Ten Commandments – Aggadah (Homilies)


The Ten Commandments are universally known by their fundamental importance and on their awe-inspiring manner of revelation. This revelation was witnessed by all of the Israelites and therefore forms the cornerstone of Judaism. The Torah records two versions of this revelation (Exodus 20:1-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18).

A companion article on this web site “Ten Commandments –Halacha (Law) Law (Homilies)” focused on the Ten Commandments from the perspective of the law (i.e. Halacha) drawing from the Talmud and associated codes of law. This article will examine these commandments from a homiletic point of view drawn from the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar with associated commentaries. At first the article will discuss each of the 10 Sayings separately and then show linkages between the sayings themselves and other verses in the bible.

Saying 1 – Belief in Hashem

Verse 20:2 – “I (אנכי), Hashem … Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” 

At a literal level, this verse commands the Israelites to believe in Hashem. The reader may ask, “Why did this verse mention the exodus from Egypt as the reason for believing in Hashem and not the creation of the world?” There are many answers to this question and this article provides the following:

  • Creation was not witnessed by any man.
  • Israelites witnessed the exodus from Egypt.
  • Hashem has a direct claim on the Israelites.
  • We can see the acts of Hashem through history.


The Torah, at a literal level, must speak to the Israelites of that time at Sinai and by extension to Israelites of all time.  Since no man witnessed the creation, belief in Hashem on the basis of creation is too abstract. (Even science has different theories on the exact method of creation because it is not possible to obtain concrete proof for any of these scientific assumptions.)

Exodus from Egypt

All of the Israelites experienced the exodus from Egypt with great miracles as the verse states (Deuteronomy 26:8), “Hashem brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand, an outstretched arm, great awe, signs, and wonders.” As the Mechilta (Exodus 20:2 – Parshat Yitro Section 5) explains that these wonders include the 10 plagues, splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and giving of the manna. Hence there was no doubt about the identity of Hashem and His (divine) authority to command the Israelites to follow the Torah. The Mechilta (ibid.) states that the Israelites joyously accepted Hashem as their king and His Torah.    

Direct claim on the Israelites

The exodus also establishes the moral authority of the Torah as the verse states (Leviticus 25:42), “You (the Israelites) are My (Divine) servants.” Rashi on this verse quoting the Sifra 6:1 explains that we are indebted to Hashem as servants to their master. Previously we were slaves to Pharaoh and now we are free to serve Hashem. 

See Hashem through History

Although Hashem’s greatness is beyond comprehension as the verse states (Psalms 145:3), “Hashem is great and very much praised. His greatness (i.e. essence) cannot be fathomed”, we can obtain a glimpse of the divine mind through His actions. The verse relates when Moses attempted to understand the ways of Hashem (Exodus 33:23), “You (Moses) will see My (Divine) back (i.e. actions) but my face (i.e. essence) may not be seen.” Rabbi J. H. Hertz, chief rabbi of the British Empire from 1913-1946, explains in his commentary on the Torah (Exodus ibid.), that we understand the ways of Hashem through history.  

Saying 2 – Prohibition of Idolatry  

Although the Torah prohibits idolatry in any form, the Talmud (Yoma 69b) acknowledges that the Israelites lost desire for literal idolatry after the destruction of the first temple. The Torah includes an unusual statement about idolatry (Exodus 20:5), “Hashem will visit the sin of the fathers upon their children to the 3rd and 4th generations (if they are) enemies (to Hashem).” The Talmud (Berachot 7a) is troubled by this statement for the Torah clearly states (Deuteronomy 24:16), “Fathers shall not die for sins of their children, and children shall not be put to death for sins of their fathers. Rather every man shall die for his own transgression”. The Talmud reconciles these verses by stating that the former verse refers to a case where the offspring adopt the actions of their ancestors as their own. By contrast the latter verse refers to a case where they do not adopt the actions of their ancestors. The former verse supports this distinction because this verse states that the sins of the parents are visited upon the children only if they are enemies of Hashem meaning that they willingly follows the sinful ways of their parents.  

The reader may ask, “Why is there a difference between the 3rd and 4th generation? The 16th century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno of Italy explains that the limit of 3 generations applies to those that increase in sin more than parents while the limit of 4 generations applies to those that merely follow the ways of parents.

The Zohar (2:91b) explains that the limit of the 3 or 4 generations, including the initial parents, refers to the transmigration of souls or in Hebrew גלגול. The Zohar states that if a person fails to meet Hashem’s expectations due to sin then this person may return to this world to rectify his actions for 2 more times, for a total of 3 lives. If this person does not succeed by this time then the soul is cut off from the family and is transferred to another family line. Therefore the number of 4 generations includes the great grandparents. Zohar (ibid.) uses the analogy of a tree to explain this transmigration. If a tree does not produce fruit in a given location then the owner of the tree will replant the tree in another location. If after a few attempts the tree does not produce fruit then the owner will plant a new tree. In the analogy Hashem is the owner of the tree, the stock of the tree corresponds to the soul, the fruit are the mitzvoth performed by the person, and the new location is a different person.

(Note: The concept of transmigration of souls is not universally accepted in Torah thought. For example, Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 8:1 and 8:5) states that one guilty of the punishment of excision will perish and his soul will be lost without a second chance after death.)        

The Zohar Chadash (59a) also finds a hint to the limit of 3 transmigrations (i.e. original life and 2 more attempts) from Job 33:29, “Behold G-d does all these, twice or thrice with man (i.e. 2 or 3 lives). “ In fact the adjacent verses allude to this transmigration as follows:

Verse 28 – “He redeemed his soul (by transmigration) from perishing in the pit (purgatory) and his living spirit shall see the light (in this world to rectify his actions and world to come to commune with the Shechinah).”

