The Ten Commandments: Some More Than Others

At the synagogue-turned-church next to my bus stop growing up, there was a replication of the Ten Commandments right above its entrance, in perfect view as my friends and I got off the bus from school. Beyond synagogue and church architecture, the Ten Commandments have captured the popular imagination, both in our tradition and in our country, for generations. In Judaism, the Ten Commandments represent the moment when the Israelites receive the very Torah that has served as its backbone for 2500 years. 

In America, the Ten Commandments have inspired a number of interesting responses.

In Princeton University Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit’s book, Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments, she offers a number of examples. These range from an 1860 false alarm when an amateur archaeologist in Ohio mistook material culture from a Native American burial mound to be the shards of the plaques containing the Ten Commandments, to a Kansas lawmaker’s attempt at codifying the Ten Commandments into American law in the 1890s, to Cecile B. Demile’s 1956 hit movie The Ten Commandments

However, as the Ten Commandments have made it into American popular culture, so too have they become more a symbol to be revered than an ancient text to be studied and questioned as Jewish tradition encourages. When I looked over the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion with a classmate, I noticed a subtle, implicit prioritization of significance among the commandments. Of the 13 verses used to describe the Ten Commandments, eight of those verses are dedicated to just two of the ten instructions (Exodus 20:2-14). That’s over 60% of the verses used on 20% of the commandments! 

Four verses are dedicated to the commandment against idol worship, and another four are dedicated to remembering the Sabbath. For context, all four commandments against murder, adultery, theft, and false witness are squished into one verse. As opposed to the popular depiction of the Ten Commandments, each taking up one line of a neat two-by-five stone tablet, the Ten Commandments found in the Book of Exodus give much more space to the prohibition against idol worship and instruction to remember the Sabbath. 

What is it about idol worship and the Sabbath that warrant 60% of the Ten Commandments’ airtime? The historical answer is that prohibiting idol worship and remembering the Sabbath were unique Israelite innovations. These two commandments distinguished the Israelites from other Ancient Near Eastern religions who practiced polytheism and didn’t have a religiously commanded day of rest each week. On the other hand, prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, and false witness were already included in other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes, such as the Code of Hamurabi, and were therefore more familiar. Idol worship and the Sabbath needed to be explicated as newer concepts that aren’t innate to humanity’s moral code. 

The Torah, however, isn’t merely a historical document, and the fact that idol worship and the Sabbath take up more than half of the actual words of the Ten Commandments points toward deeper spiritual, emotional, and moral truths that hold up today. Commandments like the prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, and false witness are essentially formalities. According to the school of moral emotions, such universal wrongs elicit feelings of shame and guilt without any sort of commandment prohibiting them. Avoiding idol worship and remembering the Sabbath aren’t as inherently programmed in us, requiring the lengthier explanation in the Ten Commandments.

The Hebrew Bible is highly concerned with idol worship. After all, monotheism was one of its major religious innovations. In the Ancient Near East, people believed their gods inhabited certain statues and figurines, using them for prayer and divination. And while these cultic practices are less prevalent today, idol worship is still ubiquitous in our world. David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College said: 

“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things… then you will never have enough… Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly… On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths and proverbs… The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid… Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

If worshipping idols is our default, no wonder we need four full verses of the Ten Commandments to explain it. These verses seek to break us out of our default setting, and inspire us to strive for what is enduring and true. Rather than worship the statues of the Ancient Near East, the Ten Commandments urge us to have faith in the one invisible God. And instead of worshipping the glory, status, and immediate gratification of the items on David Foster Wallace’s list, the prohibition against idol worship in the Ten Commandments urges us to consider the deeper, eternal values we wish to live by.

Remembering Shabbat is another value that might not come as naturally to our social-emotional sensibilities, and warrants another four out of the 13 verses of the Ten Commandments. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). There is much to be said about Shabbat — the day of the week dedicated to self-care, family time, rest, and reflection. The commandment goes on, however, to say “you shall not do any manner of work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates” (Exodus 20:9-10). Remembering the Sabbath extends beyond self-care and requires us to recognize the dignity of all those around us by granting everyone a day of rest. 

The reason is provided in the next verse, “for in six days the Eternal God made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11). We recognize the divine spark in each of us and honor it by reflecting God’s behavior at the end of creation and taking a beat. While it might not be our natural inclination to intentionally mark time and rest — I assume I’m not the only one who has gotten lost in the days this pandemic — the four verses that command the Israelites to remember the Sabbath also remind us to honor the dignity and divinity of each human life with a day free from labor. This is an essential reminder in a world where it is commonplace to get caught up in our own individual affairs.

The Ten Commandments don’t each take up the same amount of space, and for good reason. Some values are less intuitive to our innate moral compasses. Consciously avoiding idol worship challenges us to break the default human settings of immediate gratification. And remembering Shabbat honors the divinity in each person as we take a pause from the production of life. All of the Ten Commandments impart important lessons, but some offer more unique insights for our lives today.