Ten Commandments – Halacha (Law)


The Ten Commandments are universally known because of their fundamental importance and due to 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).

Due to the length of this topic this article will focus on the Ten Commandments from the perspective of the law (i.e. Halacha) drawing from the Talmud and associated codes of law. For each of these 10 sayings, where applicable, the article will:

  • Explain the literal meaning of the verse.
  • Analyze related verses in the bible.
  • Record the actual law.
  • Resolve apparent contradictions between verses.

Although the saving of a life overrides Torah laws (even the Sabbath) there are exceptions to this rule as discussed in detail in the article “Sanctification of Hashem” on this web site with the link shown below:

A companion article on this web site “Ten Commandments – Aggadah (Homilies)” will examine these commandments using the pardes method of exposition (i.e. literal meaning, exegesis, allusions, and secrets of the Torah), drawn from the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar with associated commentaries.


Although the Torah itself call the Ten Commandments the “Ten Sayings הדברים עשרת” (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and 10:4), in actuality there are 14 commandments in the first version and 1 additional commandment in the second as shown in the following table which provides the number and theme of each of the Ten Sayings, number of mitzvoth implied per saying, and the verse number in Exodus Chapter 20 and where applicable in Deuteronomy.

NumberThemeNumber (Mitzvoth)Verse
1Belief in Hashem12
2Prohibition of Idolatry43-5
3Prohibition of Vain Oath17
4Observe Sabbath28 and 10
5Honour Parents112
6Prohibition of Murder113
7Prohibition of Adultery113
8Prohibition of Kidnapping113
9Prohibition of bearing false witness113
10Prohibition of coveting214 (Deut. 5:18)

Saying 1 – Belief in Hashem

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

This first saying commands the Israelites to believe in Hashem which the Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century rabbinic text on all 613 commandments of the Torah, explains entails the following beliefs:

  • Existence of Hashem.
  • Hashem as the ruler the world.
  • Torah as divine.
  • Hashem is not physical.

Existence of Hashem

The Sefer Hachinuch explains this commandment as belief in Hashem. By contrast Maimonides (Fundamentals of Torah 1:1) writes that this commandment entails more than belief but knowledge of Hashem, “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being (Hashem) who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being.” Maimonides (Fundamentals of Torah 1:6) writes that the source for this commandment is Exodus 20:2. It is interesting to note that Maimonides in his summary of the 613 commandments (called the Book of Mitzvoth) writes that this commandment is to believe in Hashem. Perhaps in the Book of Mitzvoth, Maimonides summarizes the basic commandment to believe in Hashem. By contrast in the Mishneh Torah, where he elaborates on the commandments, he mentions the higher level of this commandment to know Hashem. In a similar vein the Zohar (2:25a) divides this mitzvah of knowledge of Hashem in general (i.e. creator and ruler of the world) and in particular (i.e. knowledge of the mitzvoth and awareness of Hashem in daily life).    

Hashem as ruler of the world

The Torah writes (Exodus 20:2) that Hashem took the Israelites out of Egypt to emphasize that Hashem rules the world and will not tolerate injustice indefinitely. This belief that Hashem will eventually redeem the Israelites, just as Hashem redeemed the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, is a cornerstone in the faith of the Israelites and has sustained them over a long and painful exile.   

Torah as divine

The Sefer Hachinuch explains that this commandment to believe in Hashem in conjunction with the revelation at Sinai means that the Pentateuch is of divine origin and expresses the will of Hashem to follow His (divine) commandments. The reader may ask, “How do we know from the text that all of the words of the Pentateuch are divinely ordained?” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) establishes the divine origin of the Torah by quoting Numbers 15:31, “For he has despised the word (דבר) of Hashem and has violated his commandments. Therefore that soul shall be cut off.” The Talmud (ibid. 99b) understands that the word of Hashem refers to the entire Pentateuch, even the seemingly insignificant narratives (e.g. Genesis 36:22). It is interesting to note that the Torah uses the same root (דבר) for the derivation of the divine origin of the Torah and the Ten Sayings הדברים עשרת illustrating that all words of the Torah are equally divine.   

Hashem is not physical

Although the Torah frequently employs anthropomorphisms, (e.g. hand of Hashem – Exodus 9:3, eyes of Hashem – Deuteronomy 11:12) these expression are not literal because Hashem is not a physical being. Rather the Torah speaks in the language of man to communicate abstract concepts in terms that people can understand and internalize (Berachot 31b). Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 3:7) rules that if someone actually believes that Hashem is physical he is considered as a heretic, “One who accepts that there is one master of the world but maintains that He has a body or form is a heretic.” The Raavad (12th century commentator and critic of Maimonides) strongly disagrees with Maimonides and rules (ibid.) that while misguided in interpreting the Torah in a literal manner, this individual is not a heretic and if observant is considered as a pious Israelite. 

Saying 2 – Prohibition of Idolatry  

Four Prohibitions

This saying prohibits idolatry and related matters which Maimonides counts as 4 separate prohibitions in the count of the 613 mitzvoth as follows. 