Verse 30 – “(Hashem allows the soul to return) to bring back his soul from the pit (i.e. to avoid purgatory) to be enlightened with the light of life (in this world to rectify his actions).” 

 (By analogy to the secular world it is like a person who fails a professional exam and is allowed to retake the exam a few times. It is interesting to note that the CPA exam may only be taken 3 times. By contrast the bar exam may be taken up to 2-6 times depending upon the state. If not successful the person is advised to pursue a different career.)    

In addition to the mystical interpretation of 3 or 4 generations, the author would like to comment on this number in a sociological sense given that idolatry is not rampant amongst the Israelites at present. Rather the Israelites, especially in the Diaspora, face the challenges of assimilation and intermarriage. In the opinion of the author the limit of 3 or 4 generations is an allusion to the forces of assimilation and intermarriage that reduce the spiritual vitality of the Israelites if they are not connected to Hashem through studying the Torah and observing the mitzvoth. The author and for that matter many others have observed that without a strong commitment to Torah and mitzvoth the following generations (3 or 4) gradually drift away from Judaism by pursuing false ideologies (e.g. communism in Russia or hedonism in America). Although the above verse (Exodus 20:5) speaks of enemies of Hashem in terms of punishment, another verse Exodus 34:7 “(Hashem recalls) the sin of the parents upon children and grandchildren to the 3rd and 4th generations” without mentioning the expression “enemies of Hashem”. The latter verse applies to those who gradually leave Judaism without rebelling against Hashem.  

Saying 3 – Prohibition of Vain Oaths

Exodus 20:7 – “You shall not take the name of Hashem in vain, for Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His name in vain.”

The verse (Exodus 20:7) states that Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His name in vain which would seem to imply that there is no hope for this sinner. When analyzing this verse the Talmud Yoma 86a considers another verse (Exodus 34:7) which states, “(Hashem) who cleanses and does not cleanse.” The Talmud (ibid.) resolves the contradiction by explaining that Hashem will cleanse the penitent but not the impenitent. In a similar vein, the Talmud (ibid.) explains that the verse that states that Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His name in vain means that penitence alone is not sufficient to atone for this sin. Rather the cleansing power of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) will combine with penitence to achieve forgiveness as the verse states (Leviticus 16:30), “For on this day (Yom Kippur) … you shall be cleansed from all your sins before Hashem.”

Maimonides adds (Laws of Oaths 12:1), “Although a person who took a false oath or an oath in vain is given lashes he does not receive complete atonement for this sin. Rather he must receive divine retribution for the desecration of His great name (Leviticus 19:12).” The Targum Yonatan ben Uziel (Exodus 20:7) and the Zohar 2:88a explain that depending upon the desecration the retribution may occur in the world to come.   

Saying 4 – The Sabbath

In the first set of the Commandments the Torah describes the Sabbath as follows:

Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days shall you work and accomplish your tasks (literally work). (Since) the seventh day is the Sabbath to Hashem you shall do not any work, (meaning) – you, your son, daughter, slave, maidservant, animal, and convert within your gates. For in six days, Hashem made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore Hashem blessed the Sabbath and sanctified it.”

By contrast, in the second set of Commandments the Torah describes the Sabbath as follows:

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 – “Safeguard the Sabbath to sanctify it as Hashem … commanded you. Six days shall you work and accomplish your tasks (literally work). (Since) the seventh day is the Sabbath to Hashem you shall do not any work, (meaning) – you, your son, daughter, slave, maidservant, animals (including ox and donkey), and convert within your gates, in order that your (male) servant and maidservant may rest like you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. (Since) Hashem took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm therefore Hashem has commanded you to make the Sabbath.” 

At a literal level these two citations of the Sabbath differ as follows:

Point1st Set (Exodus 20)2nd Set (Deuteronomy 5)
CommandRemember (Verse 8)Safeguard (Verse 12)
Nature of RestNot mentionedLike you (Verse 14)
Reason of RestCreation (Verse 11)Exodus (Verse15)


The Talmud (e.g. Berachot 20b) identifies these words as two different commands as follows:

  • Remember – Positive commandment to verbally mention the Sabbath at its entrance either in prayer or the Kiddush ceremony at the Sabbath meal.
  • Safeguard – The prohibition of working on the Sabbath. Actually the Torah mentions this prohibition in Exodus 20:10. The commentators on the Torah debate whether the words “Remember” and ”Safeguard” were inscribed on the 1st and 2nd tablets respectively or that the word “Remember” was written on both. Nachmanides (Exodus 20:8) follows the latter opinion and explains that Moses taught that the prohibition of work was implied by Hashem’s saying of “Remember”. The Talmud (Shevuot 20b) states that Hashem said both words simultaneously indicating that both of these aspects of the Sabbath are inseparable.    

Nature of Rest

In Exodus, the Torah commands the Israelites to rest but does not include the phrase “In order that your (male) servant and maidservant may rest like you”, meaning that the rest should be in honour of Hashem. By contrast in the second set of commandments the Torah emphasizes the human aspect of resting on Sabbath that your servants should also have rest.

Reason of Rest

Similarly the Torah explains that the Israelites should rest on the Sabbath because Hashem, so to speak, “rested” on the Sabbath after six days of creation. By contrast in the second set of commandments the Torah emphasizes the human aspect of rest, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt”, meaning give your servants a day of rest and not be a task master.  

Hence we see that the Torah explains the Sabbath on the following levels:

  • Divine – imitation of Hashem.
  • Human – benevolence to others.

