A time to reflect on God's laws Rosh Hashana: The Jewish new year begins at sundown tonight with celebration and a new look at the Ten Commandments.

Sun Journal

October 01, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

At sundown tonight, Jews begin to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year and a time for personal introspection that focuses in part on the series of 10 statements that are a cornerstone of monotheism: The Ten Commandments.

The commandments -- more accurately translated from Hebrew as the "10 Words" -- govern the relationship between God and humanity: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt. Have no false gods. Do not use God's name in vain. Keep the Sabbath holy.

And they govern relationships between people: Honor your father and mother. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not perjure. Do not covet.

But what is the origin of these commandments? And why are there 10?

"These laws, these regulations on ancient Israelite life, regulate ethical relationships between people, providing for a kind of smooth and harmonious living of life among people crowded together in small villages cheek by jowl," says Barry M. Gittlen, professor of biblical and archaeological studies at the Baltimore Hebrew University. "They require honest and just dealing. And they look toward a central figure as not only the creator, but the manager of that harmonious living. And to that manager, proper respect is to be given."

Some scholars have speculated that there are 10 such commandments to correspond to 10 fingers, as an mnemonic aid to remembering them. But others find that explanation unlikely: "The problem that arises, of course, when you approach the lists of commandments with the number 10 in mind, you don't know precisely where to divide them," says Delbert R. Hillers, a retired professor of Near Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University. "And different religious groups do it in different ways."

For example, Jews consider the phrase, "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage," to be the first commandment. But Christians interpret it as a prologue to the commandments, not as a commandment itself.

For most Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, the first two commandments are about having no false gods and no graven images. Roman Catholics and Lutherans combine those into a single first commandment. Catholics and Lutherans come up with 10 commandments by splitting the prohibition of coveting one's neighbor's goods and wife into two separate commandments.

For Orthodox Jews, says Dr. Moshe Sokolow, associate professor of the Bible at Yeshiva University in New York, the Ten Commandments are merely the beginning of the law found in the Torah.

"The Orthodox tradition counts 613 biblical commandments, of which these are 10," he says. "And insofar as they are 10 out of 613 commandments, they do not necessarily occupy a more prestigious or more vital role."

The Book of Exodus offers this account of the commandments' origins: God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, parted the Red Sea for them and led them into the desert. In the third month after leaving Egypt, the Israelites pitched camp at the foot of Mount Sinai.

God then summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, which was shrouded in a heavy cloud amid peals of thunder and lightning. God inscribed the Ten Commandments on both sides of two stone tablets as he established his covenant with Israel, the bond in which God promised to bless and protect the Israelites if they followed his law.

For Orthodox Jews and many conservative Christians, this account is considered to be historical.

"We consider the Ten Commandments to be an integral part of the Torah, which we believe was revealed by God to Moses," says Sokolow of Yeshiva University. "So if one had to place that into a historical context, that would be, according to the traditional reckoning, roughly 1500 B.C.E. [before the Christian Era]."

Many biblical scholars, who apply literary analysis and archaeological findings to the biblical text, trace the commandments to a different era. The scholarly consensus is that some form of the Ten Commandments dates back at least to 587 B.C. (when the Jews were exiled from the Kingdom of Judah to Babylon) -- and are likely older, but how much earlier is harder to confirm.

These scholars also believe that it is probable that the commandments went through an extensive period of literary development, albeit one now impossible to trace. The commandments were likely passed down orally for some time before they were written down. Some commandments may have grown longer in the process, as theological reflection and explanation were added; others were simplified to short, pithy statements.

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