Do not:

  1. Believe in other gods (Exodus 20:3).
  2. Make idols (ibid. 4).
  3. Bow down to idols (ibid. 5).
  4. Worship idols (ibid. 5).

Hence one saying leads to 4 different prohibitions showing how the Torah is interpreted in a legal sense in conjunction with moral instruction. The following verses (Exodus 20:3-5) mention these prohibitions respectively:

Verse 3 – “You shall not recognize the gods of others.”

Verse 4 – “You shall not make for yourself a carved image (for idolatry).”

Verse 5 – “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”   

Belief in other gods (Exodus 20:3)

Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 3:7) rules, “One who accepts the concept of a ruler, but maintains that there are two or more or one who serves a star, constellation, or other entity as an intermediary between him and Hashem is also a heretic.”

Do not make idols (Exodus 20:4 and Leviticus 19:4)

The prohibition of making idols entails the following prohibitions making an idol for:

  • Oneself.
  • Others.
Oneself (Exodus 20:4)

Maimonides rules (Laws of Idolatry 3:9) that a person transgresses this prohibition whether he makes the idol himself or even commands others to make an idol for him because making of an idol will eventually lead to worship. However Nachmanides (comments on the Book of Mitzvoth of Maimonides – Prohibition 5) rules that this prohibition only applies when the person makes the idol with the intention of worship.

Others (Leviticus 19:4)

Maimonides also rules (ibid.) that a person transgresses another prohibition when he makes an idol for others if they intend to worship the idol as the verse (Leviticus 19:4) states, “Do not make molten idols for you.” Accordingly, a person who actually fashions an idol for himself has transgressed these 2 prohibitions (i.e. making one for oneself and making an idol in general).

Do not bow down to idols (Exodus 20:5)

The Torah prohibits bowing down to idols even if the idol is not served in that fashion since another verse states (Exodus 34:14), “Do not bow down to an alien god.” Hence the verse in Exodus 20:5 comes to teach a general rule of idolatry that one is prohibited to serve any idol in the following modalities:

  • Bowing down (Exodus 20:5).
  • Slaughtering an animal as an offering (ibid. 22:19).
  • Pouring a libation of wine or blood (Sanhedrin 60b).
  • Burning this animal or incense (Sanhedrin 60b). 

The Talmud (ibid.) derives the last 2 modalities by expounding the verse (Exodus 22:19),”One who brings offering (literally slaughtering) to (other) gods shall be punished, only to Hashem alone.” The phrase “only to Hashem” comes to include primary sacrificial rites that are performed for Hashem in the temple (viz. the last 2 modalities) and are forbidden for idolatry. 

Do not worship idols (Exodus 20:5)

Since the previous prohibition identified 4 modalities of serving idols the reader may ask, “What is added by this prohibition?” The Talmud (ibid.) answers that the clause (Exodus 20:5), ”Do not worship them” extends the prohibition beyond the 4 modalities to include any form of worship (e.g. throwing or placing stones at an idol of Mercury) as long as the idol is served in that manner.   

The Torah specifies these different prohibitions to keep the Israelites from idol worship in any way or form.


The reader may ask, “Since the Torah forbids the making of idols what is the Torah view of sculpture and art?” Certainly any form of sculpture and art is forbidden if made for the purpose of idolatry as the verse (Exodus 20:4), states, ”You shall not make a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above, earth below, or waters beneath the earth.” However when not for idolatry the Torah states another verse (Exodus 20:20),” You shall not make images with Me (i.e. Hashem) whether silver or gold.” The Mechilta on this verse and the Talmud Avodah Zarah 42b-43b interpret the obscure expression “with Me” as my servants or creatures that resemble Hashem as follows:

Angelic figuresServing Hashem
Heavenly bodiesServing Hashem
HumanResemble Hashem

The Talmud (ibid.) explains that the angels serve Hashem by nature and are not distracted by human desires. The heavenly bodies (e.g. sun, moon, and stars) serve Hashem by their nature as determined from creation (Genesis 1:14-18). By contrast man is unique in creation, combining elements of the angelic with a divine soul which seeks a relationship with Hashem and an animal soul which seeks physical pleasures (Chagigah 16a). Mankind is also unique in that he has free will to let the divine or animal soul prevail (Berachot 61b).

The Halacha (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 141:4) distinguishes between paintings and tapestries which are 2 dimensional and sculpture which is 3 dimensional as follows where the symbol (√) means permitted and X means prohibited.   

Item2 Dimensional – Art3 Dimensional – Sculpture
Angelic figuresDisputeX
Heavenly bodiesXX

Although the Torah prohibits the Israelites from making 3 dimensional images of the “entities with Hashem” the codifiers of Halacha debate the making of 2 dimensional images for angelic figures. On one hand the prophets may perceive angels in human form (e.g. Joshua 5:13-15) therefore a 3 dimensional image would not be acceptable. On the other hand since the prophets perceive an angel in a dream or vision, which is not physical, a 3 dimensional image is not a true likeness and would be acceptable. By contrast the Shulchan Aruch rules against masking 2 dimensional drawings of heavenly bodies because the human eye perceives these entities as 2 dimensional even though they are in fact 3 dimensional.     