Days of the week

The Mechilta on Exodus 20:8 explains that the Israelites remember the Sabbath over the whole week because the days of the week in the bible are not given unique names. Rather each day is assigned a numerical value in sequence leading to the Sabbath. For example, Sunday in Hebrew is the 1st day ראשון יום as in the story of creation (Genesis chapter 1). It is interesting to note that even in Modern Hebrew the days of the week follow this numerical sequence. (The author has verified this statement using Google translate.) By contrast all of the days of the week in English refer to idolatry as shown in the following table.

Secular DayPlanet or Pagan Deity
TuesdayTiw (war)
WednesdayWoden (wisdom)
ThursdayThor (thunder and lightning)
FridayFrige or Freya (goddess of love and marriage)

Work/Life Balance

The Torah states (Exodus 20:9), “Six days shall you work and accomplish all of your tasks.” Avot of Rabbi Natan (Chapter 11), a minor tractate in the Talmud and a commentary of the Mishna, comments on the importance of work. The Avot interprets this verse literally, meaning that a person should work on six days of the week for the following reasons:

  • Earn money and keep away from theft.
  • Improve the world.
  • Keep busy.

Keep Busy

Rabbi Yose Hagalili says that a person may die because of idleness (ibid.). In addition the Talmud Ketubot 59b says that idleness my lead to mental imbalance or promiscuity. A Torah scholar does not need to work in as physical manner because the Talmud (Sabbath 11a) states, “Torah is his occupation.” For someone who works during the week, Sabbath provides the time to study Torah (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 290:2).    

This advice applies to the six days of the week. However the Torah also states in the next verse, “However the seventh day is the Sabbath to Hashem and therefore you shall not do any work.” In addition to resting from work, the Mechilta on Exodus 20:9 states that a person should not even think of his work on the Sabbath. Rather he should consider that all of his tasks have been accomplished before the Sabbath.

Blessing on Sabbath

The Zohar (2:88a) raises the following question, “Although Hashem has blessed the Sabbath, both physically and spiritually (Genesis 2:3), the manna did not fall on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:26). Hence where is the physical blessing?” The Zohar answers that by observing the Sabbath, Hashem blesses the other days of the week. Just as the manna fell two fold on Friday to provide food for 2 days (ibid. 16:22) so does Hashem provides sustenance for the Israelites even though they do not work on the Sabbath.     

Saying 5 – Honour Parents

Verse 20:12 – “Honour your father and mother, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that Hashem gives you.”

In addition to honour, the Torah requires that a person revere his parents as the verse says (Leviticus 19:3), “Every man shall revere his mother and father.”

Order of Parents

The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b-31a) notes the difference in the order of the parents in these 2 verses. In the former verse the Torah places the father first while in the latter verse the Torah places the mother first. The reader may ask, “Since both parents are to be honoured and revered (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 240:1) why did the Torah change the order of the parent?” The Talmud (ibid.) answers,” It is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that a son honours his mother more than his father, because she (generally) encourages him and does not treat him strictly. Therefore, in the former verse involving honour the Torah mentions the father before the mother because the verse emphasizes the duty that does not come naturally. Similarly, it is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that a son fears his father more than his mother, because his father teaches him Torah, and consequently is strict with him. Therefore in the latter verse involving reverence the Torah mentions the mother before the father.” From this example we see how every word in the Torah is nuanced and teaches lessons in morality and psychology.     

Respecting Parents- Both Worlds

The command to honour parents applies both in their lifetime (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 240:1) and even after their passing (ibid. 240:9). The Zohar (2:93a) relates that a person honours his parents by performing good deeds that lead people to praise the person and parents that reared him as the verses state (Proverbs 23:24-25), “The father of a righteous son will rejoice greatly, and he who begets a wise son will have joy with him. May your father and mother rejoice, and may she who bore you have joy.” In addition the Zohar (3:115b) says that a person honours his parents in both worlds even after their passing. In this world people will praise the deceased parents because of the good deeds of their children. Hashem also ascribes the good deeds of the children to the parents in the world to come thereby improving the status of the parents or in the words of the Zohar, “Placing them on a throne of honour.”

Long Life

The Torah (Exodus 20:12) promises a long life for observing the commandment of honouring parents.  The Talmud Kiddushin (39b) advises against interpreting this verse literally because the ultimate reward is in the world to come. The Talmud points out that the Torah mentions the reward of long life in two commandments, honouring parents and sending away the mother bird (Deuteronomy 22:7).  In fact the Talmud (ibid.) records a case where a father asked his son to send away the mother bird thereby fulfilling both of these commandments and the son fell off the ladder and died. The Talmud (ibid.) notes that in this case the ladder was rickety and one should not rely on miracles in a dangerous situation. This long life may be received in the following manner:

  • World to come (Kiddushin 39b).
  • Israelites as a whole.
  • Quality of life (Zohar 2:93a).
World to come

Although the main reward for observing the mitzvoth is in the world to come, a person may receive some of the reward in this world as the Talmud (Shabbat 127a) states, based upon the Mishna (Peah 1:1), “These are the mitzvoth that a person performs and enjoys their profits (literally fruit) in this world and nevertheless the principal exists for him for the world to come. They are: honouring one’s father and mother, acts of loving kindness, bringing peace between a person and another, yet the study of the Torah is equal to all of them.”

Israelites as a whole

When the Torah promises reward in this world for observing mitzvoth, Hashem applies this recompense to the Israelites as a whole meaning that not all will share this bounty equally. For example the Torah promises exceptional material blessing for observance (e.g. Leviticus 26:4-5, Deuteronomy 7:13-16, 11:14-15, and 28:3-13). However the Torah also states (ibid. 15:11), that there will always be the poor amongst you, meaning that the well off should take care of the less fortunate.   

