The Meaning of the Structure of the Ten Commandments
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
One of the main topics of this week’s parashah is the revelation at Mount Sinai. This historic event is one of the most significant in Jewish history because it was when God gave the Torah to the people of Israel. At this event, the entire nation experienced a singular revelation and took upon itself to obey the commandments of God when they said “Na’aseh ve’nishma,” “We will do, and we will hear.”
At the event itself, the nation heard the Ten Commandments. Later, the Ten Commandments were engraved on the two Tablets of the Covenant. Later, after being on Mount Sinai for forty days, Moses brought them down to the people of Israel.
God gave Moses two tablets of stone. Most of the commentators believe that there were five commandments on each tablet, suggesting a symmetrical division.
What could be the meaning of the of the distribution of the commandments? Is there a reason the commandments appear five in each tablet or is that simply a symmetrical way to arrange them?
I will share with you three different explanations of the division of the commandments in two tablets:
1) Ben adam laMakom / Ben adam lechavero
The first five commandments deal with the relationship between human beings and God, “ben adam laMakom,” and the other five deal with relations between one person and another “ben adam lechavero”. Nachmanides explains that of the ten commandments, five are for honoring the Creator and five for the benefit of human beings.
2) People of Israel / All the Nations
Hizkuni on Ex. 20:11 affirms that the first five commandments are directed only at the people of Israel because they express particular laws of the Jewish tradition, and the last five are directed at all the nations of the world because they express basic moral and universal values.
3) There is a meaning in the correlation between the two groups of commandments
There is a Midrash in Mekhilta, Yitro 8 that explains that there were five commandments in each tablet, not because of aesthetics or insufficient space but in order to show a connection between the commandments on the first tablet and those on the second. Thus, there is a reason to have five commandments in each tablet.
Following this Midrash, we can read the commandments down each tablet, or we can read them from side to side:
Commandments 1 and 6: Every human is created in the image of God, so murder is an affront to the Creator.
Commandments 2 and 7: When one worships a deity other than God, it is as akin to adultery.
Commandments 3 and 8: Stealing will lead to a false oath which means to swear falsely in the name of God.
Commandments 4 and 9: Through keeping Shabbat, we testify that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. A person who disregards Shabbat is testifying falsely about the Divine origin of the universe.
Commandments 5 and 10: The person who covets his fellow person’s wife could father a child who rejects his true parents and honors another instead.
As you can see here, the commandments of the two tablets are correlated and intertwined.
Thus, following the three explanations mentioned above, we may say that there are many differences between the first five commandments and the other ones. We may further affirm that there is a reason to have them separated by being written on two different tablets.
The first tablet deals with God, faith, and beliefs. The other tablet deals with ethical laws among human beings. Both categories are very important aspects of our tradition.
If we only observe the commandments written on the first tablet, we miss the commandments written in the second one and vice versa.
Therefore, even if we are very good believers and loyal to God but we do not behave ethically with our fellows, we are not completely good Jews. Furthermore, if we behave ethically with our fellows butdo not keep our rituals and traditions, we still are not completely good Jews.
Observing the commandments contained inthe Tablets of the Covenant is not complete if we followonly the half contained in one of the two tablets. There is a deep connection between the contents of the two tablets, and we should keep them united as a whole.
Maybe it was for this reason that God gave Moses two tablets, to show us the difference between the two groups of commandments and, at the same time, to show us that all the commandments are equally important and intertwined.