The reader may ask, “If the Torah prohibits 3 dimensional images of people and angels how did the Torah allow the making of cherubs in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:18-20) which are 3 dimensional?” The Mechilta (Exodus 20:20 – Parshat Yitro Section 10) addresses this apparent contradiction and states that the cherubs are an exception to this prohibition. The Talmud explains that Hashem allowed this exception to express his great love for the Israelites when they follow the Torah. “When the Israelites would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another. The priests would say to the pilgrims: See how you are beloved before Hashem, like the love of a male and female (Yoma 54a).” In addition the Talmud states (Bava Batra 99a), “The faces of the cherubs miraculously changed directions as a reflection of the Israelite’s relationship with Hashem. When the Israelites perform the will of Hashem the cherubs faced each other otherwise the cherubs faced the sanctuary and not toward each other.”

The Mechilta (ibid.) states the making of cherubs is limited to:

  • Use in the Temple and not in the synagogue.
  • Only 2 cherubs with the exception of King Solomon who made 2 cherubs with the consent of Hashem (1 Kings 6:23-28).
  • Only of gold and not of other metals.

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.”

Leviticus 19:12 – “You shall not swear falsely by My (divine) name thereby desecrating the Name of your G-d.”

The reader may ask, “Why are there two verses concerning improper oaths, one vain and the other false?”  Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah explains the difference between these oaths based upon the Talmud Shevuot 20b and 29a.

Vain Oath – Exodus 20:7

Maimonides (Laws of Oaths) identifies the following as vain oaths:

  1. Concerning a known matter that is not true (e.g. one took an oath that a man was a woman or vice versa) (ibid. 1:4).
  2. Concerning a known matter that which no one has a doubt (e.g. one took an oath that the sky was the sky or a stone is a stone) (ibid.1:5).
  3. To nullify a mitzvah (e.g. not to eat matzo on Passover night) (ibid.1:6).
  4. Concerning a matter that he is unable to perform (e.g. one took an oath to not sleep for three consecutive days and nights, or not eat for seven consecutive days) (ibid. 1:7).

False oath – Leviticus 19:12

By contrast, a false oath refers to an oath that a person could perform whether in the past (2 types) or the future (2 types) but the person does not follow through with the promise (Laws of Oaths 1:2-3). A person took an oath that:

  1. He ate something but did not.
  2. He did not eat something but did.
  3. He will eat something but did not.
  4. He will not eat something but did.

This prohibition applies not only if the person uses the name of Hashem (i.e. Tetragrammaton) or any other of the holy names that may not be erased (Maimonides Fundamentals of Torah 6:1-2) but even if the oath includes adjectives of Hashem (e.g. an oath on He (divine) whose name is gracious or merciful) (Laws of Oaths 2:2-3).

The verse (Exodus 20:7) states that Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His name in vain. Maimonides adds (Laws of Oaths 12:1), “Although a person who took a false or vain oath is given lashes they do not receive complete atonement for this sin until he receives divine retribution for his desecration of His great name (Leviticus 19:12). Therefore a person must be very careful with regard to this sin.”

Holy Name in Vain

In addition to oaths, one should not use the holy names of Hashem in vain as Maimonides rules (Laws of Oaths 12:11), “It is not only a false oath that is forbidden. Rather it is forbidden to mention even one of the names designated for Hashem although one does not take an oath. The verse (Deuteronomy 28:58) commands us, saying: To fear the glorious and awesome name (of Hashem) which means not to mention it in vain.”

The Talmudic commentators debate whether taking Hashem’s name in vain without an oath is a biblical (Maimonides ibid. 12:9 and 11) or rabbinic violation (Tosafot Rosh Hashanah 33a). In either case the spirit of the law is to treat Hashem’s name with respect and therefore the prohibition of vain oaths follows the prohibition of idolatry indicating that reverence for Hashem is a bulwark against idolatry (Nachmanides on Exodus 20:7).    

Maimonides (ibid.) continues “Therefore if because of a slip of the tongue, one mentions Hashem’s name (Fundamentals of Torah 6:1-2) in vain, he should immediately hurry to praise, glorify, and venerate it so that it will not have been mentioned in vain. For example, he should say: Blessed be He (divine) for all eternity or He (divine) is great and exceedingly praiseworthy.”

The accepted practice is to say, “”Blessed be the Name of Him whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever” (Maimonides Laws of Blessings 4:10).

Saying 4 – The Sabbath

In the Exodus 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.”


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 indicated by the verse (Deuteronomy 5:12), “Safeguard the Sabbath to sanctify it.”