Quality of Life

In addition to reward in the world to come, the Zohar (ibid.) states that the reward of a long life may not necessarily mean longevity of years. Rather by respecting parents in particular and observing Hashem’s commandments in general, a person connects the physical and spiritual worlds thereby enhancing the quality of life.  

Last 5 Sayings – Introduction

The last 5 sayings are prohibitions involving relations between man and man and are written in the Torah in short. Since there are common underlying themes in these sayings the author will summarize the approaches of Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Exodus 20:13-14 and Zohar (2:93b) in the following tables and then elaborate where necessary on each saying.   

Targum Yonatan (Exodus 20:13-14)

Hashem promises the Israelites a peaceful and prosperous life in Israel if they observe the laws of the Torah (e.g. Leviticus 26:3-8). However if they do not observe Hashem will apply corrective action (e.g. ibid. 14-39). In this manner this Targum associates each of these transgressions with a divinely ordained action as follows:

  • Association – on top of the actual prohibition the Targum advises the Israelites to have no contact (i.e. neither becoming a friend nor partner) with the perpetrators of these prohibitions.
  • Outcome – The Targum warns the parents to keep away from these prohibitions lest their children follow their evil paths and transgress these commandments.  
  • Divine retribution – For each transgression Hashem may take corrective action against the Israelites following the principle of measure for measure (Sotah 8b) where the corrective action directly corresponds to the nature of the transgression as shown in the following table.
ProhibitionCorrective Action (from Hashem)
MurderMurder of the perpetrator or war
False TestimonyAbsence of rain
CovetingGovernment confiscation or exile

. If the Israelites allow widespread coveting then Hashem will allow the enemies of Israel to covet their wealth and land which will lead to confiscation and exile, respectively.         

Zohar (2:93b)

The Zohar (2:93b) examines the last 5 sayings by focusing on the cantillation of the Torah. The Hebrew words of the Torah are assigned notes for public reading of the Torah. In addition to the musical quality of these notes it is possible to expound on these words using these notes. For example the musical note for the prohibition of murder implies a separation of the words “do not” and “murder” meaning that in some cases a life may be taken.

MurderWar, capital punishment, self-defense
AdulteryIntimacy not for procreation 
TheftDeception for a higher purpose
False TestimonyNo exceptions in testimony
CovetingSpiritual matters

Saying 6 – Prohibition of Murder 

Verse 20:13 – “You shall not murder.”

Some translate this verse as, “You shall not kill”, which would imply that no one can take the life of another. As explained in the companion article on this web site “Ten Commandments – Law” and from the Zohar (ibid.) there a number of verses in the Torah that justify taking human life as follows:

  • War
  • Capital punishment
  • Self-defense

The Targum warns the Israelites to keep away from murder thereby avoiding divine retribution which will lead to a cycle of violence including foreign armies which could attack Israel.  

The Talmud extends this commandment to include a prohibition of:

  • Character assassination.
  • Embarrassing a person in public.

Character Assassination

The Talmud Arachin 15b states that derogatory speech, whether true or fabricated, in a homiletic sense “kills three people” the one who speaks it, the one who accepts it, and the one spoken about. Rashi on the Talmud explains that derogatory speech may lead to a feud between the parties spoken about which may actually lead to murder. In addition the Talmud may refer to spiritual death which may involve divine retribution. The Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1) compares the sin of derogatory speech as equivalent (in a moral sense and punishment in the world to come) to the 3 cardinal sins (viz. idolatry, murder, and adultery). Even in our own time we can see that the disastrous result of derogatory speech or texting in the crime of cyber bullying which has led to the death of its victims through suicide.

Embarrassing a Person in Public

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) states that anyone who humiliates another in public is morally equivalent to murder (literally spilling blood).We see that after the humiliated person blushes, the red leaves his face and the pallor (of death) comes in its place, which is tantamount to murder. The Talmud further states that a person should refrain from calling another by a nickname to avoid embarrassing this individual even if others frequently call him by this name. Rabbi Elazar the Modaite says, “One who humiliates his fellow in public has no share in the world to come, even if the offender has studied Torah and performed good deeds (Avot 3:11 in printed Mishna and 3:15 in prayer book).     

Saying 7 – Adultery

Verse 20:13 – “You shall not commit adultery.”

In addition to adultery this prohibition, in an exegetical sense, refers to improper conduct in matters of intimacy (e.g. incest, sodomy, and bestiality which are forbidden from the Torah). It is interesting to note that the Targum states that divine retribution for transgressing this prohibition is disease which may refer to Sexually Transmitted Diseases since the infection is contracted through intimacy and in private. As a result the affliction typically occurs in private parts.


As mentioned above the cantillation of this prohibition implies a separation of the words “do not” and “commit adultery” meaning that marital relations are not exclusively for procreation (e.g. wife past child bearing age) but are a form of marital pleasure for both husband and wife. Of course the Zohar does not mean that adultery is permitted; rather the Zohar emphasizes the need for human pleasure and does not approve of celibacy. Similarly the Zohar does not consider intimacy as a sinful act when permitted by the Torah.     

Saying 8 – Prohibition of Kidnapping (Theft)

Exodus 20:13 – “You (singular) shall not steal.”

Leviticus 19:11 -, “You (plural) shall not steal, deny falsely, nor lie one to another.”

The Targum (ibid.) states that Hashem’ corrective action to theft is famine. Just as theft involves taking something illegally to increase one’s wealth famine thwarts this action by decreasing wealth and increasing scarcity resulting in inflated prices. In addition to the literal meaning of theft, the Torah alludes to misleading statements or behavior called in Hebrew דעת גנבת (literally stealing of the mind). Maimonides writes (Laws of Proper Conduct 2:6), “A person is forbidden to act in a smooth-tongued and luring manner. He should not speak one thing outwardly and think otherwise in his heart. Rather, his inner self should be like the self which he shows to the world. What he feels in his heart should be the same as the words on his lips.”

