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Edward L. Greenstein





An Inner-Biblical Elaboration of the Decalogue



APA e-journal

Edward L. Greenstein





An Inner-Biblical Elaboration of the Decalogue






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An Inner-Biblical Elaboration of the Decalogue

Emphasizing the Holiness of Ethics over the Ritual


An Inner-Biblical Elaboration of the Decalogue

Moses with the second set of the tablets; Exodus chapter 34. Bible city in Jerusalem, Israel. Rafael Ben-Ari /123rf

The Decalogue in Liturgy

In the late Second Temple period, the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, was as central to Jewish worship as the Shema (Deut 6:4-9) and preceded it in the morning prayers of the priests, prior to their making the daily (Tamid) sacrifice in the Temple (Mishnah Tamid 5:1). We find the canonical sequence of Decalogue-Shema in the Book of Deuteronomy (chapters 5-6), and in an ancient page of papyrus from around 150 B.C.E.[1] Experts agree that this papyrus records a part of the daily Jewish liturgy. The Decalogue was, then, an integral part of Jewish worship.

Removing the Decalogue from Liturgy

Already in the early Talmudic period, however, the practice of reciting the Decalogue prior to the Shema was discontinued. The Talmud (b. Berakhot 12a) provides an explanation. Many Jewish Christians and certainly gentile Christians—minim or “sectarians” in rabbinic terms—maintained that the full gamut of mitzvot, and especially the ritual ones, need no longer be observed. The essence of the mitzvot, they held, can be boiled down to a number of mostly ethical injunctions found in the Decalogue.

The excision of the Decalogue from the liturgy was a drawn out process, and for several generations during the rabbinic period, leading rabbis tried to re-instate the practice of reciting the Decalogue daily and including it in the boxes of tefillin, but their efforts did not succeed.[2] Today, the only way we mark the significance of the Decalogue ritually is that we stand when we read it from the Torah in the synagogue (in Parashat Yitro, Parashat Va’etḥanan, and on the festival of Shavu‘ot).[3]

The Limited Significance of the Decalogue in the Bible

Although we would imagine that the Decalogue played a central role in antiquity, some scholars have suggested that the Decalogue had very little impact in biblical times.[4] It appears in Exodus 20 and, in a variant form in Deuteronomy 5, but it is not specifically referenced anywhere else. If and when it is cited, it is quoted only three or four commandments at a time. Compare, for example, this unusually extensive citation from Jeremiah 7:9:

ירמיהו ז:ט הֲגָנֹ֤ב׀ רָצֹ֙חַ֙ וְֽנָאֹ֗ף וְהִשָּׁבֵ֥עַ לַשֶּׁ֖קֶר וְקַטֵּ֣ר לַבָּ֑עַל וְהָלֹ֗ךְ אַחֲרֵ֛י אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יְדַעְתֶּֽם:
Jer 7:9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known…?

Here we may count at most five of the ten.

A Different Decalogue 2nd Time Round

In Exodus 34, when Moses receives a second set of the tablets of the covenant, after breaking the first upon witnessing with horror the Israelite worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32), we expect the Decalogue, as presented in Exodus 20, to be given again. We are caught by surprise when the new series of “Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:27-28) is actually a group of about sixteen commands, all of them of a ritual character, including prohibitions against idolatry and intermarriage with Canaanites and instructions to make the three pilgrimage festivals.[5]

Does this mean that the Ten Commandments were converted into ritual observances? That the strong ethical core of the Decalogue was replaced with a set of purely ritual laws?

Elaborating the Decalogue in Kedoshim

This is where Leviticus 19, the opening section of Parashat Kedoshim, comes in. The classical midrash Vayikra (Leviticus) Rabbah (Parashat Kedoshim 24) already perceived that this chapter reiterates the Ten Commandments as we find them in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.[6] Answering the question of why this chapter should have been recited in the hakhel ceremony (Deut 31:10-13), in which a priest reads from the Torah publicly once every seven years, this midrash notes:

ר’ לוי אמ’ מפני שעשרת הדיברות כלולין בתוכה.
Rabbi Levi said: because the Ten Commandments are embedded in it:


אנכי י”י אלהיך וכת’ הכא אני י”י אלהיכם (ויקרא יט, ב).
“I am the Lord your God” (is written in the Decalogue) and “I am the Lord your God” is written here (Leviticus 19:2).


לא יהיה לך וכת’ הכא ואלהי מסכה לא תעשו לכם (שם /ויקרא י”ט/ ד).
“You shall have no other Gods” (is written there) and “You shall not make for yourselves molten Gods” is written here (19:4).


לא תשא וכת’ הכא ולא תשבעו בשמי לשקר (שם /ויקרא יט/ יב).
“You shall not swear falsely by the Lord your God’s name” (is written there) and “You shall not swear falsely by My name” is written here (19:12).


זכור את יום השבת וכת’ הכא ואת שבתותי תשמרו (שם /ויקרא י”ט/ ג).
“Remember the Sabbath Day” (is written there) and “My Sabbaths you shall observe” is written here (19:3). (See also verse 30.)


