The First Two Commandments - Absolute vs Relative Truths


Moshe Ben-Chaim



The Ten Commandments

(Descending order, right to left)

Do Not Kill

Know G-d Exists

Do Not Commit Adultery

Have No Other Gods

Do Not Steal

Do Take G-d’s Name in Vain

Do Not Swear Falsely

Keep the Sabbath

Do Not Covet

Honor Your Parents




In this week’s Torah reading of parshas Mishpatim, the following verse seizes our attention, Exod. 24:12: “And G-d said to Moses, ‘ascend to Me to the mountain, and remain there, and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, and the Torah, and the Mitzvah that I wrote, that you may instruct them.”


This verse recounts G-d’s command to Moses just prior to His giving to Moses the Tablets. The Sages differ in their opinions of what is referred to by the two references of “Torah” and “Mitzvah”. Saadia Gaon suggests they refer to the Written and Oral Laws respectively. Accordingly, Saadia Gaon is of the opinion that G-d is about to give Moses three entities: the Tablets of Stone, the Written Law, and the Oral Law.


Unlike Saadia Gaon, Sforno states that at this moment in history, G-d is giving but one thing: the Tablets of Stone. The word “Torah” refers to that inscribed “portion (commands) of thought”, while “Mitzvah” refers to the “portion (commands) of action”. The Ten Commandments may be divided into laws governing thought, and governing action. Sforno suggests this is the meaning behind G-d’s distinction of “Torah” and “Mitzvah.”


However, Ibn Ezra poses the most difficult explanation. As Sforno states, Ibn Ezra too suggests this verse teaches there was but one thing given to Moses at this point in time, i.e., the Tablets of Stone. But Ibn Ezra states that “Torah” refers to the first and fifth of the Ten Commandments, while “Mitzvah” refers to the remaining eight - an odd division. Ramban’s quote of this Ibn Ezra is slightly altered: he replaces the fifth with the second command. I would like to explain Ibn Ezra, but using Ramban’s quote. This means that Ibn Ezra says “Torah” refers to the commands of knowing G-d’s existence (Command I) and the prohibition against idolatry (Command II). “Mitzvah” refers to the last eight of the Ten Commands.


The question is this: Why when instructing Moses to ascend to receive the Ten Commandments, doesn’t G-d simply say, “…ascend to Me and I will give you the Tablets of Stone”? Instead, G-d says, “…and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, and the Torah, and the Mitzvah”. If in this verse, the words “Torah” and “Mitzvah” refer to commands inscribed in the already mentioned Tablets, then the words “Torah” and “Mitzvah” are somewhat redundant. What is G-d teaching Moses when He says come to Me to receive not just Tablets, but the Torah and Mitzvah that is written upon them? Moses knows that G-d is not giving him blank tablets. So what is Moses to learn from G-d’s words, “…and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, and the Torah, and the Mitzvah that I wrote…”?


We can say quite certainly that G-d is teaching Moses that He is not simply giving him laws, but these laws belong to distinct categories, i.e., “Torah” refers to knowledge of G-d’s existence and the prohibition of idolatry, while “Mitzvah” refers to the other laws. But why must G-d – at this moment – categorize these laws for Moses? We must also explain why G-d says to Moses that he must ascend, and also “remain” on the mountain. What relevance has this with Moses’ acceptance of the Ten Commandments? What of the final statement, “instructing them” in these laws? Why must this be included in this verse? (We have a tradition that all elements in a given Torah verse must have a relationship.)


Talmud Moade Katan 9b records two students of Rabbi Shimone bar Yochai who correctly arrived at the Torah’s teaching that one must ‘weigh’ the commands, and select the greater command for himself, allowing others to perform lesser commands. The Torah’s commands do in fact have a hierarchy of importance. The Talmud concludes that Torah study outweighs all other commands. Regarding the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus, Ibn Ezra cites Saadia Gaon, stating that the Ten Commandments are in two sets: the first five address laws between man and G-d, and the second set address laws between men. In both sets, from beginning to end, the commands successively decrease in importance. By definition, this places the conviction of G-d’s existence (Command I) and the prohibition against idolatry (Command II) as the most important laws, as they are the first two. Saadia Gaon also states that these Ten Commandments are the head categories for the remaining 603 commands. This places even more importance on the first two of the Ten Commandments.