Maimonides continues (ibid.) “It is forbidden to deceive people, even a gentile. One should not press his colleague to share a meal with him when he knows that his colleague will not accept the invitation, nor should he offer presents when he knows that his colleague will not accept them. The same applies with all matters of this sort. It is forbidden to utter a single word of deception or fraud. Rather, one should have only truthful speech, a proper spirit and a heart pure from all deceit and trickery.”

Similar to saying 6, the Zohar (2:93b) mentions that the cantillation of this prohibition implies a separation of the words “do not” and “steal” meaning that in some cases one may mislead another for a compelling reason, in effect, “the ends justify the means”. For example Jacob misled his father (Genesis 27:6-27) to secure the blessings that would have gone to the unworthy Esau, as described in an article on this web site “Jacob Takes the Blessing.”

Saying 9 – Prohibition of False Testimony

Verse 20:13 – “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow.”

Since the court relies on the testimony of 2 or more eye witnesses to obtain a conviction the transgression of this prohibition undermines the legal system of Torah. Therefore the Targum states that as a corrective action Hashem will alter the system of clouds and rain in Israel leading to a famine following the verse in Deuteronomy 11:17, “Then the wrath of Hashem will blaze against you (the Israelites). Hashem will withhold the rain and the ground will not yield its produce.” Although this verse follows the warning against idolatry the Targum applies this warning to false testimony.  

The Zohar (ibid.) notes that the cantillation does not separate between the words “do not” and “bear false witness” because the Torah does not condone falsity as the verse says (Exodus 23:7), “Distance yourself from a false word.” Even when one misleads for a good purpose he cannot tell an outright lie rather the words may be interpreted in different ways.

Saying 10 – Prohibition of Coveting

Verse 20:14 “Do not covet your fellow’s house. Do not covet your fellow’s wife, his male servant, female servant, ox, donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.”

The Targum (ibid.) explains though the principle of measure for measure that if the Israelites covet the property of their fellow Israelites then Hashem will allow gentile governments to covet the property of the Israelites and seize it.  

The bible provides many examples of coveting that led to disastrous results. For sake of brevity the author will discuss the following cases:

  • David and Bathsheba
  • Achav and Nevot. 

David and Bathsheba

The bible relates (2 Samuel Chapter 11) that David saw a beautiful woman who was bathing (ibid. 11:2). Enthralled by her beauty he had relations with her (ibid. 11:4). She conceived (ibid. 11:5) even though it appeared that she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite (ibid. 11:3). The Talmud (Shabbat 56a) explains that King David did not actually commit adultery because, according to Rashi, Uriah had written a conditional bill of divorce which stipulated that if he did not return from battle then the divorce would take effect from the time of writing. Hence if Uriah were to die in battle the divorce would take effect retroactively from the time of its writing. According to Tosafot (ibid.) Uriah had privately given a bill of divorce to his wife but King David was not aware of this divorce. Hence according to this opinion, King David did not commit adultery because Bathsheba was divorced but King David was uncertain of this divorce.  Desiring Bathsheba, King David instructed his general Joab to send Uriah to the front line with the intention that Uriah should be killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:15). After the death of Uriah, King David married Bathsheba however Hashem was displeased with this abuse of power (ibid. 27).    

As a result Hashem sent Nathan the prophet to admonish King David (ibid. 12:1) through a parable of a poor man with one lamb which a rich man desired and took without permission (ibid.12:2-4). King David thinking that the story was true became angry and said that the rich man was deserving of death (ibid. 12:5). Then Nathan explained the parable that King David was the rich man, Uriah the poor man, and Bathsheba as the lamb (ibid. 12:7-9). Although King David immediately admitted his guilt (ibid. 12:13) he was punished with the death of his first child from Bathsheba (ibid. 12:18). Following King David’s fasting and mourning Bathsheba conceived and bore him Solomon (ibid. 12:24).

Ahab and Naboth

The bible relates (1 Kings Chapter 21) that King Ahab of Israel desired to purchase the vineyard of Naboth which was close to the palace of Ahab and convert it to a vegetable garden (ibid. 21:2). Naboth refused to sell the inheritance of his forefathers (ibid. 21:3). Upset with Naboth’s refusal Ahab discussed the vineyard with his wife Jezebel (ibid. 21:6). She suggested a ruse against Naboth accusing him of cursing Hashem and the king through the testimony of two false witnesses (ibid. 21:10). Based upon this false testimony Naboth was unjustly executed (ibid. 21:13) and Ahab took possession of the vineyard (ibid.21:16). After this terrible injustice Hashem sent Elijah the prophet (ibid. 21:18) to inform Ahab that he would be killed as the verse states (ibid. 21:19), “In the place where the dogs have licked the blood of Naboth, shall the dogs lick the blood of Ahab!” In addition Jezebel will suffer the same fate (ibid. 21:23), “The dogs will eat Jezebel in the valley of Jezreel.” Hashem cursed the offspring of Ahab as the verse states (ibid. 21:21), “I (Hashem) will bring disaster upon you … and cut off from Ahab every male child.”Realizing his grave sin Ahab wore sackcloth and fasted (ibid. 21:27). Since Ahab humbled himself before Hashem his verdict was partially changed and Hashem said (ibid. 21:29), “Because he has humbled himself before Me (Hashem), I will not bring the disaster in his days. Rather in the days of his son I will bring the disaster on his house.” However Ahab died in battle against the king of Aram (ibid. 22:35) and the dogs licked his blood (ibid. 22:37).    


