The Significance of the Ten Statements of the Decalogue

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And Hashem said to Moshe: Ascend the mountain to Me and be there.  And I will give to you the tablets of stone, the Torah, and the commandments that I have written to teach them.  (Sefer Shemot 24:12)

1. The ten statements of the Decalogue encompass all 613 mitzvot
Hashem directs Moshe to ascend Mount Sinai.  He tells Moshe that He will give to him the tablets of the Decalogue, and the entire Torah and its commandments.  In his comments on this passage, Rashi explains that all of the Torah’s six hundred and thirteen – taryagmitzvot can be subsumed within the ten statements of Decalogue.  Rashi notes the Saadia Goan composed a liturgical poem – Azharot – that organizes the 613 mitzvot in ten groups corresponding with the ten statements of the Decalogue.  

According to Rashi, apparently there is some allusion in the above passage to his contention that all of the commandments may be subsumed within the ten statements of the Decalogue.  What is this allusion?  Gur Aryeh suggests that the allusion is found in the words “that I have written.”  The passage seems to attribute to Hashem the writing of the tablets and also the Torah with its mitzvot.  This presents a problem.  Hashem did carve the statements of the Decalogue into the tablets.  However, He did not record the Torah and its commandments.  This responsibility was given to and executed by Moshe.  Rashi’s comments resolve this difficulty.  Hashem carved the statements of the Decalogue onto the tablets.  These ten statements encompassed within their messages the entire Torah and its taryag mitzvot.  Therefore, in carving the statements of the Decalogue onto the tablets, Hashem indirectly recorded all of the Torah and its mitzvot.  

Rashi’s comments resolve a troubling problem.  What is the significance of the Decalogue?  Why did Hashem initiate Revelation and the transmission of the Torah with the pronouncement of these ten statements?  Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l explains that according to Rashi this question is easily answered.  These ten statements are inclusive of the entire Torah.  All of the Torah’s mitzvot are encompassed within the themes of these statements.  Therefore, in pronouncing these ten statements, Hashem outlined the thematic content of the entire Torah.  The remainder of the Torah and its commandments are the detailed implementation of the themes enunciated in the Decalogue.  Furthermore, the people’s commitment to conform to the contents of these statements was an affirmation of all the commandments subsumed within their themes.  

The assignment of the 613 mitzvot to ten categories or themes seems to imply an important message.  If the Torah’s commandments can be divided into ten broad categories, then presumably they can also be divided into a larger number of more precise or specific categories.  Is there a reason that Hashem decided upon ten themes or groups and not twenty or fifty?

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra notes that the number ten has an important meaning and function in our number system.  The numbers one through ten each represents either a singularity or plurality.  However, the number ten represents a group.  Thus, the number 26 is composed of two units of ten and six individual elements. This raises an interesting question.  Does the division of the taryag mitzvot into ten categories or themes suggest that all of the mitzvot are interrelated and form a single group?  The answer to this question seems to be contained in a mysterious remark of our Sages.

And Hashem spoke all of these things saying:  (Sefer Shemot 20:1)

2. The ten statements of the Decalogue were simultaneously pronounced

The above pasuk introduces the Decalogue.  The passage states that Hashem spoke all of the statements of the Decalogue to the people.  In his comments on this passage, Rashi quotes the Midrash. According to the Midrash, Hashem pronounced all ten statements of the Decalogue twice.  First, all were stated simultaneously.  Then, each was individually repeated.  Of course, the question on the Midrash is obvious.  Why were the statements first stated simultaneously, if they were to be immediately individually repeated?  In other words, what purpose was served or message communicated by merging the ten statements into a single simultaneous pronouncement?

Gur Aryeh responds that the simultaneous presentation of the ten statements communicated the important message that they are a single integrated system.  The ten statements should not be regarded as ten independent themes.  Instead, they should be understood as ten components of a single system of law.  Gur Aryeh adds that these ten statements are inclusive of all of the Torah’s commandments.  Therefore, through the simultaneous presentation of these statements, all of the commandments that are subsumed within them are combined into a single system.  