Maimonides (Laws of Sabbath 29:1), “It is a positive commandment from the Torah to sanctify the Sabbath day with a verbal statement, as the verse states (Exodus 20:8): Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” which means remember it with words of praise that reflect its holiness. This remembrance must be made at the Sabbath’s entrance and at its departure namely the Kiddush and Havdalah prayers, respectively. The Maggid Mishneh (14th century commentator on Maimonides) notes that the Kiddush ceremony is biblical but other commentators hold that the Havdalah ceremony is a rabbinic enactment.   

The Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim rules that Sabbath is both remembered and sanctified by prayer (ibid. 281:1) and Torah study ibid. 290:2).

Prohibition of Work

Although the Torah prohibits work on the Sabbath the Torah does not explicitly define the nature of this work. There are some verses in the Torah that mention prohibited labours on Sabbath as follows:

Exodus 16:23 – “Bake and cook what you wish (on Friday) because tomorrow is a rest day, a holy Sabbath to Hashem.”

Ibid. 34:21 – “Six days you shall work. On the seventh day you shall rest, including plowing and harvesting.”

Ibid. 35:3 – “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”

Numbers 15:32 – “The Israelites found a man in the wilderness who was gathering wood in violation of the Sabbath (and who was later put to death).”

The Talmud Shabbat 49b explains that the Hebrew word for work in the Ten Commandments is מלאכה which means creative work and establishes that those activities in the preparation and construction of the Tabernacle are defined as work. The Torah alludes to this definition by placing the command to refrain from work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) to the command to build a Tabernacle (ibid. 35:4-18) as explained by the Talmud (Shabbat 97b).

The following table based upon Talmud Shabbat 73a lists all 39 forbidden labours of Shabbat.

ActivityNumber of Labours
Making Bread –from plowing until baking11
Making Clothes – from shearing until weaving10
Knots – tying and untying2
Sewing  and tearing2
Making hides – from trapping until cutting 6
Writing and erasing2
Building and demolishing2
Fire – kindling and extinguishing2
Final touch1
Carrying – different domains or in public domain1

In addition to these principle labours there are numerous derivative labours which are described and analyzed in the tractate Sabbath. In fact this tractate which contains 156 folio pages (or 312 printed pages,) amounts to approximately 6% of the Babylonian Talmud.    

Contradiction – Permitted Work

The Mechilta on Exodus 20:8 notes an apparent contradiction. On the one hand the Torah does not permit slaughtering of animals and roasting of their flesh on the Sabbath as shown in the table above. (The prohibition of making hides includes the slaughtering of animals.) On the other hand, the Torah commands the slaughter and roasting of two lambs on the Sabbath as an elevation offering in the Tabernacle (Numbers 28:9). The Mechilta (ibid.) resolves this contradiction by stating that both of the commands were said by Hashem simultaneously, one for the general population and the other for the Sanctuary meaning that direct service to Hashem in the Sanctuary overrides the Sabbath. From this case one can see that the laws of the Torah are complex and apparent contradictions are resolved through divine wisdom.

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.”

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 240) based upon Talmud Kiddushin 31b defines these commandments as follows:

A son or daughter honours a parent by seeing that they are fed, clothed, and taken out, all with a pleasant disposition (ibid. 240:4) with the expenses paid by the parents (ibid. 240:5). If the parents do not have the means, then the son or daughter must cover the expenses (ibid.). 

A son or daughter reveres their parents by not sitting in their designated place, not contradicting their words, and not calling them by their first name (ibid. 240:2).

In summary, 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 Zohar (2:93a) adds that a person honours his parents by performing good deeds that lead people to praise the person and the 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 a similar vein the Talmud (Yoma 86a) relates, “One should read Torah, study Mishna, and serve Torah scholars. In addition he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. See how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds. The verse (Isaiah 49:3) states about him and others like him: You are My (divine) servant, Israel in whom I will be glorified”. In this manner this person honours his parents and Hashem which explains why this commandment is included with the other 4 sayings between man and Hashem.

Apparent Contradiction – Violation of the Torah

The Talmud (Yevamot 5b) discusses the case where a parent asks their children to violate a law of the Torah to serve them (e.g. working on the Sabbath). The Talmud (ibid.) states that both the parents and the children are obligated to follow Hashem’s laws based upon Leviticus 19:3, “Every man shall revere his father and mother and observe the Sabbath.” The Talmud (ibid.) connects the mitzvah of revering parents to observing the Sabbath and concludes that the observance of Sabbath overrides the reverence for parents because both the parents and the children must observe Hashem’s laws. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 240:15) extends this principle to all laws of the Torah and even rabbinic ordinances meaning that one may not transgress these laws to respect or revere their parents.

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. However there a number of verses in the Torah that justify taking human life as follows:

  • War
  • Capital punishment
  • Self-defense


In several places the Torah commands the Israelites to wage war against their enemies (viz. the seven nations of Canaan and Amalek) as shown in the following verses in Deuteronomy:

Verse 20:16 – “From the cities of the nations that Hashem has given you an inheritance (Canaan) you shall not allow any person to live.”

Verse 25:19 – “It shall be when Hashem has given you rest from your enemies … you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek (i.e. through war).”