In this case the cantillation does not separate between the words “do not” and “covet” which would imply that coveting is not permitted whether for physical or spiritual pursuits. However the Zohar (ibid.) notes that the remainder of the verse only mentions physical entities (e.g. house, wife, servants, and animals), implying that spiritual pursuits are different. In fact the Talmud states (Bava Batra 22a), “Jealousy among scholars increases wisdom.” This statement does not mean that one scholar should begrudge another or attempt to sabotage his work. Rather this statement means that one should be motivated to emulate the more successful scholar by studying harder and working on one’s character. The Maharsha, 16th century Talmudic commentator, writes that jealousy is only permitted for budding scholars but as they mature this “jealousy” is not required and will be detrimental.    


After individually discussing the 10 sayings the remainder of article will focus on the structure of these sayings and linkage to other verse in scripture as follows:

  • Two groupings (Man to Hashem and man to man).
  • Duality (Sayings 1 and 6, 2 and 7, 3 and 8, 4 and 9, and 5 and 10).
  • Linkage (Leviticus Chapter 19 and 20). 


The Zohar (2:93b-94a) and many Torah commentators explain that the Ten Sayings contain the essence of the Torah by combining laws between man and Hashem (first 5 sayings) and man to man (last 5 sayings). These laws also span the gamut of the life of the Israelites including laws of belief, ritual laws (viz. observing the Sabbath), ethical behaviour (i.e. respecting parents and not coveting), and fundamental laws of society (i.e. prohibition of murder, adultery, and theft). In addition the Torah mentions Hashem’s name in each of the first 5 sayings but does not mention this name in any of the last 5 sayings providing another indication of the grouping between man and Hashem man to man respectively.

The reader may ask, “Since the commandment to honour parents is included in the first 5, how does this mitzvah represent a commandment between man and Hashem?” The answer is that the relationship between man and his parents resemble the relationship between man and Hashem based upon the statement in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b), “There are three partners in the forming of a person, Hashem who provides the soul, and his father and his mother who provide the components of the body. Therefore when a person honours his father and mother, Hashem I ascribe credit to them as if I dwelt between them and they honour Me as well.”  In addition the Talmud (ibid.) notes that the command to honour, revere, and not curse parents mirrors the commandments to honour, revere, and not curse Hashem. Therefore the Talmud concludes that scripture places the honour and reverence for parents on the same level Hashem.  The following table lists these mitzvoth and verses for parents and Hashem respectively.

RespectExodus 20:12Proverbs 3:9
RevereLeviticus 19:3Deuteronomy 6:13
Prohibition to CurseExodus 21:17Leviticus 24:15


Both the Mechilta (Yitro 8) and the Zohar (2:90a) link the sayings of the 1st tablet to those of the 2nd in a numerical sense (i.e. 1 with 6, 2 with 7, 3 with 8, 4 with 9, and 5 with 10). The following table provides the saying number and theme for each of the 10 sayings.

1Belief in Hashem6Prohibition of Murder
2Prohibition of Idolatry7Prohibition of Adultery
3Prohibition of Vain Oath8Prohibition of Kidnapping
4Observe Sabbath9Prohibition of Bearing false witness
5Honour Parents10Prohibition of Coveting

(For those of a mathematical bent the formula linking these sayings is i, i+5 (for i=1 to 5) showing that the Torah has allusions to mathematics.)  

Link 1- Belief in Hashem – Prohibition of Murder

Both sources explain that the link between belief in Hashem and prohibition of murder is related to the fact the every person possess a divinely given soul as the verse states (Genesis 9:6), “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of G-d He made man.” The image of G-d refers to the soul because Hashem has no physical image. Hence through murder one diminishes the image of G-d. The Zohar adds the following verse from Ezekiel 1:26, “Upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness of the appearance of a man.” In this vision Ezekiel beholds the celestial chariot with the appearance of four faces (ibid. 1:10), namely that of man, a lion, ox and eagle. This verse highlights the link between man and Hashem. 

Link 2 – Prohibition of Idolatry and Adultery

Both sources compare idolatry to adultery in the sense that the Israelites are married to Hashem, in a spiritual sense but not of course in a physical sense. The marriage metaphor with Hashem the groom and the Israelites the bride is particularly apt because the Torah permits polygamy (i.e. one husband and 2 or more wives) but not polyandry (i.e. one wife and two or more husbands). In this metaphor Hashem may have a connection with many nations (i.e. similar to polygamy) but the Israelites may only serve Hashem and not other gods (i.e. avoiding polyandry). The following paragraphs provide examples of the link between idolatry and adultery from:

  • Scripture
  • Talmud
  • Midrash

The prophet Hosea uses the metaphor of adultery to describe Hashem’s displeasure with the Israelites who stray after idolatry. In fact, Hashem commands Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman as the verse states (Hosea 1:2), “ Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land goes astray from following Hashem (i.e. idolatry). The commentators debate whether this command is literal, a metaphor, or a dream sequence. In any event Hashem compares the unrequited love of Hosea to the unfaithfulness of the Israelites. Hashem commands Hosea (ibid. 3:1), “Go again, love a woman beloved by her companion, yet a woman of adultery, like the love of Hashem towards the children of Israel, even though they turn to other gods (i.e. idolatry).” 


The Torah relates (Exodus 32:20) that Moses ground up the golden calf, mixed it with water, and forced the Israelites to drink it. The Talmud (Yoma 66b) explains that after the incident of the golden calf there were the following punishments:

  • Capital punishment (Exodus 32:26-28) – after judicial process with previous warning and proven willful violation.
  • Plague (ibid. 32:35) – willful violation but without previous warning.
  • Drink the mixed water (ibid. 32:20) – like a suspected unfaithful wife based upon (Numbers 5:17-28).The Talmud (Avodah Zara 44a) compares the Israelites to an unfaithful wife and the act of idolatry tantamount to adultery.

