The Exodus reading is one of the most famous passages from the Bible. But let’s clear up one misconception. There is no title to these verses in the Bible. Through the ages, Ten Words has been the title, from Hebrew through English. For whatever reason, about the time of the King James version, the English people changed usage to Ten Commandments.
In the last four books of the Torah, God gave Moses 613 Words (Commands), each of which fall into ten groups. Each of the Ten Words of today’s reading serves as a heading for a whole column of additional and related commands.
The following is from the website Judaism 101 (http://www.jewfaq.org/10.htm) For example, the mitzvah not to work on Shabbat rather obviously falls within the category of remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. The mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur fits into that category somewhat less obviously: all holidays are in some sense a Sabbath, and the category encompasses any mitzvah related to sacred time. The mitzvah not to stand aside while a person’s life is in danger fits somewhat obviously into the category against murder. It is not particularly obvious, however, that the mitzvah not to embarrass a person fits within the category against murder: it causes the blood to drain from your face thereby shedding blood.
A mitzvah is a commandment.
In Exodus 21:28-30 we read: If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death. However, if payment is demanded, the owner may redeem his life by the payment of whatever is demanded. NIV
Most of us agree with this, except for killing the owner of the bull. Most of the 613 rules are similar, and most of them have found their way into modern laws of most countries.
Where many of us part ways with Judaism is in the Oral Tradition, passed from one rabbi to another for several thousand years. It exists in a written form today in several volumes beginning with the Mishnah. Under the section of the Mishnah dealing with the bull in Exodus, we read: The dog or goat which jumped from the top of the roof and broke utensils, the owner pays the full value of the damage they have caused, because they are attested dangers. The dog which took a cake to which a cinder adhered and went to standing grain, ate the cake, and set the stack on fire, for the cake the owner pays full damages, but for the standing grain he pays only for half of the damages his dog has caused.
And yet, our courts overflow with crimes and lawsuits dealing with these kinds of details. When two cars collide resulting in minor damage, the police prefer to let the insurance companies fight it out. If there is an injury or death, the police will take statements, photos, measurements, blood tests, the works, and it might still be up to the insurance companies. If it ends up in court, the jury will rule against the driver they believe should have avoided the accident. Under Biblical commands, someone might experience a shower of stones.
One more item regarding the Ten Words. Again, I quote from Judaism 101. In the United States, a controversy has persisted for many years regarding the placement of the “Ten Commandments” in public schools and public buildings. But one critical question seems to have escaped most of the public dialog on the subject: Whose “Ten Commandments” should we post?
The general perception in this country is that the “Ten Commandments” are part of the common religious heritage of Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism, part of the sacred scriptures that we all share, and should not be controversial. But most people involved in the debate seem to have missed the fact that these three religions divide up the commandments in different ways! Judaism, unlike Catholicism and Protestantism, considers “I am the L-rd, your G-d” to be the first “commandment.” Catholicism, unlike Judaism and Protestantism, considers coveting property to be separate from coveting a spouse. Protestantism, unlike Judaism and Catholicism, considers the prohibition against idolatry to be separate from the prohibition against worshipping other gods. No two religions agree on a single list. So whose list should we post?
Read my earlier comments on this theme here.
Be righteous and do good.