print and online. R. Amital summarizes his stance succinctly as follows:

God created man “in His image” endowing him with moral sensitivity and a conscience – in other words, with natural morality. This sensitivity has characterized man ever since the world was created, even when it did not stem from a direct Divine command. God turns to man through his conscience and morals.

Some actions – murder, theft, perjury – are manifestly immoral, and those who commit such crimes (such as Cain, or the inhabitants of Sodom) are held accountable in the eyes of God even though their behavior had never officially been outlawed. In Torah thinking, we affirm the legal principle known as ignorantia juris non excusat, with a caveat: not knowing that something is wrong isn’t an excuse for doing it, if one could have, and therefore should have, known better.

Approach #2: Modes of Conduct

Another commentator who accepts the division of the Ten Commandments into “spiritual” and “societal” categories is R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. But R. Hirsch introduces another component into the equation. He notices that while the spiritual commandments first address themselves to man’s intellect (“I am the Lord your God;” “You shall not have another god”), then to his speech (“Do not utter My name in vain”), and finally, to his actions (“Observe the Sabbath;” “Respect your mother and father”), the societal commandments progress in the opposite direction: from action (“Do not murder;” “Do not commit adultery;” “Do not kidnap”) to speech (“Do not bear false testimony”) and only then to thought (“Do not covet”). Why do the spiritual commandments begin with thought and end with action, whereas the societal commandments begin with action and end with thought? R. Hirsch suggests the following:

[The Ten Commandments express] the following truth: All “religion” and “worship of God in heart and spirit” are worthless if they lack the power to control our words and deeds. Only through our actions and way of life can we prove that we are truly and genuinely God’s servants. Conversely, all social virtue is worthless and crumbles at the first test, as long as it aims merely at outward correctness but neglects inner loyalty and does not base itself on conscientiousness and on the purity of inner conviction. Every good and upright deed must spring from the heart, and every noble thought must be put into practice. This is the spirit that hovers over the fundamentals of God’s Torah. (רש”ר הירש על התורה ד”ה “לא תחמוד)

When it comes to religion, R. Hirsch points out, many people insist that “it’s the thought that counts:” if we hold the teachings of our tradition dear in our hearts then that should be enough. On the societal plane, conversely, we tend to argue that “actions speak louder than words:” it doesn’t really matter how we feel about each other deep down, or what we say about each other behind closed doors, as long as we maintain the external trappings of civility. It is precisely these misconceptions, claims R. Hirsch, which the Ten Commandments seek to combat. The active commandments climax the “spiritual” set and the intellectual / emotional commandments climax the “societal” one in order to teach us that we cannot bifurcate ourselves in either of these realms – what we think, what we say and what we do are all equally important, in all aspects of our lives.

Approach #3: Spheres of Ethical Responsibility

Until now, we have studied the Ten Commandments according to the approach of Maimonides, who claims that there were indeed ten commandments delivered during the revelation at Mount Sinai. However, the author of the Halakhot Gedolot – whose identity is unclear, but who is traditionally referred to as “the Bahag” – disagrees. According to the Bahag, the first commandment, “I am the Lord Your God,” is in fact not a commandment at all. We know this because the Bahag does not list “belief in God” when enumerating the list of scriptural commandments. Instead, deduces Nachmanides, the Bahag views “I am the Lord Your God” as an introduction, or a statement of fact: it is descriptive, not prescriptive. If we accept the view of the Bahag then we have nine commandments, not ten. How does this change affect the way in which we organize the commandments?

The rainbow visually represents the inverse parallels of the chiastic structure

The rainbow visually represents the inverse parallels of the chiastic structure

There’s a concept which we often refer to in Biblical studies, known as the chiastic structure. The chiastic structure is a literary device which features an inverse parallel, or a crisscrossing, of the individual elements in a body of text. In a chiasm, the first element is related to the last element, and the second element to the second-to-last, and the third element to the third-to-last, and so on, so that by the end we get a structure which, if we were to map it visually, would look like a rainbow. We find chiasms throughout the Bible, and their goal is usually to “narrow towards the middle:” that is, to gradually guide the focus of the reader towards the content at the center of the chiasm.

