The Ten Commandments Controversy

Moses and the ten commandments

In the United States, a controversy has persisted for many years regarding the placement of the “Ten Commandments” in public schools and public buildings. But one critical question seems to have escaped most of the public dialog on the subject: Whose “Ten Commandments” should we post?  Judaism, unlike Catholicism and Protestantism, considers “I am the L-rd, your G-d” to be the first “commandment.” Catholicism, unlike Judaism and Protestantism, considers coveting property to be separate from coveting a spouse. Protestantism, unlike Judaism and Catholicism, considers the prohibition against idolatry to be separate from the prohibition against worshipping other gods. No two religions agree on a single list. Whose list should we post?  Once we decide on a list, what translation should we post? Should Judaism’s sixth declaration be rendered as “Thou shalt not kill” as in the popular King James Version translation, or as “Thou shalt not murder,” which is a bit closer to the connotations of the original Hebrew though still not entirely accurate?

In Talmudic times, the rabbis consciously made a decision to exclude daily recitation of the Aseret ha-Dibrot from the liturgy because excessive emphasis on these statements might lead people to mistakenly believe that these were the only mitzvot or the most important mitzvot, and neglect the full 613. By posting these words prominently and referring to them as “The Ten Commandments,” (as if there weren’t any others, which is what many people think) schools and public buildings may be teaching a message that Judaism specifically and consciously rejected

There are different versions of the 10 Commandments, there are actually three different versions (Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant) plus a Muslim version of sorts. This variation brings up an interesting point for Americans — posting the 10 Commandments in public places not only requires a choice of religious over secular, it also necessitates a choice between religions.

The 10 Commandments appear in three places in the Bible: in Exodus, chapter 20, in Exodus, chapter 34 and in Deuteronomy, chapter 5.  All three versions differ slightly.  Historically, the commandments have been abbreviated to aid memorization, which has led to even greater differences on what to put in and what to leave out.  Exodus 34 is the only place where the label “The Ten Commandments” is used in the Christian Bible. The other two listings (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) are normally referred to as the Ten Commandments, but the actual text doesn’t describe them as such.

As far as the Muslim version we need a little background.  Muslims regard Moses as one of their greatest prophets, but they reject the Biblical versions of the Ten Commandments.  The site http://www.quran.org.uk has a chart that compares the Protestant 10 Commandments to the Muslim equivalents found in different places within the Quar’an.

“There is no formal Islamic version of the ten commandments, but each of the ten can be found embedded in both the foundational sources of Islam (the Qur’an and the Sunna – the normative example of Muhammad) as well as in later articulations of Shari ‘a (Islamic law). However, they are not to be found lumped together; instead, they would be scattered around under different topics in legal manuals.”

~ Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies at Washington University in St. Louis

A few of the differences: The Jewish Version (Exodus 20) – The Jewish version refers to the same place in the Bible as the Protestant version but emerges with a different interpretation. The initial reference to Egyptian bondage is important enough to Jews that it forms a separate commandment.  Protestant Version (Exodus 20) – This is by far the most commonly cited version of the 10 Commandments in the U.S. and applies to members of the Greek, Anglican, and Reformed traditions.  Catholic/Lutheran Version (Deuteronomy 5) – Catholics and Lutherans follow this particular version, the text of which was likely written around 300 years later than the Exodus text. Interestingly, the Catholic version omits the prohibition against graven images, which is fitting, as the Roman Catholic church displays many shrines and statues. Catholics and Lutherans separate the two kinds of coveting (namely, of goods and of the flesh), while Protestants (but not Lutherans) and Jews group them together.

According to Jewish tradition, G-d gave the Jewish people 613 mitzvot (commandments). All 613 of those mitzvot are equally sacred, equally binding and equally the word of G-d.

“Be as meticulous in performing a ‘minor’ mitzvah as you are with a ‘major’ one, because you don’t know what kind of reward you’ll get for various mitzvot.”

~ Pirkei Avot, a book of the Mishnah

 It’s important to remember that in the Torah, these words are never referred to as the Ten Commandments.   In rabbinical texts, they are referred to as Aseret ha-Dibrot. The words d’varim and dibrot come from the Hebrew root Dalet-Beit-Reish, meaning word, speak or thing; thus, the phrase is accurately translated as the Ten Sayings, the Ten Statements, the Ten Declarations, the Ten Words or even the Ten Things, but not as the Ten Commandments, which would be Aseret ha-Mitzvot.  The Aseret ha-Dibrot are not understood as individual mitzvot; rather, they are categories or classifications of mitzvot. Each of the 613 mitzvot can be subsumed under one of these ten categories, some in more obvious ways than others.

Let’s examine the Jewish version:

  1. Belief in G-d

This category is derived from the declaration in Ex. 20:2 beginning, “I am the L-rd, your G-d…”

  1. Prohibition of Improper Worship

This category is derived from Ex. 20:3-6, beginning, “You shall not have other gods…” It encompasses within it the prohibition against the worship of other gods as well as the prohibition of improper forms of worship of the one true G-d, such as worshiping G-d through an idol.

  1. Prohibition of Oaths

This category is derived from Ex. 20:7, beginning, “You shall not take the name of the L-rd your G-d in vain…” This includes prohibitions against perjury, breaking or delaying the performance of vows or promises, and speaking G-d’s name or swearing unnecessarily.

  1. Observance of Sacred Times

This category is derived from Ex. 20:8-11, beginning, “Remember the Sabbath day…” It encompasses all mitzvot related to Shabbat, holidays, or other sacred time.

  1. Respect for Parents and Teachers

This category is derived from Ex. 20:12, beginning, “Honor your father and mother…”

  1. Prohibition of Physically Harming a Person

This category is derived from Ex. 20:13, saying, “You shall not murder.”

  1. Prohibition of Sexual Immorality

This category is derived from Ex. 20:13, saying, “You shall not commit adultery.”

  1. Prohibition of Theft

This category is derived from Ex. 20:13, saying, “You shall not steal.” It includes within it both outright robbery as well as various forms of theft by deception and unethical business practices. It also includes kidnapping, which is essentially “stealing” a person.

  1. Prohibition of Harming a Person through Speech

This category is derived from Ex. 20:13, saying, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” It includes all forms of lashon ha-ra (sins relating to speech).

  1. Prohibition of Coveting

This category is derived from Ex. 20:14, beginning, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…”

Sources: “Essential Judaism” Robinson, George. 2016. Myjewishlearning.com. Chabad.org. jewfaq.org. undergod.procon.org.

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