Everyone knows about the Ten Commandments – they are probably the best-known section of the Torah. But many people have never given any thought to their structure. What is the logic to their particular order and, specific to our discussion, what is the role of Shabbat in the middle of the Ten Commandments?
The structure of the Ten Commandments
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, rabbi of the Old City in Jerusalem, explains the structure of the Ten Commandments as follows: obviously, the Ten Commandments have to begin with “I am the Lord your G-d,” because our belief that G-d exists is the foundation of the Torah. The Torah only has meaning if we believe that Hashem is the Creator of the world and Author of the Torah, and is the One Who commands us and directs our lives. The second commandment, “Do not have any other gods before Me,” is the prohibition against worshipping idols or other forces in the world, which is an extension of belief in G-d. We may not say that we believe in G-d but also in other powers. Judaism is monotheistic; belief in G-d means believing that G-d is the one and only Deity.
The third commandment, not to take G-d’s name in vain, is about respecting G-d and is obviously an extension of the first two commandments. This crucial value permeates the Jewish psyche: when we write “G-d” on a piece of paper, we do not write His Name in full; when we speak, we are very careful to use the term “Hashem,” – literally, “The Name” – and not His full Name, unless it is in the context of davening. This is out of respect, which is an extension of belief in G-d.
We then have the mitzvah of Shabbat, which we will return to shortly.
After Shabbat comes the fifth commandment: honouring our parents, which begins another line of thought within the Ten Commandments. This commandment says we have a duty to respect and have a relationship not only with G-d but with our fellow human beings as well. Our relationship with our fellow human beings starts with the primary relationship we have with our parents. One of the pillars of morality is to honour our father and mother. This is the basis of everything because parents, according to the Gemara, are co-creators with G-d in the creation of a child. The Gemara uses the phrase shutfin, “partners”; G-d, the mother and the father are partners in Creation. Thus, in keeping this commandment we give honour and respect not just to G-d Himself but to His partners and the people He created.
The commandment to honour our parents is qualitatively different from the first three commandments. The first three commandments are about how we relate to G-d; from here onward, the commandments are about how we relate to other people. Beginning with the founding relationship we have with our parents, the commandments then go through the basics of morality which guide us as to how we engage with other people: Lo tirtzach, “Do not murder,” which is about having a basic respect for another person’s life; Lo tin’af, “Do not commit adultery,” which is about respecting family and the institution of marriage; Lo tignov, “Do not steal,” which, according to the Talmud, refers to the prohibition of kidnapping – we have to respect the freedom of human beings; Lo ta’aneh b’rei’acha eid shaker, “Do not bear false witness,” which means one is forbidden to cause another person physical or monetary harm even indirectly, through giving false testimony in court. In this situation, one has not done any action but through one’s false testimony another’s interests are harmed. This takes the relationship one step further: not only are we forbidden to compromise a person’s life, marriage or freedom but we are forbidden to cause damage, even indirectly, through our words.
The final commandment, Lo tachmod, “Do not covet,” takes it even one step further. The Talmud explains that this commandment includes not allowing feelings of jealousy to lead to actions which could cause one to forcibly take away another’s property.
These are the pillars of a moral civilisation, given to the world in the Ten Commandments, which are carefully structured and ordered. Each commandment is taking our relationship one step further: one has to respect his or her parents, human life, the institution of marriage, the freedom of human beings, other people’s best interests and other people’s property. Thus, in the Ten Commandments, we have the obligation to believe in G-d and respect Him, on the one hand, and the obligation to respect all people and treat them with dignity, on the other. These two pillars correspond to the two major categories comprising the 613 commandments: mitzvot bein adam laMakom, commandments between man and G-d, and mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro, commandments between one person and his fellowhuman being.
What, then, is Shabbat doing in the middle?
Shabbat is the bridge between our relationship with G-d and our relationship with man
Rav Nebenzahl explains that Shabbat is the bridge between mitzvot bein adam laMakom and mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro, because Shabbat testifies to the fact that G-d created the entire world, including the people therein; as it says, “in six days He created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day He rested.” Shabbat is eidut, a testimony, to the fact that G-d created the world. And because He is the Creator of this world and its inhabitants, we have to respect all people, as they are His creations. Shabbat declares that G-d does not exist in a vacuum, separate from this world, such that He and the world are two isolated entities. Rather, He created this world and it is therefore connected to Him. Consequently, in the same way that we have to respect Him, we have to respect everything He created, especially people, whom He created b’tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d.”
When we say kiddush on Friday night, we are fulfilling the mitzvah of testifying that G-d created everything. This, in turn, obligates us to respect our fellow human beings as they are His creations. The fact that G-d created the world and everything in it underpins these two categories of commandments in the Torah; and Shabbat, which testifies to G-d’s creation of the world, is the bridge connecting the two categories.
We can now understand the importance of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments and why it is in that exact position. The first three commandments are about our relationship with G-d, and the rest of the commandments are about our relationship with our fellow human beings; Shabbat is the bridge connecting the two. When we talk about faith in G-d, we are not talking solely about G-d’s existence; that is only one aspect of faith. Faith in G-d encompasses acknowledging Him as the Creator of the world, but more than that, it acknowledges Him as a Creator Who is interested in the world He created. Shabbat declares that G-d created the world and takes interest in it and, therefore, is interested in our actions. There are people who believe in the concept of a G-d who exists somewhere out there, but who has merely a casual relationship with this world. Judaism teaches that G-d exists and is the Creator of everything, and has an intimate relationship with us and cares about us. This is one of the most powerful messages of Shabbat, and this is why it is a pillar of Judaism. It is saying that we do not relate to G-d as a distant G-d in the heavens; we relate to Him as a G-d Who is connected to this earth and cares about us and the way we treat our fellow human beings.
Judaism is a unitary moral system
This is why, from Judaism’s perspective, we cannot compartmentalise morality. We do not differentiate between morality in our relationship with G-d and morality in our relationship with our fellow human beings. To be a good Jew is to have a good, healthy and committed relationship with G-d and with our fellow human beings.
The Midrash says that when G-d gave over the Ten Commandments, He said them all in one breath, which, as the Midrash says, is something a human being cannot say or hear. The point of communication is to get the message across; why, then, did G-d say all the commandments in one breath if the people at Mount Sinai could not hear the words?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that G-d conveyed the Ten Commandments in one breath to teach us that Judaism is a unitary system. The commandments between us and G-d and between us and our fellow human beings are one system which cannot be split. We cannot have a relationship with G-d alone, and disregard our ethics and morality when it come to our fellow human beings. Equally, we cannot have a relationship with our fellow human being and ignore our relationship with G-d. Judaism is holistic, and this is why the Ten Commandments were given in one breath. It is one entity, and cannot be separated. And the bridge that holds this entire entity together is Shabbat. Hence, G-d positioned it in the heart of the Ten Commandments.