Although the details of engagement are not clearly spelled out in the Torah the oral law provides many of these details to guide a working government. Maimonides (Laws of Kings 5:1) identifies the following types of war:

  • Obligatory – to conquer the land of Israel or defend against enemies of Israel.
  • Discretionary – to expand the borders of Israel or magnify its greatness and reputation.

The king must fight obligatory wars before waging a discretionary war. At present the state of Israel does not have a divinely ordained king and therefore may only fight defensive wars. In fact the modern day Israeli army is called the Israel Defense Forces (or IDF).

The Talmud Berachot 3b states that before waging a voluntary war, King David followed this procedure of consultation with:

  • Military advisers – to develop battle strategy.
  • Sanhedrin – to see if war is justified according to Halacha and that the Sanhedrin should pray for the soldiers. In the opinion of the author King David consulted with the Sanhedrin to ensure that the Israelites have the moral authority to wage war and not inflict senseless loss of life as was the practice of gentile kings (or modern autocrats).
  • Divine oracle – to seek divine guidance before waging war.

The reader may ask, “Why not consult with the divine oracle first and bypass human consultation?” In the opinion of the author Hashem wants man to think for himself, perform his due diligence, and then seek divine guidance.”

Maimonides rules (ibid 5:2) that that the king does not have to consult with the Sanhedrin before waging an obligatory war because the Torah commands this war, hence the moral authority is mandated by the Torah.

The divine oracle only operated in the first temple and will return with the advent of the third temple in the era of the messiah. The interested reader will find some more information about this mysterious oracle in the appendix titled “The Mysterious Oracle” at the end of this article. 


Even though the Torah allows for both types of wars the Israelites should seek a peaceful solution before waging war. From the Torah’s perspective war is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

In this manner Maimonides writes (Laws of Kings 6:1), “Both types of war should not be waged against anyone until they are offered the opportunity of peace as the Torah states (Deuteronomy 20:10): When you approach a city to wage war against it, you should propose a peaceful settlement. If the enemy accepts the offer of peace and commits itself to the fulfillment of the seven mitzvoth that were commanded to Noah’s descendents, none of them should be killed. Rather, they should become your subjects as the verse states (ibid. 20:11):  They shall be your subjects and serve you.”

Maimonides continues (ibid. 6:5), “Joshua sent three letters to the Canaanites before entering the Promised Land: At first, he sent them: Whoever desires to flee should flee. Afterwards, he sent a second message: Whoever desires to accept a peaceful settlement should make peace. Then he sent a final message: Whoever desires war should do battle.”

Capital punishment

The Torah mentions capital punishment many times in the Torah, thus enabling a duly constituted court of rabbinic scholars to apply this punishment albeit in a limited manner. The following section will discuss the many conditions that restrict the application of capital punishment.     


The following verses show at a literal level the application of capital punishment for violation of some of the ten sayings.


The Torah in Deuteronomy Chapter 17 discusses the case of idolatry as follows:

  • Detection of the crime (17:2-3).
  • Fair trial (17:4).
  • Witnesses (17:6).
  • Capital punishment through stoning (17:5).

At a literal level, the Torah states that an idolater was found but does not discuss the mechanism of detection. The Torah does state that the accused is entitle to a fair trial, “(The court) will hear and investigate well and behold the testimony is correct. “ The Torah continues, “By the testimony of 2 or 3 two witnesses shall the condemned die. He shall not die by the testimony of a single witness.” In verse 17:5 the Torah declares, “Then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has committed this evil thing … you shall pelt them with stones, and they shall die.”


The Torah (Exodus 31:14) specifies capital punishment for violation of the Sabbath, “You shall observe the Sabbath for it is holy. Its desecrator shall be put to death.”


The Torah (Exodus 21:12) states, “One who mortally strikes a person shall be put to death (by a duly authorized court).


The Torah (Leviticus 20:10) states, “A man who commits adultery shall be put to death with the adulteress.”

The Torah (Deuteronomy 22:25) also specifies capital punishment for adultery with a betrothed maiden, “If a man finds a betrothed maiden in the field, overpowers her, and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die (because she was raped).”

Legal Procedure

A capital case must follow these steps before the accused is executed:

  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.

Maimonides (Laws of Sanhedrin Chapter 12) elaborates on this procedure as follows:


Law 1 – “When the witnesses come to the court and say: We saw this person violate such-and-such a transgression, the judges ask them: Do you recognize him? Did you give him a warning? If they answer: We do not recognize him, or we are unsure of his identity, or we did not warn him the defendant is exonerated.”

Law 2 — “To administer a warning the witnesses must tell the potential offender: Do not do it. It is a transgression and you are liable to be executed by the court. If he ceases, he is not liable. Similarly, if he remains silent or nods his head, he is not liable for punishment. Even if he says: I know, he is not liable for punishment until he accepts death upon himself, saying: It is for this reason that I am doing this. In addition he must commit the transgression directly after receiving the warning, within the time to offer a salutation (e.g. peace to you my teacher). If he waits longer than that, a second warning is necessary.”

