“Structural Secrets of the Decalogue”
(updated and revised from Yitro 5762-2002)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald



In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, in Exodus 20, we encounter the עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת, Aseret Ha’dibrot, the Ten Commandments. The Decalogue, of course, is repeated again in Deuteronomy 5.

The Aseret Ha’dibrot, the Decalogue, the ten statements, as they are properly called, are surely among the most important statements given to humankind. Being that these ten statements (or at least a part of them) were the only words of the Torah that were actually spoken by G-d Himself to the People of Israel, they are properly regarded as a foremost element in Judaism.

Our sages say the apart from the content of the Torah, there is much to learn from the physical format of the Torah and the structure of the Text.

The Jerusalem Talmud in Shekalim 25 2:1 cites Rabbi Papa in the name of Rabbi Simon ben Lakish who declares, that the Torah was chiseled אֵשׁ לֽבָנָה חֲרוּתָה בְּאֵשׁ שְׁחוֹרָה by black fire (the letters) on white fire (the parchment). This implies that the parchment, the physical structure, is as much part of the Divine message as are the black letters and the words.

The Decalogue is one of the most wondrous portions of the Torah in terms of structure. Many of us are familiar with the physical appearance of the Ten Commandments—chiseled on two stone tablets, each containing 5 commandments or statements. The rabbis have indicated that this division is not arbitrary, but rather bears a profound structural message. The first five of the Ten Commandments, the rabbis point out, all deal with the human being’s relationship with G-d, whereas the last five commandments deal with relationships between human beings and their fellow human beings.

The rabbis of the Midrash conclude that the structural message goes even further. It is not at all coincidental, they maintain, that commandment 1 is placed opposite (facing) commandment 6, 2 opposite 7, 3 opposite 8, 4 opposite 9, and 5 opposite 10. These horizontal relationships, reflect the bilateral relationships that are to be found in the commandments that face each other on the tablets. For example, one who murders (commandment 6), is considered as he had murdered part of G-d (commandment 1), since humans are created in the image of G-d.

The late great Bible teacher, Nehama Leibowitz points out in her Studies in Shemot, Exodus, that not only are there horizontal relationships between the commandments, there are vertical relationships as well. Statement 1 is related to statement 2, which is related to 3, to 4, and to 5. And, similarly, 6 to 10.

To elucidate this point, Prof. Leibowitz analyzes the commandments according to the human capacity that is called upon in the observance of these mitzvot. So, for instance: What human capacity is called upon in the observance of the first commandment, “I am the Lord, thy G-d who brought thee out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage”? The answer is belief or thought. The second commandment, against idolatry, “Thou shall have no other gods before me,” again calls upon the human capacity for belief and thought. The third commandment, “Thou shall not bear the name of the Lord, thy G-d in vain,” involves speech. The fourth and fifth commandments, Shabbat and honoring parents, involve action.

We now see that the first five commandments, those categorized by our rabbis as בֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם, as the ones that deal with the relationship between the human being and G-d, progress structurally from thought, to speech, and, finally, to action.

The structural relationship repeats itself in the second set of five commandments 6-10. Commandments number 6: לֹא תִרְצָח, Thou shall not murder, number 7: לֹא תִנְאָף, Thou shall not commit adultery, and number 8: לֹא תִגְנֹב, Thou shall not steal–all three commandments involve action. Commandment number 9–against bearing false witness, once again involves the human capacity of speech. And, finally, number 10, against covetous desires, involves the human capacity of thought. So we see that the second set of commandments, the inter-human commandments, progress from action, to speech, to thought–exactly the opposite of the first five.

Professor Leibowitz brilliantly points out that with regard to the human being’s relationship with G-d, we often think that thought or belief is paramount, yet the progression of the Decalogue implies that–yes, believe in G-d with a full heart, but belief must also be articulated in speech, and most importantly, must be confirmed by action. With regard to the last five statements of the Decalogue, we often think that with respect to relationships between the human being and fellow human beings, the most important emphasis must be on action. That certainly is true. But, the structure of the Decalogue teaches that it is not only vital to act properly, but we must also speak properly, and finally, think properly about friends and neighbors.

We see that the Torah has some very powerful subliminal messages that may not be articulated in the text, or written in the letters and ink, but are to be found instead in the white spaces. Just through the structure alone, we may see the infinite wisdom of G-d shining through. And, of course, all this wisdom is meant to make us more sensitive, more ethical, and more moral. It is meant to help make all human beings more deserving of the appellation, “the Children of G-d.”

May you be blessed.