Friday, February 10, 2012

Yitro - the Universality of the Ten Commandments

The Keli Yakar says a beautiful vort in this week’s parsha. He begins by noting ten differences between the first set of tablets and the second, and wondering the reason for the change. They are as follows:

1) In the first it says זכור את יום השבת, remember (or mention) the Sabbath, and in the second it says שמור, watch (or keep) it.

2) In the second, the phrase כאשר צוך ה' אלהיך, as the Lord your God has commanded you, is mentioned in the commandments of the Sabbath and of honoring parents, while in the first it is noticeably absent.

3) In the first, the reason stated for the commandment of the Sabbath is כי ששת ימים עשה ה' את השמים ואת הארץ... וינח ביום השביעי, six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and he rested on the seventh day. In the second, a seemingly different reason is given – וזכרת כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים ויציאך ה' אלהיך משם... על כן צוך ה' אלהיך לעשות את יום השבת, remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God took you out of there; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to make the day of Sabbath.

4) In the second, one is commanded to make the Sabbath for his ox and his donkey, and in the first there is no mention of this.

5) In the second, in the commandment of honoring parents, the stated reward is twofold –למאן יאריכון ימיך ולמאן ייטב לך על האדמה..., …in order that your days will be lengthened, and in order that it shall be good for you on the land which the Lord your God gives to you. In the first, only the first reward – the lengthening of days – is stated.

6) In the second, the final commandment is twofold – לא תחמד... ולא תתאבה, you shall not covet, and you shall not desire. In the first, it only says you shall not covet.

7) Also in the final commandment, in the first, שדהו, one’s friend’s field, is not mentioned, while in the second it is.

8) Also in the same commandment, in the first it says בית רעך... אשת רעך, your friend’s house or your friend’s wife. In the second, the order is flipped.

9) In the first it says לא תענה ברעך עד שקר, you shall not testify as a false witness against your friend. In the second the term used is slightly different – עד שוא, a vain witness.

10) In the second, the sixth commandment and onward all begin with a vav, e.g. ולא תנאף ולא תגנוב, while in the first, the vav is absent.

Sometimes you can have a hundred questions and one beautiful yet simple vort just makes everything fall into place.

Says the Keli Yakar as follows: We all know the Aggada that says that when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, he went around to the nations and asked them if they wanted it. The reason why there are differences between the first set of commandments and the second is because the first were meant for the whole world! Since they were not just meant for the Jewish people, the themes are more universal. In contrast to this, the second set was given specifically to the Jewish people (after they had been forgiven for the Golden Calf), and as such it contains certain rules and concepts particular to members of the Jewish nation. He elaborates:

1) Non Jews were already told יומם ולילה לא ישבותו, day and night shall not rest,[1] from which Ḥazal derive that the commandment to keep the Sabbath is exclusive to the Jewish people. Therefore the first set of commandments omits mention of keeping the Sabbath, i.e. abstaining from work; and only mentions the positive commandment of remembering, or mentioning the Sabbath. No one in the world is excluded from taking the time one day a week to meditate on the idea of God as the Creator.

2) It is now understandable why the first set omits the phrase כאשר צוך ה' אלהיך.

3) As explained above, the non Jew can find meaning in the Sabbath by recognizing and meditating on the idea of God being the Creator. The Jewish people can find meaning in it in another way as well – by remembering how God gave them rest from their enslavement.

4) This one is a bit complicated, but the idea is this: The reason it doesn’t specifically mention the ox and the donkey in the first commandments is because they are included in בהמתך, your livestock. The second, which is being said to the Jewish people, mentions these specific animals in order that Ḥazal be able to derive certain unrelated halakhot from them with a gezeira shavah.

Here the Keli Yakar says an interesting thing. Why not stick it in just like in the second? Presumably if the non Jews were to accept the Torah they would be subject to all of its halakhot, and not just the Ten Commandments. He answers that the Jews, who had already said נעשה ונשמע, had already obligated themselves in the entire system of the Torah, while the other nations might have perhaps accepted the Ten Commandments and nothing else. Therefore, in following this idea that the Ten Commandments were meant to be universal, all words whose sole purpose are for the derivation of outside halakhot were omitted.

5) “In order it shall be good for you,” refers according to Ibn Ezra to the World to Come. The non-Jews were more likely to be motivated by a reward in this world, and therefore it was omitted in the first set. [Note: Perhaps one could explain differently, that למאן ייטב לך על האדמה refers to the land of Israel, which was only given to the Jewish people.]

6) Coveting refers – according to various interpreters and normative halakha as well – to one who acts upon it. Meaning one who covets something so badly that he ends up manipulating the world to get what he wants, and using force to do so. This is a universal idea. Desire however, is simply desire. Here the Keli Yakar says an amazing idea. For one to be able to hold oneself back from simply desiring something, one has to have a deep sense of being content with what he has. The Jewish people, through their slavery, had been conditioned to feel this way [Nietzsche’s slave morality comes to mind]. Therefore only they were capable of accepting such a commandment. For the nations it simply would have been too hard.

7) Looking at the difference between coveting and desiring explained above, the reason “his field” is not said in the first set is because land normally doesn’t get taken away by force as other things might. With simple desire, of course all things are equal.

8) In the first set, where it only refers to coveting, it refers first to one’s things and then to one’s wife, because things are taken away by force, while a wife is taken away by a manipulation in which no forcible action is taken. Thus it speaks in degrees of subtlety. Whereas in the second set it speaks also of desire, and it is more obvious that one ought not to desire another’s wife than his money; thus it mentions the less obvious first, to teach us that it is important as well.

9) Not to bear vain witness refers even to that which does not hurt another, contrary to not bearing false witness. This is an added level of scrupulousness which perhaps the nations were not ready for.

10) In the same vein, the vavs of the second set each allude to added levels of scrupulousness, which the nations might not have been ready for.

I think it’s a pretty good vort. Thoughts?

[1] Genesis 8:22


  1. I think that the first four are brilliant, the fifth sounds like a bit of a stretch (although your second interpretation, relating it to the land of Israel, is clever), the seventh and eighth fail to resonate with me at all (one doesn't take land by force? One doesn't take women by force? The Torah testifies to occasions for both!), and to the ninth and tenth I merely shrug. I would have accepted these as additional examples under number four, to be honest.

    Overall, though, I like it. Never learnt the Kli Yakar before, but I enjoy this sort of perush.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I had similar feelings, but put in the whole thing anyway.

      One thing - regarding the seventh, I wasn't clear, but he seems to be basing what he is saying on the legalistic notion that קרקע אינה נגזלת.