Maimonides wrote regarding the first two commands, that a prophet has no advantage over others, as their truths are arrived at by reason, which is equally available to all: (For brevity, you may skip to the bold text and then continue after the end quotes.)


The Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter XXXIII:

“It is clear to me that what Moses experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites, for Moses alone was addressed by God, and for this reason the second person singular is used in the Ten Commandments; Moses then went down to the foot of the mount and told his fellow-men what he had heard. Compare, "I stood between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord" (Dent. v. 5). Again, “Moses spake, and God answered him with a loud voice" (Exod. xix. 19). In the Mechilta our Sages say distinctly that he brought to them every word as he had heard it. Furthermore, the words," In order that the people hear when I speak with thee" (Exod. xix. 9), show that God spoke to Moses, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words. It is to the perception of this mighty sound that Scripture refers in the passage,"When ye hear the sound" (Deut. v. 20); again it is stated, "You heard a sound of words" (ibid. iv. 12), and it is not said, “You heard words"; and even where the hearing of the words is mentioned, only the perception of the sound is meant. It was only Moses that heard the words, and he reported them to the people. This is apparent from Scripture, and from the utterances of our Sages in general. There is, however, an opinion of our Sages frequently expressed in the Midrashim, and found also in the Talmud, to this effect: The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses. For these two principles, the existence of God and His Unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone. Comp.," Thou hast been shown to know that," etc. (Deut. iv. 34). But the rest of the commandments are of an ethical and authoritative character, and do not contain [truths] perceived by the intellect. Notwithstanding all that has been said by our Sages on this subject, we infer from Scripture as well as from the words of our Sages, that the Israelites heard on that occasion a certain sound which Moses understood to proclaim the first two commandments, and through Moses all other Israelites learnt them when he in intelligible sounds repeated them to the people. Our Sages mention this view, and support it by the verse, "God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this" (Ps. Ixii.11). They state distinctly, in the beginning of Midrash Hazita, that the Israelites did not hear any other command directly from God; compare, "A loud voice, and it was not heard again" (Deut. v. 19). It was after this first sound was heard that the people were seized with the fear and terror described in Scripture, and that they said, "Behold the Lord our God has shown us, etc., and now why shall we die, etc. “Come thou near," etc. Then Moses, the most distinguished of all mankind, came the second time, received successively the other commandments, and came down to the foot of the mountain to proclaim them to the people, whilst the mighty phenomena continued; they saw the fire, they heard the sounds, which were those of thunder and lightning during a storm, and the loud sound of the shofar: and all that is said of the many sounds heard at that time, e.g., in the verse," and all the people perceived the sounds, "etc., refers to the sound of the shofar, thunder, and similar sounds. But the voice of the Lord, that is, the voice created for that purpose, which was understood to include the diverse commandments, was only heard once, as is declared in the Law, and has been clearly stated by our Sages in the places, which I have indicated to you. When the people heard this voice their soul left them; and in this voice they perceived the first two commandments. It must, however, be noticed that the people did not understand the voice in the same degree as Moses did. I will point out to you this important fact, and show you that it was a matter of tradition with the nation, and well known by our Sages. For, as a rule, Onkelos renders the word “va-yedabber” by “u-mallel” ("and God spake”): this is also the case with this word in the beginning of the twentieth chapter of Exodus, but the words ve-al yedabber immanu elohim”, “let not God speak to us" (Exod. xx.19), addressed by the people to Moses, is rendered “vela yitmallel immanu min kodam adonai” (" Let not aught be spoken to us by the Lord"). Onkelos makes thus the same distinction, which we made. You know that according to the Talmud Onkelos received all these excellent interpretations directly from R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, the wisest men in Israel. Note it, and remember it, for it is impossible for any person to expound the revelation on Mount Sinai more fully than our Sages have done, since it is one of the secrets of the Law. It is very difficult to have a true conception of the events, for there has never been before, nor will there ever be again, anything like it. Note it.”