The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 9:45) directly links the sin of idolatry to adultery by comparing the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-6) to the laws of the Sotah, the suspected unfaithful wife (Numbers 5:11-31).  According to this Midrash the roles of the husband, wife, and priest correspond to Hashem, Israelites and Moses, respectively.

Link 3 – Prohibition of Vain Oath and Kidnapping

Both sources link these two prohibitions by extending the prohibition of kidnapping to theft of property. Both the thief and the one who buys from the thief may be brought to court to take an oath and thereby falsely deny their role in this crime. The Mechilta (ibid.) quotes the verse (Hosea 4:2), “There is swearing (i.e. false oaths), lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery.” The Zohar (ibid.) quotes the verse (Proverbs 29:24), “He who shares with a thief hates his soul; he hears an oath but does not testify.” 

Link 4 – Observance of Sabbath and Prohibition of False Witness

The Zohar (ibid.) links these two sayings because one who observes the Sabbath acknowledges that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the Sabbath. Therefore one who desecrates the Sabbath, with full knowledge of the consequences, in effect bears false witness against Hashem. (Secular Israelites who are not knowledgeable in Torah and its many commandments are not considered desecrators of the Sabbath because of their lack of knowledge). To reflect this testimony, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 268:7) rules that after the evening amidah (main prayer) on Shabbat, the congregation recites the paragraph of Genesis (2:1-3), which mentions that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the Sabbath, while standing as if they are witnesses to Hashem’s creation. The Torah mandates that witnesses must stand when giving testimony as the verse (Deuteronomy 19:17) states, “The two men shall stand” (referring to the witnesses based upon Talmud Shevuot 30a). The Mishna Berurah (268:18) adds that if not said with a congregation, it is preferable to recite this paragraph as a group of at least two based upon the above verse.          

Link 5 – Honouring Parents and Prohibition of Coveting

Exodus 20:12 – “Honour your father and mother so that your days will be lengthened.”

Exodus 20:14 – “Do not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant … nor anything that belongs to your fellow.” 

The Zohar (ibid.) links these two sayings by noting that one who covets another man’s wife will likely commit adultery resulting in the birth of an illegitimate child. This child will respect his apparent father who in fact is not his biological father depriving this child of the mitzvah to honour his actual father. In addition when the child finds out that he is illegitimate he will come to hate his biological father negating this command.

The Zohar also links the end of these verses to teach that one who does not covet the property of another may be rewarded with a long life. In addition to the spiritual message we can understand this reward in a psychological manner as one who is content with what he has will lead a life relatively free of stress.        

Commandments – Linkage

The Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 24:5) finds a link between the 10 sayings of Exodus and corresponding verses in Chapter 19 of Leviticus. It is interesting to note that Chapter 19 begins the weekly Torah portion קדשים (Be holy) which alludes to the role of the 10 sayings to guide the Israelites to holiness by serving Hashem. The author will cite and comment on each verse from Leviticus 19 to explain this linkage. The following table shows the number and theme of each of Ten Sayings, verse number in Exodus Chapter 20 and corresponding verse in Leviticus Chapter 19 or Chapter 20.

1Belief in Hashem22
2Prohibition of Idolatry3-54
3Prohibition of Vain Oath712
4Observe Sabbath8 and 103
5Honour Parents123
6Prohibition of Murder1316
7Prohibition of Adultery1320:10
8Prohibition of Kidnapping1311
9Prohibition of Bearing False Witness1316
10Prohibition of Coveting1418

Saying 1 – Belief in Hashem

Exodus 20:2 – “I am Hashem your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:2 – “You (the Israelites) shall be holy, for I Hashem, your G-d, am holy.”

The verse from Exodus emphasizes the exodus from Egypt to establish Hashem’s claim on the Israelites to observe the commandments. By contrast the verse in Leviticus emphasizes the ideal of holiness and emulating Hashem’s ways by following the commandments of the Torah. The latter verse emphasizes that belief in Hashem is not just a philosophical concept but must lead to a life of holiness. Both verses mention that Hashem is the G-d of the Israelites.   

Saying 2 – Prohibition of Idolatry

Exodus 20:3 – “You shall not recognize the gods of others in My (divine) presence.”

Exodus 20:4 – “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the water beneath the earth.”

Leviticus 19:4 – “Do not turn to idols and do not make molten deities for you.” 

Although these verses are similar in theme the latter verse prohibits even turning to idols without worshipping them because one sin leads to another (Avot 4:2).  

Saying 3 – Prohibition of Vain Oath

Exodus 20:7 – “You shall not take the name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain.”

Leviticus 19:12 – “You shall not swear falsely by My (divine) Name.”

Although these verses are similar in text their contexts are different. The Torah places the former verse between the prohibition of idolatry and observing the Sabbath thereby emphasizing the connection of man to Hashem in belief and practice. By contrast the Torah places the latter verse between the prohibitions of stealing (ibid.19:11) and withholding wages of a worker (ibid. 19:13) thereby emphasizing honest dealings between man and man. This Midrash indicates that a person may take a false oath to deny involvement in theft or withholding wages.  

Saying 4 – Observe Sabbath

Exodus 20:8 – “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.”

Leviticus 19:3 – “You shall observe My Sabbaths.”

