Thursday, March 02, 2006

Beyond the Ten Commandments

Exod. 21:1
Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them….

Psalm 119:7
I will give thanks to you with an upright heart when I study your righteous ordinances.

The Ten Commandments hold a rightful place of honor in the religious traditions of both Jews and Christians. They are recorded almost verbatim twice, in Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5, and are usually assumed to be the content of the stone tablets Moses brought from his stay atop Sinai (cf. Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13, 10:4). I have often heard people suggest that the Ten Commandments are the basis of true religion and government. Of course, most of these people have no idea what they are talking about: they do not observe the Sabbath and they seldom understand what it means to take the name of God in vain. (See discussion below.) It is also worth noting, from a source-critical perspective, that the Ten Commandments in their present form are later than some other sets of commandments, such as those beginning in Exodus chapter 21.

In Exodus 21:1-23:13 numerous “ordinances” (mishpatim) are listed which range from the proper treatment of slaves to various laws concerning the humble ox. In this section alone we will find well over forty commandments: according to Maimonides, at least 23 positive and 24 negative commandments.

The commandments of the Torah, often called the Law, are sometimes supposed to consist of a severe form of justice, an eye for an eye. In fact, the Torah has as much to do with mercy as with justice. The Torah is a covenant between God and Israel, which binds them together in several aspects: righteousness (tsedeq), justice (mishpat), kindness (chesed), compassion (rachamim), and faithfulness (emunah).

Hosea 2:21-22 MT
And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice and kindness and compassion. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord.

1. Righteousness: Exod. 22:15-16 MT If a man has sexual relations with a virgin who is not engaged to someone else, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife, whether or not the father gives his consent for them to marry. Paying the dowry is a matter of doing the right thing by the person he has wronged, not retribution. He is certainly not striking a bargain with the father, who may still refuse to give her to him. Incidentally, Deut. 22:29 adds an additional requirement: he may never divorce her!

An aside: Not only does this ordinance force the man to do the right thing after the fact, it may also serve as an effective deterrent against male promiscuity. That is likely the real issue of social concern, not so much to prevent premarital sex as to discourage casual sex and sexual promiscuity.

2. Justice: Exod. 23:1-3, 6-8 Juridicial rules are given to safeguard against mere vengeance and to ensure a just verdict.a. Do not accept a false (or illegal) report (v. 1). This may apply to hearsay testimony as well as to an accusation made without the accused present.
b. Do not agree with a wicked person to corrupt your testimony (v. 1), and so cause harm to any side in a dispute. Neither commit perjury nor suborn perjury.
c. Do not allow others to influence your testimony or verdict by the force of their numbers (v. 2), as opposed to the force of their arguments. Majority rule may be sanctioned by this ordinance but a warning is issued against its abuse.
d. Do not show favoritism to any side in a dispute (vv. 3, 6).
e. Do not convict a person based on inadequate (possibly circumstantial) evidence (v. 7). It is better to let the guilty go free than to wrong the innocent.
f. Do not accept bribes (v. 8).

3. Kindness: Exod. 23:4-5 We have social obligations that extend even to our worst enemy. We may not refuse to help an enemy in distress, e.g., to unload his fallen donkey. See the Addendum below.

4. Compassion: Exod. 22:24-26 MT Lend to the poor without interest, and if they are unable to pay do not demand payment. If they need what was pledged for the loan, return it to them without delay. In other words, be gracious to the poor, for God is gracious (chanun).

5. Faithfulness: Exod. 23:13 The commandments require faithfulness toward people (cf. Exod. 21:10-11) as well as faithfulness toward God. In this verse the latter responsibility is made clear: faithfully keep all my instructions, and do not invoke the name of any other god, rather swear by my name, bless in my name, and speak in my name, my name alone. “I am the Lord; that is my name; and I will not give my glory to another, or my praise to idols.” (Isa. 42:8)

Even so, the Lord’s name is not to be used as the names of other gods, as a magic formula to obtain desired ends. Nor are we to take the Lord’s name in vain (Exod. 20:7). This does not refer to the use of profanity, though such careless speech should be avoided simply because it dishonors the God we claim to love. A more literal translation of the commandment may help: "Do not lift up the name of the Lord your God to the vain...” That is to say, do not use the Lord’s name in the worship of an idol (as in Jer. 18:15, "my people burn incense to the vain"). Psalm 24:4 makes an obvious allusion to this commandment, only obscured by inconsistent translation of the two passages. Together they refer to either: (a) as above, worship of worthless idols; or (b) taking (swearing) an oath "in vain." I prefer the former, but the latter is supported in traditional Jewish commentaries, and both the JPS and NJPS translations.