According to Gur Aryeh’s comments, the division of the Torah’s 613 commandments into ten categories or themes is very significant.  As Ibn Ezra notes, the number ten represents a group and the themes that compose the Decalogue and the mitzvot that are included in these themes are a single integrated group and system of law.  

3. Some mitzvot were not revealed at Sinai

This analysis is relevant to a disturbing question posed by Nachmanides.  The Talmud states that six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moshe at Sinai.  This statement does not seem to accord to the Torah’s account of the origins of the mitzvot.  The Torah describes Hashem revealing various commandments after Moshe descended from Mount Sinai.  For example, before entering the Land of Israel, Moshe was approached by the daughters of Tzlafchad. They posed a question to him regarding the laws determining the apportionment of the Land of Israel.  In response to their inquiry, Moshe received a prophecy in which Hashem revealed the laws of inheritance.  Clearly, some of the Torah’s commandments were not given to Moshe at Sinai.  What, then, is the meaning of the Talmud’s declaration that the 613 mitzvot were revealed to Moshe at Sinai?

Based on the above analysis, Nachmanides’ question can be answered.  The taryag mitzvot comprise a single system of law.  The Talmud’s comments that taryag mitzvot were given to Moshe at Sinai is a reference to the system.  Although a few of the commandments were revealed to Moshe after Sinai, it is still proper to characterize the system, on a whole, as derived from Sinai.

A simple example will illustrate this point.  If I invite a group of guests to my home and prepare a sumptuous meal, I can fairly take credit for the meal even if I purchased a single element from the grocery.  When I boast that I prepared the meal, I refer to the meal on a whole and the characterization is fair and honest.  The inclusion of a single element purchased from the grocery does not undermine the honesty of my claim.  Nachmanides’ own response to his question is similar to this solution.

And Moshe presented their legal inquiry before Hashem.  (Sefer BeMidbar 27:5)

4. Some mitzvot were withheld from Moshe at Sinai

A slightly different response to Nachmanides’ question is suggested by a comment of Rashi.  Rashi is bothered by an interesting question regarding the incident involving the daughters of Tzlafchad.  These women came to Moshe with a question.  He presented their question to Hashem.  Hashem responded by teaching Moshe the laws of inheritance.  Why did Hashem not teach Moshe these laws at Mount Sinai?  Why did Hashem wait until this point in time to reveal these laws?

One of Rashi’s responses is that the laws could have been revealed earlier but Hashem delayed the revelation.  He wished to reward the daughters of Tzlafchad for their desire to possess a portion of the Land of Israel.  Their reward was that a portion of the Torah was withheld from Moshe, for a time, and only revealed to him in response to their inquiry.  In other words, they were rewarded by serving as the catalyst for the revelation of these laws.

According to Rashi, these laws were not formulated or created in response to the inquiry of the daughters of Tzlafchad.  They already existed as part of the Torah.  The inquiry of the daughters served only as the catalyst for the revelation or communication of the laws.  In other words, these laws were always part of the system of 613 commandments.  They were not added in response to the daughters’ inquiry.  Instead, this part of the system was initially withheld from Moshe and only revealed in response to the question posed by the daughters.

The same analysis can be applied to all of the mitzvot that were communicated to Moshe after he descended from Sinai.  These mitzvot were not new commandments that were added to the Torah in response to evolving events.  They were always elements of the system of taryag mitzvot.  However, the communication of these elements was initially withheld from Moshe.  Only after he descended from Sinai were these elements revealed.  Therefore, the statement of the Sages is correct.  However, it requires interpretation.  The Sages said that the 613 commandments were reveled to Moshe at Sinai.  The reference to the 613 commandments is not intended as a reference to each individual commandment.  It is a reference to the system of 613 commandments.  All of the mitzvot – regardless of when they were revealed to Moshe – are part of a single system.  The system was given to Moshe at Sinai.