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Parshat Yitro - How many commandments? 10 or 613?

09/02/2023 09:08:45 AM


This week's Parsha outlines the Ten Commandments, a foundational gift from God to the Jewish people and which has inspired other faiths as well.

The Torah text, however, does not enumerate the numbers 1 through 10. In addition, the Torah refers to them as "Aseret Ha'Devarim - the Ten Utterances." Subsequent rabbinic Judaism ultimately inserts specific numbers for what we call the Ten Commandments. Interestingly enough, while Christianity accepts the Ten Commandments, their denominations enumerate them differently and understand their meaning differently.

There was a time when the Ten Commandments appeared as a normative part of the daily morning service prior to reciting the Shema. The Talmud records, however, "They were abolished because of the murmuring of the heretics." Apparently, certain groups claimed that only the Ten Commandments were given to Moses at Sinai, to the detriment of everything else in Judaism.

So how do we understand the Ten Commandments? Elsewhere, ancient Sages suggest that each of the Ten Commandments serves as a rubric for many of the other Commandments. In total, therefore, the Ten Commandments represent all 613 Commandments deduced from the Torah. Judaism cannot be reduced to a simple list of ten undefined axioms. Rather, the totality of Judaism deserves constant study and thoughtfulness. The number 613 is also a symbolic number but which testifies to Judaism as being a complete way of life and which offers insight to every moment of our lives.

Very little in our tradition has us refer to the Ten Commandments. Much in our tradition has us refer to the Torah as a whole, the 613 Commandments. Daily prayer garb such as the Tallit and the Tefillin both contain codes and hints reminding us of the 613 Commandments.

So, when someone tells you that 10 means 613, there is truth to the matter!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Howard Morrison

Wed, 7 June 2023 18 Sivan 5783