Through observance of the commandments Israel will come to “know the Lord.” This assertion is even supported by Jeremiah’s utopian vision of a new covenant (Jer. 31:33-34), for it is the Torah which will be written on their heart, and though it will no longer need to be taught, the result will be the same: through the Torah they will “know the Lord.”

“Law gives principles concrete application and reality.” (Elliot Dorff, Knowing God)

Addendum: Your Enemy’s Ox

Exodus 23:4-5 (cf. Deut. 22:1-4)
When you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey straying, you shall surely return it to him.
When you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its load, and would refrain from restoring* it to him, you shall surely restore* it with him [i.e., to help him raise it up, or, to help him unload it].

The phrase “you shall surely…” reflects the Hebrew form of an infinitive absolute followed by an imperfect of the same root, which if translated literally would be “to return you shall return” and “to restore you shall restore.” The Talmud interprets the use of this form here to mean “in all circumstances.” (Baba Metsia 31a) In other words, don’t look too hard for excuses to disregard the commandment.

On the other hand, even the clearest commandment may be impractical to obey without some interpretation. For example, does the word “enemy” intend only a person within Israel or only among the nations or both? Are we only obligated to help unload the animal or does the commandment expect us to help reload the animal as well? Do we have to provide our assistance without compensation? Are we to understand the commandment to apply solely to the specific animals mentioned or are the animals representative of a broader categories?

In order for the commandments to be applied in practice to real life situations, not just admired as wise and compassionate but abstract principles, they require further interpretation and elaboration. Critics may call this legalism; those who take the commandments seriously call this observance. The following passage illustrates the role of rabbinical writings (Oral Torah) in clarifying and delimiting obligations imposed by the commandments:

Baba Metsia 32a:
[Mishnah] If one unloads and loads, unloads and loads, even four or five times, he is still obligated, as it says, You shall surely restore. (Exod. 23:5) If [the owner] went, sat down and said, “since the commandment rests on you, if you desire to unload, unload:” he is exempt, as it says, with him; but if [the owner] was old or sick, he is still obligated. There is a commandment from the Torah to unload, but not to load. R. Simeon said: Also to load. R. Jose the Galilean said: If [the animal] bore more than its proper load, he has no obligation to [its owner], as it says, under its load, which means, a load under which it can stand.

The majority of the rabbis held that unloading should be without pay, but loading for pay. Again R. Simeon dissented: Both without payment. (Baba Metsia 32a)

They also debated a rationale for the commandment: is it to relieve the suffering of the animal?

Baba Metsia 32b:
Now, should you think that [relieving] the suffering of animals is a Scriptural ordinance, what difference does it make whether the owner joins him or not? Certainly [relieving] the suffering of animals is a Scriptural ordinance, for do you think that exempt means entirely exempt? Perhaps he is exempt without payment, but he is obligated with payment, according to this rule: When the owner joins him, he must serve him for no pay; when the owner does not join him, he must serve him for payment; yet after all [relieving] the suffering of animals is a Scriptural ordinance.

So the rationale is not necessarily to love your enemy. Such love may be a fine aspiration, but it is not commanded. To love your fellow-man, even to love the stranger, these are commanded. No, the enemy is not the issue here, the unfortunate animal is. The enemy is mentioned only to broaden the scope of the commandment, so that whether the animal belongs to friend or foe, you must help, for the sake of the animal.

An additional reason is offered for helping the enemy as well as the brother: to allay his enmity toward you. (Baba Metsia 32b)

Finally, to define the minimum and maximum obligation of a commandment is important.

Baba Metsia 33a:
Our Rabbis taught: When you see. One might think: even from a distance. So it is taught: When you meet… One might think: meet is to be taken literally. So it is taught: When you see…. A Tanna: And he must go with him as far as a parsang* [in case the animal should fall again]. Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: But he receives payment.


All quotations from the Talmud are adapted from the Soncino edition.

Restore: An unusual sense of a Hebrew word which generally means to leave or forsake, and sometimes to release, but here appears in a context which suggests help provided to either upright or unload an animal; cf. Neh. 3:8, restore or repair. Also see the parallel Deut. 22:4, “you shall surely raise it with him.”

Parsang: As a rough approximation, a few miles.

According to Maimonides, Exod. 23:4-5 can be broken down into three commandments: help unload, help load, and, conversely, do not refuse to help.


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