The Ten Commandments

By Leon Kass
Monday, June 3, 2013

The central event in the national founding of the Israelite people is the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The “Ten Commandments” (Exodus 20: 1-14), pronounced there by the Lord God to the assembled and recently liberated children of Israel, constitute the most famous teaching of the book of Exodus, perhaps of the entire Hebrew Bible. Prescribing proper conduct toward God and man, the Decalogue embodies the core principles of the Israelite way of life and, later, of what would become known as the Judeo-Christian ethic. Even in our increasingly secular age, its influence on the prevailing morality of the West is enormous, albeit not always acknowledged or welcomed.

Yet, despite its notoriety, the Decalogue is still only superficially known, in part because its very familiarity interferes with a deeper understanding of its teachings. This essay, in aspiring to such an understanding, intends also to build a case for the enduring moral and political significance of the Decalogue—a universal significance that goes far beyond its opposition to murder, adultery, and theft.

We can begin by correcting some common misimpressions, starting with the name “Ten Commandments.” Although most of the entries in the Decalogue appear in the imperative mode (“Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not”), they are not called commandments (mitzvot) but rather statements or words: “And God spoke all these words.” Later in the Bible we hear about the ten words—in the Greek translation, deka logoi or Decalogue— but whether the reference is to these same statements is far from obvious.  Read more . . .

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