According to The Torah and Talmud, God gave 613 commandments to the Jewish people. The first 10 commandments, in particular, are of immense importance not only to Jews, but also to Christians and other people seeking moral guidance in the world. These Ten Commandments, as described in the Book of Exodus, were carved into the two stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Tradition tells us that, out of all the commandments, God selected these 10 as so significant that He communicated them to the Jewish people directly in this way.
While Christian denominations may number the Ten Commandments differently than Jews traditionally do, the two faith communities share a commitment to the same basic principles they enumerate. What follows is a brief summary of the first five of the Ten Commandments—those carved into the first tablet—as Jews have traditionally understood them:
The First Commandment
Described in Exodus 20:2, this commandment declares that the Lord of the Hebrew Bible is God—that same God who delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Some Chassidic commentators have placed each set of five commandments alongside one another and derived significant correspondences between facing pairs. In this view, for example, this First Commandment can be linked to the Sixth, which prohibits murder. The ancient rabbinic sages held this view, believing that to kill any human being was tantamount to killing God, because human beings are created in God’s own image.
The Second Commandment
Exodus 20:3-6 expands on the simple declarative statement of the first by requiring the Jews to worship only one God, and not to give praise to any other deity or supernatural being. Most scholars view this commandment as the arrival of monotheism into a pagan world that had traditionally seen multiple gods and goddesses as governing various parts of the world—the sky, the earth, the sea, and more. Also in keeping with the move away from paganism, God tells the Jewish people to refrain from making or worshipping idols. Medieval Spanish sage Moses Maimonides, revered as among the greatest rabbis of all time, focused on this commandment in his 13 principles of Jewish faith.
The Third Commandment
As given in Exodus 20:7, this commandment requires Jews to avoid taking the name of God in vain. Many traditional scholars consider this prohibition to mean that human beings commit a grievous sin when they use God’s name to justify acts of violence and injustice against one another. These commentators also often say that humans err when they presumptuously declare that they know the intentions of God and are acting on His behalf.
The Fourth Commandment
Exodus 20:8-11 deals with the holiness of the Sabbath, or “Shabbat,” in Hebrew. In this commandment, God tells Jews to remember the Sabbath, and to cherish and honor it in remembrance both of the seventh day of Creation, on which God rested, and of the Exodus from Egypt, when God brought the Israelites to safety and instructed them to enjoy the peace and rest of a Sabbath day.
On Friday nights, when Jewish families light Shabbat candles and make kiddush, the blessing over wine, they recite the Hebrew verses that memorialize both of these events. Jews who follow traditional practices refrain from 39 prohibited categories of work on Shabbat, instead focusing their energies on Torah study, worship, the enjoyment of life with family and friends, relaxation, and reflection.
The Fifth Commandment
The commandment, in Exodus 20:12, instructs Jews to honor their parents, so that their own lives may be long and happy ones. Judaism has always been a religion that celebrates the contributions and worth of older adults. In fact, some contemporary rabbis trace the Fifth Commandment’s importance to its position on the first tablet given to Moses, the one listing the commandments that involve honoring God. These rabbis state that this demonstrates that honoring one’s father and mother is among the ways human beings give honor to God Himself.
Jewish tradition holds that there are three partners involved in the making of new life: A father, a mother, and God. As living beings, we are obligated to view this process with awe and reverence, and God commands us to extend those emotions to our parents as individuals. Rabbis often point out that the Fifth Commandment is the only one that explicitly states a reward (a long and happy life) in return for following its directions. While 21st century life in the Western world has become, to a large extent, focused on the needs and wants of the young, this commandment reminds us that parents, grandparents, and older adults have often attained a depth of experience that is worthy of respect.