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Shabbat Commentary

5/6 Feb :Yitro : Shabbat comes in 4:42 pm, ends 5:48 pm

Parashat Yitro – The First Commandment  

In this week’s Torah portion, the Children of Israel receive the Ten Sayings (also known as the ‘Ten Commandments’). Jews and Christians count these ten in a slightly different order, due to a disagreement about how to begin the list. The two lists read as follows (summarised): 

Jewish Understanding Christian Understanding
1 I am Hashem your God. I am Hashem your God; you shall have
no other gods before Me.
2 You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not say God’s name in vain.
3 You shall not say God’s name in vain. Remember and sanctify Shabbat.
4 Remember and sanctify Shabbat. Honour your father and mother.
5 Honour your father and mother. You shall not murder.
6 You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery.
7 You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.
8 You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness.
9 You shall not bear false witness. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
10 You shall not covet. You shall not covet your neighbour’s goods.

 The advantage of the Christian understanding is that the Ten Commandments all read as commandments. The disadvantage is an awkward reading of the ninth and tenth commandments, in which ‘you shall not covet’ must be split into two.  

There has been a conflict in Jewish history over whether to read these ten statements as all being mitzvot, in which case, ‘I am God’ must also be a commandment. Some commentators, such as Abravanel, understand this first statement as being a declaration intended to precede these important commands. Abravanel would approve of the Hebrew terminology ‘Aseret haDibrot’ (‘The Ten Sayings’), because only nine of the sayings are commandments. Maimonides, however, reads ‘I am God’ as a command to belief. This is similar to an age-old question about the Shema: Is ‘you shall love Hashem your God’ a statement about emotion (you shall feel love), or a statement about action (you shall act lovingly, i.e. keep the mitzvot)?  

There is no simple answer, and Jews are still in makhloket (holy disagreement) about this subject today. Whatever the answer may be – whether we are commanded to believe and feel, or only to do – it seems that the Children of Israel understand their obligations as being primarily (if not solely) about observance. ‘We will do, and we will hear,’ they say (Ex. 24:7) – understood to mean that we will do first, and understand later. Whether or not we think that belief is an obligation, we do hope that outward practice will affect our inner lives.  

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Natasha


February 1, 2021