What Are the Ten Commandments?

The 10 Commandments (or Aseret Hadibrot, “The Ten Statements,” in Hebrew) were communicated by G‑d to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, 40 days after the Exodus from Egypt. The event is known as the Giving of the Torah. G‑d then carved the Ten Commandments onto two tablets of stone, which he gave to Moses. Moses smashed the tablets, and G‑d carved the Ten Commandments onto a second set of tablets, which were subsequently placed in the Ark of the Covenant.

The 10 Commandments contain within them the kernel from which the others emerge.The Ten Commandments are not the entirety of G‑d’s instructions for His people (there are 613 commandments). However, they contain within them the kernel from which the others emerge.

English Translation of the Ten Commandments

  1. I am the L‑rd your G‑d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
  2. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them. For I the L‑rd your G‑d am a jealous G‑d, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.
  3. You shall not take the name of the L‑rd your G‑d in vain; for the L‑rd will not hold him guiltless that takes His name in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the L‑rd your G‑d. On it you shall not do any manner of work—you, your son, your daughter, your man-servant, your maid-servant, your cattle, and your stranger that is within your gates. For in six days the L‑rd made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the L‑rd blessed the Sabbath Day, and hallowed it.
  5. Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long upon the land which the L‑rd your G‑d gives you.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maid-servant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.

(Learn the Ten Commandments with Rashi’s commentary, here.)

Reading the Ten Commandments in Synagogue

The Ten Commandments are read publicly three times a year, twice when it comes up in the weekly Torah reading (in the portions of Yitro and Va’etchanan), and once again on the first day of the holiday of Shavuot. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, encouraged every single Jewish person, from babies to senior citizens, to be present at the reading on Shavuot, reliving the original giving of the Torah at Sinai.

When the Ten Commandments are read in the synagogue, they are sung in a special tune known as taam elyon (“upper inflection”), thus named because the cantillation marks used to guide the reader are found above the words, as opposed to an ordinary taam, where marks are also found below the text.

Read a brief history on how the Torah is read here.

Two Versions of the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments are recorded twice in the Torah, once in Exodus 20, and once again in Deuteronomy 5. The two versions are almost identical, but there are differences, with the version in Deuteronomy being somewhat longer. This is because Deuteronomy is Moses’ retelling of the events that transpired 40 years earlier with the addition of his insightful commentary.

One very significant difference is in the fourth commandment. The Exodus version begins with “Remember the Sabbath,” and the Deuteronomy version starts with “Keep the Sabbath.” The rabbis say that both are accurate. G‑d actually spoke the command to keep Shabbat (by desisting from forbidden work) and remember Shabbat (through declaring its sanctity) simultaneously, something incomprehensible to the human mind.1

The Giving of the Ten Commandments

On the morning of 6 Sivan, 50 days after having left Egypt and six days after they camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, the people of Israel awoke to thunder and lightning and a deep, powerful horn blast. As they approached Mount Sinai, they saw it ablaze, a thick cloud at its peak. Trembling in awe and fear, they gathered at the foot of the mountain as Moses ascended alone to the top.

Against this incredible backdrop, G‑d spoke the Ten Commandments all together in one moment. He then went on to repeat them to the people one at a time. After the first two commandments, He enabled Moses to transmit the remaining eight commandments to them in a G‑dly, powerful voice. After each commandment, the entire Jewish people died from the intensity of the Divine voice, and G‑d subsequently brought them back to life. After that, the people asked that Moses act as an intermediary for them, communicating with G‑d on the mountain and then conveying G‑d’s will to them.2

The reverberations of this communication went much further than Sinai. The earth itself trembled as G‑d communicated His presence to mankind.

(Read more about the momentous revelation at Sinai, here.)

Why Ten Commandments?

G‑d created the world with ten utterances. There were then 10 generations from Adam to Noah, and another 10 generations from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham, whose progeny would be saved from Egypt by 10 plagues and go on to accept the Ten Commandments at Sinai. See the pattern there? The entire purpose of creation was to set the stage for the performance of mitzvahs, as represented by the Ten Commandments.

The Symmetry of the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments were carved on two tablets, so let us visualize them as being laid out as follows:

      
Tablet One Tablet Two
1. I am the L-rd your G‑d … 6. You shall not murder.
2. You shall have no gods … 7. You shall not commit adultery.
3. You shall not take the name of the L-rd your G‑d in vain … 8. You shall not steal.
4. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy … 9. You shall not bear false witness …
5. Honor your father and mother … 10. You shall not covet your neighbor's house …

Note that we can read the commandments down each tablet, or we can read them from side to side. This Midrash3 provides the connection:

Commandments 1 and 6: Every human is created in the image of G‑d, so murder is an affront to the Creator.

Commandments 2 and 7: When one worships a deity other than G‑d, it is as akin to adultery. G‑d is our loving spouse (and much more).

Commandments 3 and 8: A person may feel that stealing is only between him and the victim, but it is also a crime against G‑d, whose name will ultimately be taken falsely.

Commandments 4 and 9: Through keeping Shabbat, we testify that G‑d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. When one disregards Shabbat, he testifies falsely about the Divine origin of the universe.

Commandments 5 and 10: The juxtaposition of jealousy and honoring parents tell us that one who lusts after that which is not his, will ultimately give birth to a child who curses his parents and honors others instead.

G‑d Is In the Details

Looking at the two tablets, you’ll notice that in addition to the commandments on the second tablet being much shorter, the subject is different than the commandments on the first tablet. The commandments on the first tablet are about spiritual matters, between man and the Creator. The commandments on the second tablet, however, seem to be about material matters, with no apparent connection to G‑d or spiritual pursuits. In fact, while every one of the first five commandments includes G‑d’s name, His name is not mentioned once in the second set of five.

Yet all the commandments are given equal weight, because embedded in these simple acts of decency is the formula for G‑d’s plan for the world. Indeed, if you add up all the (Hebrew) words on the second tablet, you’ll arrive at the number 26, the numerical value of G‑d’s ineffable name. Below the surface, G‑d is as present in this set of commandments as He is in the ones where He is overtly mentioned.

(Explore the Ten Commandments Anthology, here.)