The Other Ten Commandments

Detail on synagogue in Rome - A menorah and the Ten Commandments atop the synagogue in the Jewish ghetto in Rome, Italy (S. Cazon photo/ under Creative Commons 2.0 license)
Detail on synagogue in Rome – A menorah and the Ten Commandments atop the synagogue in the Jewish ghetto in Rome, Italy (S. Cazon photo/ under Creative Commons 2.0 license)

Shabbat Ki Tisa; Exodus 30:11-34:35

And the LORD said unto Moses:

‘Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first; and I will write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables, which thou didst break.’

The Hebrew Bible is full of commandments. I’ve read that the word “commandment” appears about 90 times in the KJV translation, while more modern, less-imperious translations substitute “command” or “instruction” for most of these instances.

For the Jewish People, Commandment is a foundational term. Jewish observance consists in studying and observing the “613” mitzvoth. Moreover, the evidence of God’s favor toward the Jewish people is that He has blessed them (kidishanu b’mitzvotav) with the 613, while blessing the other nations with only seven.

Mitzvoth are ranked high in the construct of Jewish law. The prayer Ahavat Olam gives us the hierarchy:


Mitzvoth (613)



But for most people, including many Jews, the word “commandment” evokes a specific group of words, the Ten Commandments or Ten Words (divarim) that figure so prominently in Jewish thought and even in synagogue artwork. Many Christians and Jews even consider the Ten Commandments the essence of Torah and the foundation of morality; they believe this so fervently that they are willing to challenge the First Amendment to be permitted to place representations of the Ten in public, secular spaces.

But, as is often the case, people who invoke the authority of the Bible have not studied it closely.

The Ten Commandments Story

If you have seen the movie, you think you know the story. After a meeting with God, Moses descends Har Sinai holding two tablets with words written in an ancient Hebrew script. He sees the debauchery of the Israelites and the Golden Calf, throws down the stone tablets, smashing them. He oversees the summary execution of several thousand idolaters. Then, apparently calmed by the mass execution, he returns to Har Sinai for another forty days and nights (without eating or drinking, we are told) during which Adonai Himself etches a new—presumably identical–copy of the text with a flaming pen.

Alas, this Hollywood version, ensconced in most minds, bears little resemblance to the version in the Book of Exodus.

The first time Moses descends from Har Sinai, there are no stone tablets, there is no golden calf, and there is no reference to the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words) at all. Moses and/or YHVH simply speak (thunder) the words that most people associate with the Big Ten, starting with “I am the Lord your God…” and finishing with a list of things we must not “covet.” Again, Moses does not call these ten of anything. The proof that the text does not fit that “ten” construct is easily seen in the fact that Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic/Lutheran texts have different lists of ten. In fact, the famous Ten Commandments statue that caused so much stir in the Alabama courts contains eleven commandments, not ten.

Moreover, Maimonides, in cataloging the mitzvoth, found fourteen commandments in what most people call the Ten Commandments:

  1. To know that there is God the Eternal
  2. There is no other God besides the only One God the Eternal
  3. Not to make any kind of image or likeness for idolatrous practices
  4. Not to practice idolatry or take part in any way in idolatrous practices
  5. Not to engage in any idol worship whatsoever
  6. Not to swear falsely, not to take an oath for no valid reason; Not to utter the name of God to no purpose
  7. To bear in mind that the Sabbath must be observed in all its sanctity
  8. No manner of work may be performed on the Sabbath
  9. One must honor one’s parents
  10. Not to commit murder
  11. Not to commit adultery: not to have any illicit relations with the opposite sex
  12. Not to steal (and not to kidnap or deceive)
  13. Not to give false testimony (and not to slander or spread false rumors)
  14. Not to covet

Twelve chapters of Exodus later, Moses is summoned back to the mountain, where God promises to provide him with a set of tablets on which are inscribed His commandments. But what they talk about is NOT the ten commandments we recognize, but, rather, priestly procedures for the tent of meeting and related matters (also known as the Covenant Code). It is these tablets that Moses carries down to camp (their contents not disclosed) and these which he breaks.

After the execution of the unfaithful, Moses does return to the mountain, where God has promised to create a replacement copy. And this time Moses does, in fact, descend carrying tablets that contain the “ten words” that represent God’s covenant with Israel. But they barely resemble the Decalogue that most of us know.

The Ritual Ten Commandments

Par’sha Ki Tisa contains an alternate version of the ten commandments (Exodus 34: 14-26), with far fewer of the important ethical principles we associate with the first decalogue and more of the cultic, priestly ritual that appears in this sedra. They, not the earlier ones, are labeled the Ten Words and they, according such writers as K. Budde (History of Ancient Israel), are the first or original list. (Although other critics believe they were contemporaneous, from different sources.)

Exodus 34:

14        Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

17        Do not make cast idols.

18        Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.

19        The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock.

21        Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.

22        Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year.

25        Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast,

25        and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until morning.

26        Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.

27         Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.