“The warning is acceptable whether it was administered by one of the witnesses or by another individual in the presence of the witnesses. Even if the transgressor hears the voice of the person administering the warning, but does not see him the case may proceed.”


Law 3 – “If the witnesses say: He was given a warning and we recognize him, the court cross examines the witnesses (to avoid a fraudulent charge). The judges say: Maybe you are speaking on the basis of supposition or on the basis of hearsay.”

“If they stand by their word, each witness is brought into the court alone and is questioned and cross-examined. Court. Even if there are 100 witnesses, each one is questioned and cross-examined separately.


Law 3 – “If the testimony of all the witnesses is accurate the judgment begins. If grounds for acquittal (through a vote) are found, he is released. If they do not find grounds for acquittal, the defendant is imprisoned until the following day.”

“On that day, the Sanhedrin divides itself into pairs and they examine the judgment. They eat little and do not drink wine throughout that entire day. They debate the matter throughout the night, each one with his comrade or alone. On the morrow, they come to the court early. Each of those who voted for acquittal state: I am the one who voted for acquittal yesterday, and I still favour that ruling. Each of those who voted for conviction state: “I am the one, who voted for conviction yesterday and I still favour that ruling, or I have changed my mind and I vote for acquittal.”

“After the deliberation a vote is taken. If the majority favours acquittal the accused is released. If it is necessary to add judges (in the case where some judges abstain from the vote), they add. If there is a majority of judges who seek to convict him then he is convicted.”

Maimonides (ibid. Chapter 11:1) explains the details of this vote as follows:

“Cases involving capital punishment are adjudicated by a court of 23 judges. The court acquits on a majority of one but convicts only when there is a majority of two (additional judges may be added if one or more judges cannot render a decision). In addition the court may retry a judgment if it will lead to acquittal, but not if it will lead to conviction.

“At the ginning of a case if all the judges say that the defendant is liable, he is exonerated. There must be some who seek to exonerate him and argue on his behalf” (ibid 9:1).

Suffice to say that capital punishment was rarely applied by the Sanhedrin as the Talmud says (Makkot 7a), “A Sanhedrin that executes a transgressor once in seven years is characterized as a destructive tribunal. (Since the Sanhedrin would subject the testimony to exacting scrutiny, it was extremely rare for a defendant to be executed.) Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya: This categorization applies to a Sanhedrin that executes a transgressor once in seventy years.”



The Torah permits a person to take the life of another in an act of self-defense as the following verses discuss (Exodus 22:1-2) a break-in where the householder may kill a thief or intruder or in the vernacular “Stand your ground”.

Verse 1 – “If a thief is discovered while tunneling in and is struck (by the householder) and dies, the householder is innocent (literally there is no blood guilt).”   

Verse 2- “If the sun shone upon the thief then the householder is liable (literally there is blood guilt).”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) succinctly states this principle, “If someone comes to kill you then rise (early in the morning) and kill him first.” In addition to self-defense the Talmud even permits a pre-emptive strike. The Talmud (ibid.) explains the rational for this law as follows,” There is a presumption that a person will not restrain himself when faced with a loss of money. Therefore this burglar must have said to himself: If I go in and the owner sees me, he may rise against me and not allow me to steal from him. Therefore if he rises against I will kill him.”  

The verses seem to imply that the permission to kill the intruder depends upon time of day when the sun shines it is not permitted to attack the intruder, when dark it is permitted. However the Talmud (ibid.) explains that the expression in Exodus 22:2, “If the sun shone upon the thief” must be understood in a metaphoric sense. If the matter is as clear to you as the sun that the burglar is coming to you in peace do not kill him (e.g. a father breaking into his son’s house). If the matter is unclear then the householder my kill the intruder as Maimonides rules (Laws of Theft 9:10), “If it is clear to the householder that the thief who breaks in will not kill him and instead is only seeking financial gain, it is forbidden to kill the thief. If the householder kills him, then the householder is considered to be a murderer. Therefore, a father who breaks into his son’s home should not be killed. But a son who breaks into his father’s home may be killed.”


In addition to self-defense the Torah authorizes an Israelite to prevent the following crimes on another person even at the expense of the life of the perpetrator:

  • Attempted murder.
  • Rape of male or certain females (i.e. adultery or incest).

In effect the Torah extends the principle of self-defense to include:

  • A third party (i.e. victim not related to defender).
  • A crime of rape (i.e. which is not life threatening).

This “taking of the law in one’s own hands” to the extent of killing only applies to these two offences. In the case of other violations of the Torah (e.g. idolatry or desecration of the Sabbath) a person cannot take physical action against the offender. He must try to persuade him verbally and warn him of the consequences of the crime as discussed above in the section of capital punishment.

The reader may ask, “Where does the Torah mention this law of the pursuer?”The answer is based upon Deuteronomy 22:26-27 and Talmud Sanhedrin 73a as follows:

Verse 26 – “You shall do nothing to the betrothed woman (who was raped) for she has not committed a crime. For the rape victim is like a man who attacks his fellow and murders him.”

