Yitro: Nine Commandments

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |


This week's d’var Torah is sponsored by Dr. Charles and Nathalie Piwko in observance of the yahrzeit of Charlie's mother, ob”m, and in celebration of the bar mitzvah of their children, Jeremy and Imanuel. Mazal tov to the extended family.

It is customary in most shuls to read the aseret hadibrot in what is known as ta'am elyon, the upper cantillation. Whereas the ta'am tachton (the lower cantillation used throughout the Torah) divides the aseret hadibrot into 13 verses, the ta'am elyon divides the dibrot into their ten distinct units, leading thereby to quite different liturgical notations of the aseret hadibrot.

Apparently, the ta'am tachton sees no distinction between the aseret hadibrot and the rest of the Torah; each word of the Torah bears equal importance, coming as they do from the Divine author. On the other hand, the ta'am elyon attempts to recreate the grandeur of Divine revelation at Sinai, highlighting these specific ten utterances with which G-d revealed Himself. We are not just engaging in public Torah study, we are also re-experiencing Sinai. No wonder we stand when we hear these special words that changed the course of history!

The experiential aspect of Torah explains why the first of the dibrot describes G-d as the one who took us out of Egypt, rather than the seemingly more powerful description of G-d as the one who created the heaven and the earth. Our primary relationship to G-d is through His (historically frequent) intervention in our actual lives. The abstract notion of creation, important as it may be, is only mentioned as a passing detail of the command to keep Shabbat.

We learn in childhood that the aseret hadibrot are to be divided into two sections of five, each section containing either mitzvoth that address the relationship between man and G-d, or the relationship between man and man. But such a division is never mentioned in the Torah itself. Furthermore, a cursory look at the Torah will quickly reveal that while there are ten "paragraphs"—one for each of the dibrot—what we refer to as the first two dibrot, belief in G-d and the prohibition of idolatry, are actually combined into one. The Torah combines the positive aspect of belief followed by the prohibition flowing from this belief; just as it does in the case of Shabbat, where the positive command to remember the Shabbat and the prohibition of melacha are part of one "command".

Logically, this division makes perfect sense. Many have argued that the first commandment is not really a commandment at all. Belief in G-d serves as the basis for and an introduction to all other commandments, but in and of itself, it is not and cannot be a command. Either one believes in G-d or one does not; but without belief in a Commander, there can be no commandments. Interestingly, the cantillation of the ta'am elyon follows this breakdown, linking anochi and lo Yeheh lecha (what we generally refer to as the first two "commandments") into one "verse".

Of course, if we combine the first two of the dibrot, we must divide another to reach the sum of ten. A quick glance at any Chumash will note that the last of the dibrot, lo tachmod (not to be jealous), is in fact so divided. The first part prohibits jealousy of another’s home, and the second prohibits a similar desire for his wife (and everything else). While this breakdown of the aseret hadibrot seems strange to us, and is in fact rejected by most commentaries, it does appear to be the simplest reading of the text.

Read in this way, the first set of five dibrot would begin with the idea of one G-d and conclude (most appropriately) with the prohibition to murder those created in His image. The second set of five would then begin with the prohibition of adultery and conclude (most appropriately) with the command not to desire someone else's wife.

However we divide the aseret hadibrot, we begin with the notion of one G-d Who is Master of the universe, and end with the probation against envy. The desire to possess what belongs to another is a most difficult trait to avoid.  It may actually account for two of the aseret hadibrot, as envy is rooted in our inability to fully appreciate G-d's mastery over the universe. Were we able to truly absorb this idea, we would gladly accept our lot without comparing ourselves to others. May we achieve the ability to channel our jealousy into areas of spiritual growth.