The Talmud (e.g. Berachot 20b) identifies saying 4 as two distinct commandments as follows:

  • Remember – Positive commandment to verbally mention the Sabbath at its entrance either in prayer or the Kiddush ceremony at the Sabbath meal.
  • Prohibition of Work –The Talmud (ibid.) points out that the prohibition of work is clearly indicated by the verse (Deuteronomy 5:12), “Safeguard the Sabbath to sanctify it.”

The Midrash points out that the prohibition of work is also mentioned in Leviticus 19:3 indicating that refraining from work on Shabbat leads to holiness because a person should focus on Torah study and prayer on the Sabbath.

Saying 5 – Honour Parents

Exodus 20:12 – “(you shall) honour your father and mother.”

Leviticus 19:3- “Every man shall revere his mother and father.”

The mitzvah of honouring one’s parents involves a positive action to show respect. By contrast the mitzvah of revering parents means that one refrains from acting in a manner that detracts from their status (Aruch Hashulchan Yorah Deah 240:8).

The Torah emphasizes reverence in the context of holiness to avoid over familiarity with one’s parents since the honour due to parents is compared to the honour due to Hashem (Talmud Kiddushin 30b).  

Saying 6 – Prohibition of Murder

Exodus 20:13 – “You shall not murder.”

Leviticus 19:16 – “You shall not stand by while your fellow’s blood is shed.”

This Midrash in a moral sense extends the prohibition of murder to helping someone in mortal danger whether from a natural disaster (e.g. flood) or under attack by people or wild animals. The Midrash speaks of a sin of omission rather than commission meaning that a person shall not stand idly when another person is in mortal danger. The Jerusalem Talmud (Terumot 8:4) rules that a rescuer should risk his life to save a potential victim. However the Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 61a) differs and states that a rescuer does not need to risk his life. The Shulchan Aruch (Chosen Mishpat 426:1) favours the ruling of the latter Talmud and does not require a rescuer to risk his life to save another because the person’s own life is valuable. Hence the risks must be assessed both for the rescuer and the victim (Aruch Hashulchan ibid. 426:4). In any event the person should seek help (e.g. call the police) and not turn his back on the victim.  

Saying 7 – Adultery

Exodus 20:13 – “You shall not commit adultery.”

Leviticus 20:10 – “A man who commits adultery (namely with another man’s wife) both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

Here the Midrash emphasizes the consequences of sin by removing evil from the midst of society to maintain holiness. As discussed in the companion article on this web site “Ten Commandments – Law” capital punishment was rarely applied by the Sanhedrin and only by following these steps:

  1. Warning – The accused must be warned by 2 witnesses about the offence and its subsequent punishment. 
  2. Witnesses – Two or more witnesses must actually see the offence because the Sanhedrin does not accept circumstantial evidence.
  3. Trial – A Sanhedrin of a minimum of 23 scholars will preside over this trial due to the severity of the charges and potential punishment. By contrast for financial matters a court of 3 is sufficient.

Saying 8 – Prohibition of Kidnapping (Theft)

Exodus 20:13 – “You shall not steal.”

Leviticus 19:11 – “You shall not steal, deny falsely, nor lie one to another.”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86a) explains that the former verse refers to kidnapping while the latter verse refers to theft of property. The Talmud comes to this conclusion by invoking the 12th principle of Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 principles of expounding the Torah, namely a matter elucidated from its context or from a nearby passage. Since the Torah places the prohibition of theft after the prohibitions of murder and adultery which are capital offenses the prohibition of theft (i.e. kidnapping) must also a capital offense. In fact the Torah (Exodus 21:16) indicates capital punishment for kidnapping, “One who kidnaps a man and sells him … shall be surely be put to death (through a trial).”

The verse in Leviticus refers to theft of property because the following verse (ibid. 19:13), “You shall not cheat your fellow nor rob him” also speaks of unlawful possession. The Midrash in a homiletic sense extends the prohibition of kidnapping which is a capital offense to theft which is a monetary crime because both crimes involve theft which affect the victim’s life and freedom. 

Saying 9 – Prohibition of False Testimony

Exodus 20:13 – “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow.”

Leviticus 19:16 – “You shall not be a gossipmonger amidst your people. You shall not stand by while your fellow’s blood is shed.”

Here the Midrash extends the prohibition of false testimony from a court context to daily living. In a homiletic sense, each person is a witness in the court of public opinion and thereby carries a grave responsibility to uphold the truth and judge a person favourably (Avot 1:6) unless the facts are so clear that there is no doubt about the offender’s actions. However one is not permitted to engage in gossip. However if there is a compelling reason to inform a third party about the negative character of a person (e.g. pending business deal involving a scam) then a person may speak honestly. Even in this case the person should be truthful and not embellish the facts with opinion, lest this person be guilty of character assignation as the verse (ibid.19:16) states “Do not stand by while your fellow’s blood is shed.”

Saying 10 – Prohibition of Coveting

Verse 20:14 “Do not covet your fellow’s house, wife, servants, livestock, or anything that belongs to your fellow.”

Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Although the Torah prohibits coveting, the verse does not indicate a method of controlling this desire. Here the Midrash provides moral instruction by realizing that one is bound to love one’s fellow as him. Just as one would not appreciate people coveting his property, he should not covet the property of others as Hillel said to a prospective convert (Talmud Shabbat 31a), “What is hateful to you do not do to others.” In addition to the perspective of that which is hateful, the Torah commands in a positive sense to love another person whom Nachmanides explains to mean that we should want others to have success and prosperity as we seek for ourselves. Therefore with this attitude there is no room for coveting.   


The Torah states the 10 Sayings to guide the Israelites to lead a holy life by observing the commandments between man and Hashem (the first 5) and man to man (the last 5). This article elaborated on these sayings and showed the depth of the Torah by linking these sayings to themselves and other verses in the Torah.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *