“The Third Commandment: Against Perjury and Profane Swearing”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, we encounter the first of the two references to the Ten Commandments, more correctly known as the Decalogue. The Decalogue is also found in Deuteronomy 5:6-18.

The name, “Ten Commandments,” is a misnomer. In Hebrew, the Ten Commandments are known as “Aseret Ha’dib’roht,” which actually means the ten statements, or the ten words. The “Ten Commandments,” in Hebrew, would actually be “Aseret Ha’mitzvot,” the ten Mitzvot. According to scholars, there are many more than ten commandments in the ten statements. Some say that there are between thirteen and fifteen. Others, like R’ Saadiah Gaon claim that all of the Torah’s mitzvot are subsumed in the Ten Commandments, and that the Ten Commandments actually represent ten broad categories that include all 613 commandments.

Another reason why the name “Ten Commandments” is inaccurate, is because, according to some scholars, not all the statements are commandments. For instance, the first statement, “I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” seems to be a statement, rather than a commandment. Had it been a commandment, the verse would have asserted, “I brought you out of Egypt, believe in Me!”

Three of the Ten Commandments–idolatry, adultery and murder have a special status. These three commandments are so significant that they may not be transgressed even at the cost of one’s life. If, for instance, one is forced, at penalty of death, to worship idols, murder a person or commit adultery, one is required to sacrifice one’s life, rather than transgress and kill another person, worship idols or commit adultery.

Because of the primacy of these three cardinal sins, the other commandments, at times, appear to pale in comparison. On the other hand, recognizing G-d, observing Shabbat, honoring father and mother and the prohibition against theft, are seen universally as being important. But, using G-d’s name in vain (3rd commandment) and not bearing false witness (9th commandment), do not seem to carry the same weight as the others. Perhaps this is because they are violations that are committed through speech, rather than action.

The third commandment, the commandment against perjury and profane swearing, reads as follows, Exodus 20:7, “Lo tee’sah et shaym Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah la’shahv, kee loh y’nah’keh Hashem ayt ah’sher yee’sah et sh’moh la’shahv,” You shall not take the name of the L-rd, your G-d, in vain, for the L-rd will not absolve anyone who takes His name in vain.

The Ramban asserts that the literal meaning of this verse implies that it is forbidden to even utter G-d’s name casually, for no valid purpose. The Ramban underscores that people must be aware that the punishment for this sin is as severe as the punishment for disobeying the first two commandments, rejecting belief in G-d and idolatry.

The primacy of the prohibition of using G-d’s name in vain is plainly evidenced by the fact that it is one of only two commandments in which the punishment is prescribed in the commandment itself. As the Torah states: “G-d will not absolve anyone who takes His name in vain.” The other commandment in which punishment is prescribed is the second commandment, idolatry. There the Torah states (Exodus 20:5) For I am the L-rd, your G-d–a jealous G-d, Who visits the sin of the fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations, for My enemies.

The Ibn Ezra suggests that the reason that this seemingly innocuous commandment is linked to a punishment is because people think that using G-d’s name in vain is not at all severe. The Ibn Ezra points out that this assumption is wrong. In fact, using G-d’s name in vain may be worse than adultery or murder, because when it comes to those types of prohibited activities, people are afraid of being caught and punished, whereas one who becomes habituated to using G-d’s name in vain, can swear many times a day and discount rebuke. A person who is reproved for swearing, will often “swear” that they never swore. Furthermore, those who commit murder, adultery or steal, at least achieve an element of satisfaction. Using G-d’s name in vain, on the other hand, is hardly satisfying.

The rabbis point out that there are four types of oaths that are legally considered “taking G-d’s name in vain.” 1) Sh’vu’aht Sheker, is blatant perjury. In this case the violator swears that a piece of wood is stone. 2) A second form of using G-d’s name in vain is Sh’vu’aht Shahv, a superfluous oath. This involves making a vow, despite knowing in advance that is impossible to fulfil, or swearing unnecessarily about an obvious fact. For example, “I swear that this stone is a stone, or that this wood is wood.” 3) A third type of forbidden oath is Sh’vu’aht Ha’pee’kah’dohn, in which a person who is charged with possibly stealing, swears that he does not have the stolen item in his possession, when in fact he does. 4) Sh’vu’aht Ha’ay’duht, is an oath that a potential witness takes asserting that he cannot testify about a particular charge because he knows nothing about it, when in fact he does know, and could testify.

There are other actions that may be included in the violation of swearing falsely or in vain, such as a false vow that may possibly cause a Chillul Hashem, the desecration of G-d’s name.

Derived from the commandment against profane swearing is the prohibition of pronouncing a blessing for no reason, or casually using G-d’s name when it is not for a sacred purpose, for a mitzvah or for a blessing. It also reflects the Jewish theological notion that mortals must be cautious about attempting to praise G-d, since they can never do so properly or sufficiently.

It is also forbidden to call another god in G-d’s name through telepathy, magic or seances. The Abarbanel suggests that using G-d’s name idly is the same as denying G-d’s existence. Some commentators rail against casual or vague religiosity, by saying that religious leaders should not so much condemn those who do not believe, but rather those who do believe, and do nothing about it.

Martin Buber notes insightfully that the prohibition against using G-d’s name in vain immediately follows the prohibition against idolatry. The juxtaposition, he suggests, should lead the faithful to recognize and accept G-d as He really is, not as what we would like Him to be. Many, so-called “believers,” find themselves rationalizing and excusing their sinful behavior by saying that G-d will surely understand why they are committing an improper act. Martin Buber suggests that those who behave in this manner actually turn G-d into what they would like Him to be, rather than turning themselves into what G-d wants them to be. How common such behavior is, unfortunately.

In Jewish life, taking an oath is considered a significant and ponderous action. Rather than swearing, many committed Jews often choose to use the more moderate language of “affirming.” There are records of many pious Jews who would never swear, even in a court of law, even if failing to take an oath would result in their having to pay, when they could have avoided paying. But, they nevertheless, chose not to swear, in order to avoid using G-d’s name at all costs.

The prohibition against using G-d’s name in vain is only one small piece of the remarkable Jewish educational efforts to sensitize Jews to guard their tongues, to refrain from speaking evil and from harming others with their tongues and their words.

May you be blessed.