Verse 27 – “For the rapist found her in the field, the woman cried out but there was none to save her.”

The Talmud (ibid.) infers from the latter verse that had there been some to save her, he would be allowed to rescue her even at the expense of the life of the perpetrator.

Attempted Murder

The Talmud (ibid.) derives the law of killing the potential murderer from the unusual expression in verse 26, “For the rape victim is like a man who attacks his fellow and murders him.” On the surface these two cases are not related and the Torah could have simply said, “For the rape victim is innocent.” Hence the Talmud concludes that just as a rape victim must be protected from attack so a potential murder victim must be protected even at the life of the perpetrator.

Attempted Rape

Although the Torah (ibid.) only speaks of a betrothed maiden the Talmud understands this case as an example and therefore the law applies to a betrothed woman, marred woman, incest, or male.


The law that permits an Israelite to stop the crime of murder or rape applies under the following conditions:

  • It is not possible to stop the offender though other means (e.g. injuring the offender). However if a person could prevent this crime by injuring the pursuer but did not take the trouble and killed the pursuer. The defender is regarded as a murderer but is not executed by the court because he thought he was performing a mitzvah (Maimonides Law of Murder 1:13). 
  • Action taken prior to the offense. Once the crime has been committed only a court of law may punish the offender.

Saying 7 – Prohibition of Adultery

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

The Torah forbids adultery with a married or betrothed woman (Deuteronomy 22:25). However the written Torah does not explicitly define the legal action of betrothal or marriage. The first Mishna in tractate Kiddushin defines the method of establishing a betrothal as follows:

  • Transfer of money or any item of value from the groom to the bride.
  • Transfer of a document of betrothal from the groom to the bride.
  • Consummation of marriage.

In each of these cases both the groom and bride must have the intent for marriage when performing these acts. The tractate Kiddushin examines in detail the exact protocol to follow in these methods of betrothal.  Maimonides (Laws of Marriage 1:3), based on the Talmud, writes, “ Once this process of acquisition has been formalized (by one of the 3 methods mentioned above) she is considered to be married even if the marriage has not been consummated (first 2 methods) and she has not entered her husband’s home. Should anyone other than her husband engage in sexual relations with her, he is liable to be executed by the court. If her husband desires to divorce her, he must compose a written bill of divorce.” 

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 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 following 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 latter 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. In addition the verse in Leviticus is stated in plural form indicating that a thief often operates in co-operation with a buyer to sell his stolen goods. Although the offence of kidnapping also involves a buyer it is more likely that there are more buyers for stolen goods than for kidnapping.  

Saying 9 – Prohibition of False Witness

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

As mentioned in the discussion of capital punishment (saying 6) the court relies on the testimony of 2 or more eye witnesses to obtain a conviction. The court does not use circumstantial evidence, accusation of a victim, or a confession of the offender to obtain a guilty verdict. The reader may ask, “Since the witnesses are critical for a conviction what penalty does the Torah apply to false witnesses?” The Torah states that based upon the principle of measure for measure (Sotah 8b), the same punishment that the false witnesses wished to impose on the falsely accused through the court will be applied to them by the court. Specifically the verses state (Deuteronomy 19:18-19), “The judges shall inquire thoroughly, and behold! The testimony was false. He has testified falsely against his brother.” You shall do to him as he conspired to do his fellow and you shall you shall destroy evil from your midst.” By contrast in a secular court perjury may lead to imprisonment but this is not a case of measure for measure.

Although the written Torah does not specify the details of these conspiring witnesses the oral Torah fills in the details. Maimonides (Laws of Witnesses Chapter 18) explains these details using tractate Makkot.

Law 1 – When a person delivered false testimony and other witnesses testify to that fact, he is called a conspiring or plotting witness. It is a positive mitzvah to requite him in the manner in which he desired through his testimony to affect his colleague (even capital punishment).”

Law 2 – “When does the above apply? The witnesses were disqualified through a discrepancy of time and location (הזמה). However, if two pairs of witnesses contradict each other then both testimonies are of no consequence. Therefore neither of them receives punishment because we do not know which pair is lying.”

“What is the difference between testimony which is disqualified (הזמה) and contradicted?  Disqualification focuses on the witnesses themselves who were at a different place at the time when the alleged event occurred. The witnesses who disqualify them do not know whether the event happened or not. A contradiction concerns the testimony itself. For example one pair of witnesses states that this event took place while the other pair denies this event.”

Law 3 – “The fact that the Torah accepted the word of the latter pair of witnesses instead of that of the first pair of witnesses is a Scriptural decree (because how can you choose one group over the other). Even if there were 100 in the first group of witnesses, two witnesses can come and disqualify all of them because two witnesses are equivalent to 100. Similarly, when two groups of witnesses contradict each other, we do not follow the majority instead, we nullify the testimony of both.”