Without “I am the Lord Your God,” there are nine commandments which, together, form an interesting chiasm. The first commandment, “Do not have any other gods,” is a generalized, blanket ban on forbidden religious practices: do not make a “statue” or an “image,” do not beseech “the heavens above” or “the waters below,” do not “bow to them” or “worship them.” The ninth commandment, “Do not covet,” is also a comprehensive, catch-all prohibition, only its focus is on interpersonal conduct: do not crave your neighbor’s “house” or “wife,” “slave” or “maidservant,” “ox” or “donkey,” or, indeed “anything at all” which belongs to him. At the extremes of our chiasm, then, we find the basic injunctions against overreaching, either spiritually or socially, phrased in universal, all-encompassing terms.

Next we have the second commandment, “Do not take My name in vain:” do not commit perjury, do not utter any false oaths. This injunction corresponds to the eighth commandment, namely: “Do not bear false testimony.” Together, these commandments protect the judiciary. More broadly, they warn against abusing positions of authority, whether religious – to “take God’s name in vain” is to violate the trust one earns by associating oneself with matters of the spirit – legislative, or military. At the second stage of our chiasm, we find commandments concerned with regulating the institutions of government.

Moving on, we have the third commandment, “Observe the Sabbath:” we may work for “six days” but on the seventh we must “rest.” Its corollary is found in the seventh commandment, which translates directly as “Do not steal.” These commandments bring us from the public sector (government) to the private sector (commerce). This portion of the chiasm sets limits on when and how we may run our business, designating as out-of-bounds certain days of the week and certain methods for acquiring wealth.

Further inwards, we have the fourth commandment, “Honor your parents,” and, correspondingly, the sixth commandment, “Do not commit adultery.” Now we have transitioned from the public (government) to the private (commerce) to the personal – family. At this stage of the chiasm, the focus shifts to our closest relatives. Here we are instructed to safeguard the relationships which hold this nuclear network together: relationships between parents and children, and between husbands and wives.

Finally, we reach the fifth commandment, which stands alone: “Do not murder.” This, of course, is as narrow at gets: we have moved from general regulations of our spiritual and social tendencies, to regulations of government, to regulations of business, to regulations of family, and now, to regulations which protect the sanctity of a single life. The commandments, in other words, form concentric circles – overlapping spheres of ethical responsibility. At the middle, all by himself, stands the individual human being – because all we need is one person to create moral obligation.

This idea may sound self-evident, but it most certainly is not. In fact, given the Torah’s tendency towards collectivism – the notion that one must live a life that points beyond the self – its decision to define the individual as the fundamental moral unit strikes us as almost counterintuitive. We would have expected the Torah to advocate an ethic of act utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number, even when some individuals stand to suffer tremendously on behalf of the masses. But that’s not what the order of the Ten Commandments suggests, at least as we are reading them. And it is not, at any rate, what we find in our legal codes: in general, we rule that it is forbidden to murder (or to hand over for murder) one person, even for the purposes of saving the lives of many others. As the Talmud so poignantly puts it, “Who says that your blood is redder?” Once we assert, as the Torah does, that humans were created in the image of an infinite God and that each life is therefore of infinite worth, the felicific calculus (“happiness equation”) of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham immediately breaks down: there’s no measuring the value of one person’s life against those of others, for all are immeasurably valuable.

In summary

Together we have considered three approaches to analyzing the structure of the Ten Commandments. There are, of course, many more ways to divide them – this short article by R. Label Lam and this video series by R. David Fohrman, for instance, present two of the more traditional approaches which we didn’t look at together, in a manner which is engaging and accessible for audiences of all backgrounds.

What all of these approaches share in common is the Talmudic conviction which Biblical scholar James Kugel has labelled as “omnisignificance” – a conviction which he defines as:

The basic assumption underlying all of rabbinic exegesis, that the slightest details of the biblical text have a meaning that is both comprehensible and significant. Nothing in the Bible…ought to be explained as the product of chance, or, for that matter, as an emphatic or rhetorical form, or anything similar, nor ought its reasons to be assigned to the realm of Divine unknowables. Every detail is put there to teach something new and important, and it is capable of being discovered by careful analysis.

Not only the text of our Torah, but also its context and its subtext, offer us much to learn. As we say every morning, אשרינו מה טוב חלקנו: How fortunate we are to be the heirs of such a wonderfully rich tradition, which we have the pleasure of unpacking together.

Shabbat shalom!


1 Comment

  1. Bonnie says:

    This was a breathtaking answer to a series of prayers. Thank you for taking the time to put this together.

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