Prophets, rabbis, and philosophers changed the Decalogue


I have been mentioning that Judaism has changed many biblical commands. In my book “Mysteries of Judaism, I showed that the rabbis modified every one of the biblical holidays, without exception. One would think that the rabbis would not alter the Decalogue, the fundamental biblical laws, but they did. They gave the laws interpretations that are not in the plain meaning of the words and created new laws.

We saw how Philo interpreted the Decalogue, the rabbis also understood the Decalogue different than its literal wording. During that discussion we saw, among other things, that the rabbis transformed the clear statement forbidding the making of pictures and statutes to a mandate not to worship these objects. They also changed the command not to covet, which certainly means “do not desire,” a mental activity, to do not take something belong to another. How else did the rabbis alter the meaning of the Decalogue?


There are two versions of the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible, one in Exodus 20 and a second in Deuteronomy 5. The basic commands are the same, but there are differences in wording, spelling, and the reasons for two of the commands, the Sabbath and honoring parents. Additionally, the words used for the Sabbath, false testimony, and coveting are different in the two versions. While most people understand the deferent words in the two versions as simply two ways of saying the same thing,[1] the rabbis derived two additional laws from two of the different wordings.

Exodus 20:8 states zachor, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” while Deuteronomy 5:11 replaces the word with shamor, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The rabbis treated “remember” as a command to do positive acts such as keeping the Sabbath in mind during the week and preparing for it, beginning the Sabbath with candles and wine, while they considered “observe” as mandating abstinence from any form of work.[2]

Exodus 20:13 uses the term skeker, false, “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Deuteronomy 5:17 substitutes shav, vain or empty or nonsense. In this case the rabbis viewed the exchange as simply a stylistic alteration, meaning the same as Exodus’ “false.”[3]

Exodus 20:13 employs v’lo tachmod, “do not covet,” twice to prohibit adultery. While Deuteronomy 5:18 has v’lo tachmod once and v’lo titaneh, “do not desire.” Mekhilta and Maimonides[4] treat each as separate prohibitions. Mekhilta states the second is a prohibition against seeking opportunity to benefit by encouraging the adulterer.

Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:8 contend that God punishes “children for the misdeeds of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” One can argue that this statement is not bad. It only punishes children if they repeat the deeds of their parents.[5] However when the passage states “of those who hate me” it is referring to the parent not the child. This ideology was changed by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Jeremiah who wrote:[6] “In those days people will no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are put on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own misdeed, whoever eats sour grapes, his teeth are set on edge.”

The rabbis also changed “do not steal” to forbid kidnapping,[7] “do not murder” to disallow only unprovoked and unjustified killings.[8]

Most people recognize that the introductory words to both versions of the Decalogue “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” is not a command. In fact, as we saw in a prior discussion, the Masorites considered this statement as God being introduced to the Israelites, and they combined what today is considered the first and second Decalogue statement into one. Yet Maimonides counted these words as one of the 613 biblical commandments, indeed the first his list of biblical commands: “By this injunction we are commanded to believe in God; that is, to believe that there is a Supreme Cause who is the Creator of everything in existence. It is contained in His words (exalted be He): I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt.”[9]  To know that God exists by studying nature – the only way to come to know God is by studying and knowing what God created – was so important to Judaism’s greatest philosopher that despite the Torah not mandating knowing about God, Maimonides read it into the Decalogue and in this way changed the meaning of the Torah.[10]



[1] Abraham ibn Ezra explained in his commentary to exodus 20 that Deuteronomy 5 is Moses’ explanation of the Decalogue in Exodus 20.

[2] Midrash Mekhilta and Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, positive command 155.

[3] Maimonides, ibid, negative command 285.

[4] Maimonides, ibid, negative command 347.

[5] This is the interpretation of Targum Onkelos.

[6] Jeremiah 31:29-31. Ezekiel 18:20-30 is similar.

[7] Mekhilta.

[8] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 86.

[9] Translation by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, Maimonides The Commandments, Soncino Press, 1967, page 1,

[10] It should be noted that while Maimonides speaks here of “believing” in God, this was not what he truly felt. Believing or faith is not required by Judaism. Faith is the acceptance as true that which one’s senses, logic, and science declares untrue. Maimonides emphasizes “knowing.” He does so in the first and second chapters of his Guide of the Perplexed and in the opening chapter of his Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish law. Maimonides speaks here of believing because this book was composed for the general public to inform them what the rabbis felt Jews should do.