כבד את אביך ואת אמך וכת’ הכא איש אמו ואביו תיראו (שם /ויקרא י”ט, ג’/).
“Honor your father and your mother” (is written there) and “Each of you is to fear your mother and your father” is written here (19:3).


לא תרצח וכת’ הכא לא תעמד על דם רעך (שם /ויקרא י”ט/ טז).
“You shall not murder” (is written there) and “You shall not stand by idly over your neighbor’s blood” is written here (19:16).


לא תנאף וכת’ הכא אל תחלל את בתך להזנותה (שם /ויקרא י”ט/ כט).
“You shall not commit adultery” (is written there) and “You shall not let your daughter out for prostitution” is written here (19:29).


לא תגנב וכת’ הכא לא תגנבו ולא תכחשו (שם /ויקרא י”ט/ יא).
“You shall not steal” (is written there) and “You shall neither steal nor lie” is written here (19:11).


לא תענה וכת’ הכא לא תלך רכיל בעמך (שם /ויקרא י”ט/ טז).
“You shall not give false testimony” (is written there) and “You shall not go rumor-mongering among your people” is written here (19:16).


לא תחמד וכת’ הכא ואהבת לרעך כמוך (שם /ויקרא י”ט/ יח).
“You shall not covet” (is written there) and “You shall love for your neighbor what you love for yourself” is written here (19:18).[7]

The midrash finds all ten injunctions of the Decalogue in Leviticus 19.

Not an Exact Fit

While most of the correspondences are strong, a few are a stretch. The prohibition of murder and standing idly by is not the same. Nor are adultery and prostituting out your daughter the same.[8]

The Decalogue’s prohibition of coveting does not have a precise equivalent in Leviticus 19, in which case only nine of the Ten Commandments are strongly echoed in the chapter.[9] Yet it is likely that coveting is reflected indirectly in this chapter—coveting is about wanting what someone else has for yourself, and Leviticus 19:18b bids you to want someone else to have what you have: ואהבת לרעך כמוך, “you shall love for your neighbor as (you love for) yourself.”

Reading Kedoshim as a Midrash on the Decalogue

Taking this broader view, we should regard a good part of Leviticus 19 as inner biblical exegesis, i.e., as a midrash on the Decalogue. Some of the injunctions are cited in a form close to the original; others are alluded to; virtually all are elaborated. Thus, for example, after reiterating the prohibition against “turning to false gods” (19:4), the question of how properly to worship the Lord is raised. The Lord may not be worshipped in any way you want, but only by following certain norms, outlined in vv. 5-8, 21-26.

Being told not to steal (verse 11) is not enough—one must provide for the needy (verses 9-10); one must use standard weights and measures and not cheat in business (verses 35-36); one must observe fair labor practices, paying proper wages and paying them on time (verse 13).

Being told not to lie (verse 11)—a corollary of swearing falsely (verse 12)—is only the beginning. One must maintain a fair and impartial system of justice (verses 15 and 35); one must not take advantage of the poor, or the deaf, or the blind (verses 14-15).

In the same vein, the Decalogue begins by identifying Israel’s God as the One Who delivered them from bondage. This is not merely restated, but expanded in verses 33-34 by offering an implication of viewing God as a deliverer:

ויקרא יט:לג וְכִֽי יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ: יט:לד כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
Lev 19:33 When a sojourner sojourns in your land, do not oppress him! 19:34 Like a native-born like yourself should the sojourner sojourning among you be; you shall love for him what you do for yourself, because you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH, your God.

The Kedusha (Holiness) Shared by the Decalogue and Leviticus 19 is Ethical

In preparation for the revelation of the Decalogue in the first place, the Israelites needed to perform a ritual of purification. That purification is called “hallowing,” a sanctification of the self:

שמות יט:י וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵךְ אֶל הָעָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר וְכִבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם.
Exodus 19:10 “The Lord spoke to Moses: Go to the people and spend today and tomorrow hallowing them (ve-kiddashtam).”

But the substance of what the Israelites are immediately commanded to do—the tenets of the Decalogue—is far more in the realm of the ethical than the ritual.

In order to fulfill their roles as God’s people, the Israelites are commanded in Leviticus 19 to “be holy, hallowed, sanctified.” Even in this chapter, part of what the people must do in order to become holy is ritual in nature. Nevertheless, in contrast to Exodus 34 and its focus on rituals, the larger part of Leviticus 19 is an elaboration of the Ten Commandments—and, like the Decalogue, it is mainly about being ethical and just.


May 11, 2016


Last Updated

March 27, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Bible at Bar-Ilan University. He received the EMET Prize (“Israel’s Nobel”) in Humanities-Biblical Studies for 2020, and his book, Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019), won the acclaim of the American Library Association, the Association for Jewish Studies, and many others. He has been writing a commentary on Lamentations for the Jewish Publication Society.