I have a question that’s been bothering me about the Ten Commandments. I learned how, unlike the rest of the Torah—which G‑d first taught Moses, who then later relayed it to the Jewish people—the Ten Commandments were told to the Jewish people by G‑d Himself.

And, unlike the rest of the Torah—which was written by Moses at G‑d’s behest—G‑d Himself engraved the Ten Commandments into the two tablets.

I know that many parts of the Torah have become part of the daily prayers. I'm wondering, if the Ten Commandments are so special, why are they not included in the daily prayers as well?


The Historical Response

The truth is that in ancient times, the kohanim (priests) in the Holy Temple would indeed recite the Ten Commandments every day, together with the recitation of the Shema.1 The Talmud tells us that the sages wanted to establish the reading of the Ten Commandments as an everyday prayer outside the Temple as well, but did not do so because it gave rise to the argument of the “heretics” that “only the Ten Commandments were from Sinai.”2

In other words, the rabbis were against giving special prominence to the Ten Commandments in public, lest some point to such customs as proof that Jews treated these commandments differently than the other mitzvahs. By omitting them from the prayerbook, the rabbis hoped to silence such claims.

Nevertheless, when these concerns are mitigated, there is room to give special prominence to the Ten Commandments, which is why many still have the custom to recite them daily, albeit not as part of the official daily prayers.3

However, there seems to be a dichotomy here. On the one hand, one cannot escape the fact that the Ten Commandments were given directly from G‑d at Mount Sinai. On the other hand, the rabbis were concerned about singling out the Ten Commandments, lest people believe they have a greater status than the other 603. Why this apparent contradiction?

Defining the Big Ten

To shed some light on all this, we first have to clear up an extremely common misconception. Although the Hebrew aseret hadibrot is commonly translated as the “Ten Commandments,” in truth this is a gross mistranslation, and it is more accurately translated as the “Ten Utterances” or “Ten Statements." (This isn’t mere semantics; there are actually 13 or 14 commandments in the “Ten Commandments.”4)

These ten utterances are not just about the specific instructions found therein. Rather, our sages explain that the entire Torah is contained within them. Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (882–942) even wrote a liturgical hymn for Shavuot,5 in which he distributed all of the the mitzvahs under the headings of each of the Ten Commandments.6

How do these ten ideas express the overarching theme of the Torah?

Interestingly, the Ten Commandments contain lofty and cosmic ideas—belief in G‑d’s unity and not worshipping idols—as well as very simple and ordinary mitzvahs—don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t be jealous, etc. Why are they both needed? Chassidut explains that man’s purpose is not just to pursue intellectual pursuits or to be overcome with great feelings for G‑d. It is through doing the seemingly simple and ordinary acts that one truly reveals G‑dliness in this world.7

So while the Ten Commandments are important—indeed, central to our purpose in life—it’s imperative to keep them in the context of the entire Torah, and remember the perspective that they give us when doing all of the mitzvahs, which were all given at Sinai.