Our Blog

artwork: Marc Chagall, The Ten Commandments

What are all those courthouse monuments and bulletin boards on the highway all about, anyway?  The Ten Commandments might form the basis of civil society in the west, or they might be a specific set of rules given to a specific group of people at a specific time, or they might be the Jews’ great gift to the moral universe.  Or, possibly, all three.  And there are three hosts on this week’s podcast, as Daniel and Karl are joined by the great Jane Gerdsen.  Subscribe through any fine podcasting service, or listen with the player below.  This week’s midrash are below the player.



Exodus 20

1 (Rashi / Mechilta) God spoke: Heb. אֱלֹהִים.  W (20:1)

[The word] אֱֱלֹהִים always means “a judge.” [This Divine Name is used here] because there are some sections in the Torah [that contain commandments] that if a person performs them, he receives a reward, but if not, he does not receive any punishment for them. I might think that so it is with the Ten Commandments. Therefore, Scripture says: “God (אֱלֹהִים) spoke,” [signifying God’s role as] a Judge, [Whose function is] to mete out punishment [when the Ten Commandments are not obeyed].


1 (Rashi / Mechilta) all these words:

[This] teaches [us] that the Holy One, blessed be He, said the Ten Commandments in one utterance, something that is impossible for a human being to say [in a similar way]. If so, why does the Torah say again, “I am [the Lord, your God (verse 2)]” and “You shall have no…” (verse 3)? Because He later explained each statement [of the Ten Commandments] individually.


1 (Midrash Rabbah) G‑d spoke all these words (20:1)

When G‑d gave the Torah no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, none of the angels stirred a wing, the seraphim did not say “Holy, Holy,” the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak. The whole world was hushed into breathless silence, and the voice went forth: “I am the L‑rd your G‑d.”


2 (The Chassidic Masters) I am the L‑rd your G‑d, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt (20:2)

Would it not have been more appropriate for G‑d to say, “I am the L‑rd . . . who created the heavens and the earth”?

But G‑d the creator is the G‑d that Israel shares with the rest of creation. At Sinai, G‑d did not speak to us as the author of nature, but as the executor of the miraculous Exodus. For at Sinai we forged a covenant with G‑d in which we pledged to surpass all bounds of nature and convention in our commitment to Him, and He pledged to supersede all laws of nature and convention in His providence over us.


3 (Rashi / Mechilta)  the gods of others: Heb. אֱלֹהִים אִחֵרִים,  w(20:3)

which are not gods, but that others have made them for gods over themselves. It is impossible to interpret this passage to mean: gods other than I, since it is a disgrace for Heaven to call them gods along with Him. Alternatively: strange gods, for they are strange to their worshippers. They cry out to them, but they do not answer them, and it appears as if it [the god] were a stranger, who never knew him [the worshipper].


9 (Mechilta) Six days shall you labor and do all your work (20:9)

Is it then possible for a person to do “all his work” in six days? But rest on Shabbat as if all your work is done.


9 (Mechilta d’Rashbi) Six days shall you labor . . . (20:9)

This, too, is a divine decree. Just as the people of Israel were commanded to rest on Shabbat, so too were they commanded to work on the other days of the week.


13 (Mechilta) Do not murder (20:13)

How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet and five on the second tablet. This means that “Do not murder” corresponds to “I am the L‑rd your G‑d.” The Torah is telling us that if one sheds blood, it is as if he has reduced the image of the King.

What is this analogous to? To a king of flesh and blood who entered a country and put up portraits of himself, made statues of himself, and minted coins with his image. After a while, the people of the country overturned his portraits, broke his statues and invalidated his coins, thereby reducing the image of the king. So, too, one who sheds blood reduces the image of the King, as it is written (Genesis 9:6): “One who spills a man’s blood . . . for in the image of G‑d He made man.”


13 (Talmud, Shabbat 88b) Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal (20:13)

When Moses ascended to heaven, the angels protested to G‑d: “What is a human being doing amongst us?”

Said He to them: “He has come to receive the Torah.”

Said they to Him: “This esoteric treasure, which was hidden with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood? . . . ‘What is man, that You are mindful of him, and the son of man, that You take notice of him? . . . Place Your glory upon the heavens!’” (Psalms 8:2–5)

Said G‑d to Moses: “Answer them.”

Said Moses: “Master of the Universe! I fear lest they consume me with the breath of their mouths.”

Said G‑d: “Hold on to the Throne of Glory, and return them an answer.”

Said Moses: “Master of the Universe! This Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it? ‘I am the L‑rd your G‑d, who has taken you out from the land of Egypt.’

“Have you descended to Egypt?” asked Moses of the angels. “Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? So why should the Torah be yours?

“What else does it say? ‘You shall have no other gods.’ Do you dwell amongst idol-worshipping nations? What else does it say? ‘Remember the Shabbat day.’ Do you work? . . . What else does it say? ‘Do not swear falsely.’ Do you do business? What else does it say? ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ Do you have parents? What else does it say? ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal.’ Is there jealousy among you? Do you have an evil inclination?”

Immediately the angels conceded to G‑d . . . and each one was moved to befriend Moses and transmit something to him. Even the angel of death, too, confided his secret to him . . .


13 (Rashi) 20:13 You shall not commit adultery: Adultery applies only [to relations] with a married woman, as it is said: “[And a man who commits adultery with the wife of a[nother] man, who commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor,] [both] the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10); [and it says,] “[You are] the adulterous wife, who, instead of her husband, takes strangers” (Ezek. 16:32). [In both these verses, the term “adultery” is used in reference to the extramarital relations of a married woman.]


15 (Midrash Lekach Tov; Rashi) All the people saw the voices (20:15)

They saw what is ordinarily heard, and they heard what is ordinarily seen.


18 (Rabbeinu Bechayei) Moses drew near to the thick darkness where G‑d was (20:18)

There are three types of darkness: the “heavy darkness” of the Covenant Between the Pieces (Genesis 15:17); the “tangible darkness” of the ninth plague in Egypt (Exodus 10:22); and the “thick darkness” at the giving of the Torah.


22 (Talmud, Middot 3:4) When you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone, for if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it (20:22)

Iron was created to shorten the life of man, and the altar was created to lengthen the life of man. So it is not fitting that that which shortens should be lifted upon that which lengthens.


23 (Sforno) 20:23 ולא תעלה במעלות, even though I do not bother you to undertake all kinds of architecturally attractive structures in order for you to qualify for My making My residence among you, you must be extremely careful not to be disrespectful when approaching the top of My altar. [exposing of one’s flesh is considered a sign of disrespect. Ed.]


23 (Rashbam)ולא תעלה במעלות, this is why the ramp leading to the altar in the Temple was so long, i.e. it was 32 cubits long in order to achieve a height of only ten cubits. They also used to sprinkle salt on the surface of this ramp in order to prevent the priests from slipping on the surface when ascending same.