Among Bible scholars, this list is sometimes called the Ritual Ten Commandments, because of the emphasis on specific religious practices, rather than general ethical principles. The first two are a variation of the more famous commandments (one God, no idols) and the fifth reinforces the centrality of the Sabbath. Three refer specifically to Pesach, one to Shavuot, and two to the management of the firstborn/firstfruits (a large part of the food and revenue stream for the Levites). And last is the famous injunction banning the boiling of the kid—an echo of superstitions found among early African tribes–which is the basis for the kashrut laws regarding meat and dairy.

Despite the brevity of this list, it manages to prescribe dietary laws, sabbath observance, and two major festivals. So, this concise list covers a very large part of the daily/weekly lives of today’s observant Jews.

Authors and Editors

Those who study the authorship and redacting of the Torah have little data to go on. Today’s consensus seems to be that the Ritual Commandments are a J-E document (along with the Covenant Code) and that the Ethical Decalogue was inserted by other Priestly writers. But the dating is uncertain. The Book of Deuteronomy, “found” before the Babylonian exile, contains the Ethical Decalogue (with minor variations in the Sabbath commandment) and is probably the source of the popular confusion.

Deuteronomy 5: 

These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me. 

It is this passage that conflates the Ethical Commandments with the stone tablets. (And also refers to Mount Sinai as Mount Horeb, adding to the confusion.)

Michael Carasik (The Bible’s Many Voices, 2014) believes that the three occurrences represent tables-of-contents or executive summaries of three distinguishable codes: First Ethical Ten, Priestly authors laying out Aaronide Priestly code; Ritual Ten, J-E authors explicating another Covenant in the form of rules; Second Ethical Ten, the Deuteronomist’s revision of the Aaronide list, followed by an alternate set of laws in which, for example, there is a considerably different discussion of the rules of slavery.

Many scholars find it fruitless to date the various lists; they come from different sources and probably represent Northern/Southern rivalries, many of which were never harmonized during the final redaction of the text.

Implications for Rabbinical Teaching

There is probably no set of passages more useful for introducing and demonstrating the documentary hypothesis than these rival decalogues.

This is not to say, though, that certain Christians and Jews resist the documentary explanation and insist that there are no contradictions and inconsistencies.  Some students of the Torah text, for example, find a larger than usual space separating the words “ten commandments” from the Ritual Decalogue and therefore insist it refers to the earlier Ethical list, not the Ritual List. Still others observe that there are “two tables”—the Ethical list on one, the Ritual list on the other. And, of course, the most noticeable inconsistency between the two versions of the Ethical Decalogue (Exodus and Deuteronomy) is embedded in the liturgy with the verse from L’cha Dodi: Shamor v’zakhor b’dibur ead! (“Guard and remember are the same word.”) Conflict solved.

I have no quarrel with those who take this approach, who argue that the Bible is perfect and should be received at face value as not only revelation but as the history of Israel. I merely suggest, though, that anyone who makes such a claim should base it on accurate reading of the text—not fanciful extrapolations from the narrative. In much the way that most Christians have derived their understanding of Hell from the poetry of John Milton or Dante (and perhaps the paintings of Bosch) without reference to their Bible, most Jews and Christians have formed their impressions of the Ten Commandments not just from eponymous motion pictures, but also from the greatest painting and sculpture of the Renaissance.

For example, the notion that the tables on which the Commandments appear have rounded tops, an image that is expressed throughout American synagogues, even to the design of the Ark, appears nowhere in the Torah. We have artists like Rembrandt to thank for that image. (I once stayed in a Haifa hotel whose façade was a giant representation of the curve-top tablets.)

And perhaps the greatest, most widely-known, and insidious extrapolation comes from a Latin mistranslation of the Hebrew word “caron” (shining) as “horned.” According to the text, when Moses reappeared with the new tablets containing the laws of the covenant, “his skin shone” with a kind of nimbus, so bright that he covered it with a mask while speaking to the Israel. Thus, we are faced with the absurdity of Michelangelo’s horned Moses, a masterpiece, looking like a devil and lending authority to those who claim that the Jews are demons or agents of Satan.

At least in Michelangelo’s statue, the tablets are rectangular.

My point is that anyone who wishes to take the Tanach as fact, to treat it as a unitary and consistent body of narratives and rules…such a person should be encouraged or even obliged to study it closely, to see what it actually says (and what it doesn’t). There are too many people, I fear, who invoke the authority of the Bible to justify their social and political opinions, but who rely on non-existent proof texts. (Where is the Biblical marriage standard of one man and one woman, for example?)

There are people who are so sure that there are no inconsistencies in the Bible that they ignore the obvious examples in the text. Long ago, I was discussing this issue with a person who claimed to be a “Bible Christian” and I asked her to tell me how many of each animal Noah took on the Ark. She replied: “One pair of each.” And then I showed her this verse:

Genesis 7:2  Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male

and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and

his female.

She looked in amazement and asked me: “Where did you get this Bible?” In a classic illustration of cognitive dissonance, the facts were so misaligned with her ideas, that she felt forced to deny the facts! (The Bible was, of course, the KJV, not some trick book I sprang on her.) I think she even checked to see if I had horns.


1 Comment

  1. Nice.
    Thank you.
    Although I have no idea what this has to do with aging. I’m an accidental web tourist annways. I just wanted the location of this alternate decalogue.

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