The Significance of the Two Commands

With this information, we now understand that the first two commands have an elevated status in contrast to the remaining eight. What is their significance? Again, Maimonides states, “For these two principles, the existence of God and His Unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone. Compare, " Thou hast been shown to know that," etc. (Deut. iv. 34). But the rest of the commandments are of an ethical and authoritative character, and do not contain [truths] perceived by the intellect.”


On the two Tablets of Stone, the Ten Commandments, G-d teaches Moses an important lesson; there are two branches of knowledge: 1) intellectual truths, arrived at by reason, and 2) ethical and authoritative laws. According to Ibn Ezra, G-d teaches Moses this idea by saying “I will give you Tables of Stones, and the Torah and the Mitzvah…” G-d desires to make this clear to Moses. There are two branches of knowledge, intellectual truths, and ethical and authoritative laws. But the first category is deemed more important, as we stated. What is its importance?


The answer is that acknowledgement of “truths” forms the core of mankind’s Earthly objective. The most important of commands, (derived from Saadi Gaaon’s explanation of their order) are those demanding our recognition of what is absolute and real, they are: Command I: Knowing G-d Exists, and Command II: Denying Idolatry.  These are examples of “absolute truths”. Unlike ethical laws, which govern man’s societal relations, “absolute truths” are not of a subjective nature, in the respect that they are to serve societal needs. Of course even G-d’s ethics and authoritative laws reflect His infinite wisdom. But the very nature of a “truth” is that which is not relative to man’s existence. Ethical and authoritative laws - by definition - are not absolute, i.e., without mankind, they have no reality. However, the idea that G-d is the Creator, and that He is One, and that there are no other gods, are “absolute truths”. They are not relative.


The reality of absolute truths means, by definition, that they embody ideas, “which cannot be otherwise”. In contrast, laws of society are truths, but only once societies exist.


There is another subtle point here: not only did G-d make Moses aware of these ideas’ significance but He did so ‘before’ He gave the Tablets. I believe this was done, as there is a priority of importance G-d wished to convey through this act: man must order his studies. Moses had to be taught that learning has an “order”. G-d first taught Moses the concept of “absolute truths” before giving him the body of knowledge contained in the Tablets. In other words, G-d was indicating that essential to one’s studies, is to study what is primary first. G-d tells Moses that He is giving him “Torah” and “Mitzvah”, as one is more primary to successful study.


Why is knowledge of G-d essential to all other knowledge? The answer is that all knowledge, if it does not eventuate in an appreciation for the Source of this knowledge, is academic. Scientists may ponder the greatest formulations and laws of the universe. However, if they do not recognize the Creator, their years of study fail to have a drop of meaning. In their minds, they marvel at the cosmos, but to them these billions of galaxies are not the work of a Designer. What they have is mere aesthetic appreciation, but no concept of G-d. Their lives were a waste.


If we appreciate the design of a tree, but fail to realize G-d, the Designer of that tree, then we have no real knowledge of the tree. We fail to arrive at the underlying truth of the existence of this tree, and it’s purpose: to feed man, that man may sustain his body, so he may be free to use his mind and discover G-d’s wisdom in all of creation. This is where all knowledge must find its end, if we are to acquire true knowledge. Knowledge of G-d must exist, if we are to have any knowledge. It is primary. This is the lesson.




Fundamentals: Available to All

G-d wished to teach Moses and ultimately all mankind, that knowledge is not only the priority in life, but within knowledge itself, there are concepts, which are most primary. This must be realized. Without knowledge and conviction of the Creator, to the exclusion of any other imagined god, all of man’s knowledge, and his life, is a complete waste. If man does not recognize G-d, his sole purpose in his existence, he has failed to realize his objective as a human being.


