Ten Commandments are not commandments

June 3, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple


Central to Shavu’ot is the Revelation on Mount Sinai, where God gave “Aseret HaDibrot” (Ex. 20:1-14).

We call them “The Ten Commandments” in English, so why isn’t the Hebrew “Aseret HaMitzvot”?

The Hebrew means “Ten Words”. “Word” has several meanings; in this context it is like the phrase, “Hear the Word of the Lord”.

The language of the Ten Words is sometimes imperative (the “thou shalts”) and sometimes not (e.g. the first Word), sometimes positive (e.g. the fourth Word) and sometimes negative (e.g. the third Word).

Maimonides regards the first Word as a “commandment”: “Know and accept that I am your God”.

The Ten Words are ten principles, representative of ten categories: 1. History, 2. Theology, 3. Sanctity, 4. Work and Rest, 5. Family, 6. Life, 7. Marriage, 8. Property, 9. Honesty, 10. The Other.


Many chumashim have a supplement giving the trope or melody for the chanting of the Decalogue.

There are two basic tunes, the “upper” (“elyon”) and the “lower” (“tachton”), for the Ten Commandments.

Some people (e.g. those who follow the traditional Sephardi rite) say it would be logical to use the more dramatic “upper” tune for public reading and the less impressive “lower” one for private study, but it didn’t quite work out like this.

In order to fit the trope into the words some changes are made to the phrasing. For example, the Sabbath commandment is four verses in the “lower” tune but only one in the “upper” system.

Historically, in Ashkenazi ritual the “upper” system tended to be used on Shavu’ot and the “lower” on Shabbatot Yitro and Va’et’channan. This is the usage in some congregations in Israel.

In the Diaspora there is a widespread custom to follow the Sephardi method.


Shavu’ot practices include bringing to the kohen the “bikkurim”, the first fruits of the crops, to the accompaniment of “mikra bikkurim”, a solemn declaration (Deut. 26:1-11).

Mystics see the bikkurim as symbolic of the human being’s journey through life.

Since the Israelite who made the declaration announced that he had come to the land which God had given Israel as an inheritance, everyone should seek to spend his or her life endeavouring to attain the goal of the Land of Divine blessing.

It is customary for people who reach the end of their earthly life to give their possessions to their heirs, but the bikkurim declaration suggests that a person should not only bequeath money and possessions to one’s family and friends but also – at least metaphorically – to leave a legacy to God.

In one sense this means giving Him a package, as it were, of all one’s good deeds done on earth; in a more material sense it means establishing or enhancing a religious institution.

If really necessary, a condition can attach to such material legacies that requires the donor’s name to be publicised, though it is better to do the mitzvah without needing a vote of thanks.


Fifth of the Ten Commandments is the duty to honour one’s father and mother.

It is the only part of the Decalogue that has a reward attached – “That your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you”.

The sages say that the reward is both in this world and the World to Come.

According to tradition, which places five commandments on one of the two tablets of the Law and five on the other, this one fits on the first tablet which deals with duties between man and God.

Logic, some people argue, might have dictated something different, but the tradition is well aware that even though this appears to be a commandment between man and man, it still belongs amongst the duties to God.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) says that if we honour parents it is as if we honoured God, the Divine Parent.

The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 33) sees this commandment as arising out of “hakkarat hatov”, the acknowledgement of favours received.

It says that if we recognise our parents who brought us into the world and exerted themselves ceaselessly for us, it leads to acknowledging God who created us, our parents, and all beings, and protects and supports all His creatures constantly.

One more word – about the nature of the reward for obedience to this commandment.

What does the text mean when it says, “That your days may be long”? Does it mean that we will live longer?

If this were the case the Torah would have used a different word – not “that your days may be long”, but “that your days may be many” (the second paragraph of the Shema uses this terminology: Deut.11:21).

It is more likely that the Ten Commandments were promising longer days in the sense that each day will give us extra quality and more opportunities of living wisely, usefully and well.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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