The reader may ask, “What punishment does the Torah apply in the face of perjury where the witnesses are proven false by the facts of the case and not by disqualification?” For example, witnesses testified about an alleged murder and the alleged victim is alive and appears in court! Since the Torah does not specify a particular punishment, the matter is left to the discretion of the court according to their perception of the severity of the matter (ibid. 18:6).

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, or anything that belongs to your fellow.”

This commandment only prohibits coveting that leads to action (e.g. buying an item) even if the person pays for this item but the seller did not want to sell it. Maimonides writes (Laws of Robbery 1:9), “Anyone who covets a servant, a maidservant, a house or utensils that belong to a colleague, or any other article that he can purchase from him and pressures him … until he agrees to sell it to him, violates this negative commandment, even though he pays much money for it. One does not violate this commandment until one actually takes the article he covets, as reflected by Deuteronomy 7:25: Do not covet the gold and silver on these statues and take it for yourself, implying that the Hebrew word תחמד refers to coveting accompanied by a deed.”

The author would like to point out that this word form of covet תחמד occurs only 4 times in the Pentateuch, 3 in reference to the Ten Commandments (i.e. twice in Exodus 20:13 and once in Deuteronomy 5:17) and the other in ibid. 7:25 in reference to idolatry, implying that this desire may lead to serious transgressions (viz. adultery and idolatry). In fact the only other time that this word occurs in the bible is in reference to adultery (Proverbs 6:25-26), “Do not covet her beauty in your heart, and do not let her captivate you with her eyelids. Because a man is brought to a loaf of bread for a harlot, and a married woman will hunt a precious soul.”   

In addition to the prohibition of coveting, the Torah in the second set of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18) mentions the prohibition of desiring. The verse states (ibid. 18), “Do not covet your fellow’s wife. Do not desire (תתאוה) your fellow’s house, field, slave, maidservant, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow.” Although the two verbs (viz. covet and desire) appear to be the same, the Mechilta on Exodus 20:14 interprets them as two separate commandments:

  • Covet – desire leading to action.
  • Desire – in thought alone.

Maimonides in the Laws of Robbery Chapter 1 similarly explains.

Law 10 – “Anyone who desires a home, wife, utensils, or anything else belonging to a colleague that he can acquire from him, violates a negative commandment at the time he thinks in his heart: How is it possible to acquire this from him? Hence based upon Deuteronomy 5:18 the prohibition to desire, refers to feelings of the heart alone.”  

Law 11 – Maimonides continues on this theme, “Desire leads to coveting and coveting leads to robbery. For if the owners do not desire to sell despite the offer of much money and many supplications by friends, the person motivated by desire will be moved to robbery, as Micah 2:2 states: They coveted houses and stole. If the owner stands up against him to save his property, or in another way prevents the person from robbing, he will be moved to murder (as explained in Saying 6 – Self Defense).”

Law 12 – Maimonides then summarizes these cascading offenses, “Thus, we see that a person who desires another person’s property violates one negative commandment. One who later purchases an object that he desires through pressuring the owners and repeatedly asking them, violates two negative commandments. If he takes the article by robbery, he then violates three negative commandments.”

Appendix – The Mysterious Oracle

The Mysterious Oracle called the Urim v’Tumim in transliterated English and ותמים אורים in Hebrew only appears in a few places in the Torah (i.e. Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, and Numbers 27:21). At no point does the Torah or Talmud describe the form of this oracle and hence there are several opinions in the commentaries as follows:

  • A piece of parchment with the Tetragrammaton inserted into the fold of the high priest’s breastplate (Rashi and Nachmanides on Exodus 28:30).
  • Ritva (Yoma 73b) explains that the parchment was given by Hashem to Moses.
  • The precious stones of breastplate of the high priest (Rav Hai Gaon).

The Talmud (Yoma 73b) explains that the Hebrew words ותמים אורים mean that this oracle provides clarity (literally illumination) and truth (literally completeness) respectively in their predictions. Through this oracle the priest could communicate with Hashem.

As Maimonides explains (Laws of Temple Vessels 10:11), “The high priest would stand facing the Ark. The person making the inquiry was behind him, facing the priest’s back. The inquirer would ask: Should I go up to war or not? He would not ask in a loud voice, nor would he merely think about the matter in his heart. Instead, he would speak in a low voice. Immediately, the Holy Spirit would inspire the priest. He will look at the breastplate and with the spirit of prophecy see “Go up” or “Do not go up” written in letters emerging from the breastplate toward his face. The priest would then answer the inquirer, telling him: Go up or do not go up.”


This article expounded on the 10 sayings by:

  • Explaining the literal meaning of the verse.
  • Analyzing related verses in the bible.
  • Recording the actual law.
  • Resolving apparent contradictions between verses.

The point of this discussion is to show that these 10 sayings are both inspirational and a legal framework to fulfill the will of Hashem and become holy as the verse (Leviticus 19:2) states, “You shall be holy for I, Hashem, am holy.”  

In a similar vein the Zohar (2:82b) exhorts the followers of Torah to become שלם with their Master (i.e. Hashem), meaning both complete and at peace with Hashem.

Leave a Comment

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