These two first commands are so crucial, that they are not limited to a prophet, but each member of mankind has the ability to know them. This is Maimonides’ point.


Our objective is to arrive at a realization of, and a conviction in, what is “real”. This is the function of the intellect, and why Moses had no advantage over others regarding this knowledge, qualitatively. Of course Moses excelled light years beyond all mankind. But Maimonides teaches that the apprehension of G-d, i.e., His exclusive role as Creator; and the denial of any other force or god, are two absolute truths that all members of mankind equally possess the ability to attain.


There are two, essential ideas here: 1) these first two (of the Ten) Commandments are equally attainable by all men, as they are not dependent on an authority’s demand, but on reason alone, and 2) precisely why they are equally attainable – is that they are self evident, “absolute truths”. Knowledge has as its primary focus those ideas that are “absolute truths”. Knowing what is real and true is man’s objective as a creature designed with an intellect. To function in the most profoundly happy state, man must be involved in this pursuit of knowing what is true. Only in this pursuit will man find true happiness. Only when man is using his intelligence and reason, is his entire being absorbed in a completely satisfying area of endless inquiry. Only in G-d’s wisdom can man never reach the “end”, and continue to be excited at new findings.




A Relationship with G-d

Additionally, man’s relationship with his Creator plays a role in his studies. G-d said, “‘ascend to Me to the mountain, and remain there”. In other words, man must approach G-d, “ascend to Me”, and he must tarry his stay, “remain there”. For Moses to receive the Tablets of Stone, he must approach G-d, and he must be of a nature, that he wishes to remain with G-d, to remain in his studies, with little interest in other matters. We all have the ability to derive tremendous enjoyment from Torah study, but this cannot come overnight. We must initially endure a bit of frustration, i.e., studying the language, memorizing new words, and training our minds. But then we suddenly see a new idea, a new insight presents itself, and we start reaping the rewards. Any student of Talmud or Torah will confirm this. G-d told Moses to remain there, and this truly is the means to optimally enjoy our lives. Minimizing our work, maximizing our studies as Ethics teaches, is the correct path, and the only method for becoming proficient in the science of Torah. When one immerses his self completely in any area, he will succeed. This is the one area each of us has no option to delay immersion. It is an obligation, and it is the source of true happiness. All else is futile.




The Availability of Knowledge

Are absolute truths, by their very definition, observable by man’s mind? What prevents a true idea from being unavailable to man’s mind? I do not know a reason why it could not be so. But the very fact that absolute truths, these precious and enjoyable ideas, are things we can perceive indicates that G-d desires it to be this way. G-d desires that the knowledge He embedded in this universe is available for man’s perception. It is G-d’s will that His knowledge fill the entire universe, so wherever man turns, he cannot escape the reflection of G-d’s wisdom.


These absolute truths predate Torah. Meaning, they were attainable by an Abraham. With his mind alone, Abraham extricated himself from the fallacy of idolatry, and recognized the absolute truth that a Creator exists, He is one, and there are no other causes for the universe. From Adam through Moses, no member of mankind was left without the tools required to ponder and be convinced of these ideas, and countless others. Absolute truths, then, is the category of knowledge that seamlessly weaves together man’s entire history. Man was never withheld from acquiring knowledge of these absolute truths. Although man distorted his life quite well with his man-gods, and deities, but as Abraham proved, man has a divine gift that enables his successful mission as a seeker of truth. Man possesses intelligence, and the sharper his mind becomes, the more curtains of fallacy he may shred, exposing greater truths.


Man is to be confronted by G-d’s wisdom at every turn, throughout his entire life. We recite “last in action first in deed”, regarding the Sabbath. It was last in creation, but primary in G-d’s plan for mankind. The Sabbath is a day bereft of physical labor, dedicated to pondering ideas.


As follow up to this article, read “The Sabbath” reprinted in this issue. It commences where we leave off here.