The Ten Commandments

By AJ Jacobs

Also called the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments are the most famous and influential Top Ten list in history. 

The Ten Commandments can be found in the Bible in two sections – Deuteronomy and Exodus – using slightly different wording (for instance, one says to “keep the Sabbath,” another to “observe the Sabbath.”) 

According to the Bible, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of two stone tablets, which he delivered to the Hebrews. 

This list is often seen as the bedrock of Judeo-Christian ethics, and has have had massive influence in all areas of Western life. They are phrased mostly in the negative, telling believers what NOT to do – a format that influenced the U.S. Bill of Rights. The Ten Commandments have been a mainstay in pop culture, from Cecille B. Demille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments to Mel Brook’s “History of the World,” which depicts Moses holding 15 Commandments before dropping and breaking one of the tablets. 

The commandments are broken up slightly differently depending on religious tradition. 

Below is the Jewish way of breaking them down, along with overly short explanations (you could fill a book interpreting just one commandment, and many have done so). 

  1. “I am the Lord thy God.” Granted, this doesn’t sound like Commandment as much as a declarative statement. However, Jewish scholars interpret this as an implicit commandment. Essentially, “Believe in my existence and respect my authority as supreme.”
  2. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. 

This is traditionally seen as the basis of monotheistic Abrahamic religions, and a rejection of the polytheism that preceded it. Namely, the God of the Ten Commandments is the one and only true God, and to acknowledge any other god is akin to idolatry and paganism. However, some biblical scholars believe that this Commandment was, at the time, interpreted slightly differently. It meant that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was the top god, the number one boss god, but not necessarily the only god. There might be other gods, but none could be “before” or “more important” than the God at Mount Sinai. 

  1. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. 

This commandment reminds believers that the very name of God is sacred, and should not be uttered trivially. Some commentators believe it was to prohibit pagan-like rituals of using God’s name in a magical incantation. Others believe its purpose was to prevent perjury, since taking an oath to God was often used as a safeguard for promises. 

Whatever its original intent, in Judaism, the commandment has expanded to a taboo against uttering or writing God’s formal name YHWH in many circumstances. Often Jews will refer to God as “Hashem,” which means “The Name,” and will use a dash when writing the word “G-d.” 

  1. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. 

This commandment was seen as a great ethical advance for the Jewish people. Even the lowliest workers deserved one day per week free from work, one day out of seven for themselves and their devotion. The famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel memorably called the Sabbath a “sanctuary in time.” Over the years, rabbis have developed elaborate rules about what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath, or Shabbat. Strict Orthodox Jews refrain from writing, business, making phone calls, cooking, and many other activities from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. 

  1. Honor thy father and mother 

The Bible has many references to the importance of respecting the elderly – which was not a given in ancient times when manual labor was key to survival, and the elderly could be seen as a burden.  This commandment makes it specific – honor your mother and father, for you would not exist without them. It is often seen as a parallel to honoring the parent of all parents: God. Incidentally, failing to honor your parents was no small peccadillo. The Hebrew scriptures say an insolent child could be stoned to death. 

  1. Thou shalt not murder 

This commandment is often mistranslated as “Thou shalt not kill.” But there are many other parts of the Bible in which killing is justified (see above, and stoning insolent children). Instead, this is a commandment against unjustified killing. 

  1. Thou shalt not commit adultery 

This commandment is often seen today as an endorsement of monogamy. But many biblical scholars say that, at the time, “adultery” had a different and more narrow definition. Adultery meant sex with a married woman. Married women were off-limits. Married men, on the other hand…well, they had more leeway—as long as the woman who was the object of their lust didn’t already belong to another Israelite man. If you sleep with an unmarried woman, you would either compensate the father or else marry her in addition to any current wives you had. Polygamy, at the time, was not prohibited. 

Many modern scholars now interpret the Bible to have powerful lessons about feminism, but when it was first written, gender equality was not a priority. 

  1. Thou shalt not steal 

Another commandment with multiple interpretations. Many scholars consider this to be a prohibition against stealing people, such as another man’s wife. In other words, kidnapping. However, other scholars have broadened the commandment to cover more traditional theft of goods. 

  1. Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor 

Most Jewish scholars say this commandment originated as a ban on perjury. However, as with other commandments, its meaning has been expanded, in this case to include a prohibition against lying. 

  1. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or servant, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. 

The word covet is a translation of the Hebrew root hamad, roughly equivalent to “desire” or “want.” There are two schools of thought on what the commandment is preventing. Some interpreters say that coveting in itself isn’t forbidden. It’s not always bad to yearn. It’s coveting your neighbor’s stuff that’s forbidden. As one rabbi puts it, it’s OK to covet a Jaguar—but you shouldn’t covet your neighbor’s Jaguar. In other words, if your desire might lead you to harm your neighbor, then it’s wrong. But others say that coveting any Jaguar is wrong, whether it’s your neighbor’s or the one at the dealership. A moderate interest in cars is OK. However, coveting means that you are overly desirous of the Jaguar, you are distracted by material goods, you have veered from the path of being thankful for what God provides. You have, no doubt, fallen victim to advertising, the Tenth Commandment’s arch-nemesis.

Interestingly, the 10 Commandments are not the only commandments in the Hebrew Bible. Observant Jews traditionally count 613 commands, or mitzvot, in the Torah. The other 603 commandments over a variety of topics, including some of the more obscure ritual laws, such as not wearing clothes made of two kinds of fabric. Observant Jews believe, in one sense, all 613 rules are equally important, but acknowledge at the same time that the Ten Commandments still hold a special place.