Our Ten Utterances: Commentary on Parashat Yitro 5783

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


The Ten Commandments simply aren’t what they used to be.

To be perfectly honest, we do not know exactly what the Ten Commandments are. The approximately 10 legal statements that Jews and Christians call “the Ten Commandments” appear both in this week’s torah portion, Yitro (at Exodus 20:2–14), and, with a few differences, near the end of the Torah (at Deuteronomy 5:6–18). The Hebrew Bible never references “the ten commandments” but does know about “the ten utterances” (עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים, Aseret HaDevarim in Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4). Classical Christian and Jewish readings of these “ten utterances” generally disagree on how to divide up these verses and how to add them up to exactly ten distinct laws.

At first, the loudest voices in the Jewish religion truly cherished what contemporary scholars often call the Decalogue (a term derived from the Greek δέκα λόγοι–deka logoi, meaning “ten utterances”). Archaeologists have discovered the Decalogue inscribed on small parchments among the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggesting that Jews who lived at the turn from BCE to CE attached special significance to the Decalogue.

Image of 4Q41, a Dead Sea Scroll parchment, slightly dark and torn at parts, dating to the 1st century BCE. 4Q41 contains the oldest written version of the Decalogue. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4Q41#/media/File:4Q41_2.png (retrieved February 10, 2023).


In the 3rd century CE, the Mishnah records that, when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood (before its destruction in 70 CE), there was a regular ritual of an appointed priest reciting Aseret HaDevarim before other priests (Tamid 5:1).

But over the next few centuries, rabbinic Judaism grew detached from Aseret HaDevarim. As Saint Paul spread Christian doctrine and professed that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6)—that biblical law mattered less than the spiritual virtues of a Christian faith–rabbinic Judaism became increasingly obsessed with every single letter in the Hebrew Bible. In Babylonia in the 4th century CE, the sage Rav taught in the name of Rav Yehudah that, over a millennium before them, when Moses ascended to the heavens, Moses was surprised to see God attaching crowns to the letters of the Torah. According to this legend, God explained that there would one day come a sage (namely, Rabbi Akiva of the 1st century CE), who would come and interpret the entire Torah by the shapes of each letter (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b). With such affection for every detail of the Torah, the rabbis grew wary of any special treatment of one segment of the Torah’s laws—especially laws that begin with a statement of faith such as “I am Adonai your God” (“אָנֹכִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ”, Anokhi Adonai Elohekha). By the end of the 6th century, the sages who populated both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud were largely in agreement that any daily recitation of Aseret HaDevarim should cease—because it appeared too cozy with the faith of “the heretics” (“המינין, ha-minin) (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 12a; and Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 1:3c).

As our spiritual forebears distanced themselves from the Decalogue, they also grew skeptical of what it was that the Israelites heard in the moment of revelation. Whereas Exodus 19 ends with Moses beginning to speak and Exodus 20 begins with God beginning to speak, there is some ambiguity over what exactly the Israelites may have heard God (and not Moses) say at Mount Sinai. A teaching from the 7th century CE in the Land of Israel presents the idea that it was only the first fifth of the Decalogue that the Israelites merited to hear in God’s voice whereas Moses pronounced the rest of the Decalogue (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2). In early modern Eastern Europe, the Chasidic master Rabbi Naftali Tzevi ben Menachem Mendel Horowitz of Ropshitz (1760–1827) shared that he had heard from a rabbi from Rymanów, Poland, that all that the Israelites could hear God say was the nearly-silent letter alef (א) in the word Anokhi (“אָנֹכִי,” meaning “I,” as in “I am Adonai your God”). Whatever it was that the Israelites—or at least Moses—heard at Sinai was a sound that appears to have quieted in our popular memory.

In a volume of contemporary feminist midrashic writings that she co-edited with Nehama Weingarten-Mintz, Tamar Biala tells a modern midrash of a pious Jewish woman who grows frustrated during a public reading the Decalogue during the Torah reading. She feels excluded by the fact that Aseret HaDevarim is addressed to a male audience. In a moment of panic, the pious woman’s soul ascends to Heaven, and God addresses her:


!עד כמה הייתי ממתין לך שתבואי ותקשי לי, ואני אהיה מבאר לך ונותן לך מה שגנוז בשבילך כשלושת אלפים שנה

How long was I to wait for you to come to Me and to challenge Me? I have been waiting here to elucidate for you and to give you what has been stored away for you for some three thousand years!


As the pious woman and God enter a dialogue, God hints that the whole text of the Decalogue was directed at not even the whole male population, but at one man alone—Moses, who, in Exodus 19;17, had separated himself from the rest of Israelites. The Torah thusly records, suggests Biala, not what the Israelites at all heard, but what one particular Israelite heard. The inspiration, commands, and comfort that God would reveal to each individual Israelite—male, female, or otherwise—remained in God’s treasury, waiting for each of us to demand that God reveal to us the divine truths we seek. (See “Aseret HaDibberot” [“עשרת הדיברות,” “The Ten Commandments”], in Dirshuni: Midreshey Nashim [Yedioth Ahronoth, 2009], pp. 114–115; or, in English, “The Giving of the Ten Commandments” in Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash [Brandeis, 2022]; translation here my own.)

The Ten Commandments—whatever they are or were, and despite the truths they contain—are not exclusive or ultimate truths in our evolving religion. More important than the words that our spiritual forebears received may be the what receive today when we bring ourselves forward to seek God’s word.




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