Why Commandments are Important

Many people question if the Torah is relevant in our modern age. A related question is if the 10 Commandments are still relevant.

Let’s look at the 10 Commandments and decide.

Are the 10 Commandments Still Relevant Today?

In an earlier article I listed them with some added explanation. Here’s the list from that article:

  1. Believe in God
  2. Prohibition of idolatry
  3. Prohibition of vain oaths
  4. Observe the sabbath
  5. Honor your father and mother
  6. Prohibition of murder
  7. Prohibition of adultery
  8. Prohibition of stealing
  9. Prohibition of bearing false witness
  10. Prohibition of coveting

It’s hard to make a serious argument that these commandments are not relevant these days. In fact, several of them are part of the legal code of nearly every government.

Other than the 4th commandment about the sabbath, these commandments set a standard of morality that most people would agree with.

And even the concept of a “day of rest” has gained widespread acceptance. For example, it’s easy to find articles urging people to create their own “sabbath” and refrain from using electronic devices one day a week.

The 10 Commandments have been adopted by many people in the Western world as a standard to abide by. Even so, non-Jews are not required to keep them.

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments (and all of the other commandments) to establish an everlasting covenant with the Jewish people. As such, only the Jewish people are required to observe all of these commandments.

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7 Commandments for Non-Jews

If the Ten Commandments are for the Jewish people, does that mean non-Jews can do whatever they want?

No.

The Ramchal explains it this way:

Derech HaShem – The Way of God

2:4:6 They [non-Jews] were likewise given commandments, through which they could attain both material and spiritual advantages appropriate to their nature. These are the seven [universal] commandments given to the children of Noah.

These Seven Commandments consist of 6 prohibitions and 1 positive action. Here are the 6 prohibitions:

  • idolatry
  • blasphemy
  • murder
  • adultery, incest, and other sexual perversions
  • robbery
  • eating the flesh of a living animal

The 7th commandment is the requirement to set up a judicial system to enforce the six prohibitions.

According to Jewish tradition, six of these commandments were originally given to Adam and Eve. They were not given the commandment to refrain from eating the flesh of a living animal because they were not permitted to kill animals for food.

The commandment against eating the flesh of a living animal was given to Noach and his family when they left the Ark. That is why these are known as the 7 Commandments of the children of Noach (Hebrew: shivat mitzvot bnei Noach).

Are 10 Commandments Relevant

Why are There Commandments?

Let’s discuss why God has given us any commandments.

Many rabbis through the ages have addressed this question. We’ll look first at what Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi wrote.

The Kuzari

3:23:1 But we have already stated that it is impossible to become close to God without the Divine commandments themselves. This is because God alone knows the proper measures, weights, times, places, and all else that is tied into the practices [of these commandments,] which, when performed properly, lead to Divine favor and attachment to the Divinity.

One message from The Kuzari is that commandments from God are not mere arbitrary rules just meant to keep us on our toes. Rather, the commandments are carefully designed and calibrated to lead us into a closer relationship with God.

Ramchal in Derech HaShem amplifies this point.

Derech HaShem – The Way of God

1:4:5 The purpose of each commandment is either to allow man to earn and incorporate in himself a particular level of true excellence, or to remove an area of deficiency and darkness. This is accomplished through doing what the commandments require and avoiding what they forbid.

The commandments are for our benefit. Each commandment that we observe brings to us a specific positive result. This is true whether we perform a required action or refrain from violating a prohibition.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in The Handbook of Jewish Thought echos this idea.

The Handbook of Jewish Thought

3:13 God caused man to have a psychological makeup with which he would experience the greatest possible pleasure in doing something that he knew to be good and beneficial. This pleasure is enhanced according to the importance of the authority declaring that a given action is good. …

3:14 For this reason God revealed His will to man.

We can all see this in our own lives. We are pleased, to one degree or another, when a parent or boss gives us a pat on the back for doing a good job.

The Handbook of Jewish Thought

5:1 The means through which Israel gains the good for which God created the universe are the commandments. …

5:45 The commandments … are all primarily for the benefit of those who observe them.

5:46 Since the commandments were given for man’s ultimate benefit, they were made difficult enough to present a challenge, but not so difficult as to make their observance prohibitively burdensome.

The difficulty of observing the commandments hints that the reward that a person eventually receives will be that much more meaningful.

How Many Commandments

According to Jewish tradition, Moses received 613 commandments when he was on Mount Sinai.

Gemara Makkot 23b

Rabbi Simlai when preaching said: Six hundred and thirteen precepts were communicated to Moses, three hundred and sixty-five negative precepts, corresponding to the number of solar days [in the year], and two hundred and forty-eight positive precepts, corresponding to the number of the members of man’s body.

Rashi explains this Gemara to mean that every part of a person’s body urges him to perform the positive commandments. Likewise, every day of the year urges him not to transgress any of the negative commandments.

The 613 commandments are not explicitly numbered or identified in our Bibles. Several commentators (including Rambam and Ramban) have compiled lists based on their understanding of the 613 commandments.

Rashi states in his commentary on Exodus 24:12 that all 613 commandments are implied in the Ten Commandments. Thus we see that the Ten Commandments are not separate from the 613 commandments, but are intimately connected to them.

Conclusion

I hope I have made it clear that the commandments God has given to mankind are a critical part of our existence.

The commandments are calibrated to bring the most possible benefit to each person. This is true for the non-Jew and the 7 commandments given to the children of Noach. It’s also true for the Jew who has been given 613 commandments.

The Ten Commandments serve as a sort of introduction and foundation of the 613 commandments. Therefore, we can say with confidence that the 10 Commandments are still relevant today.

Further Reading

This article is part of a series about the Ten Commandments. Here are links to some of the other articles:

Who Wrote the 10 Commandments?

The 10 Commandments List

Exodus 19:9 – Purpose of the 10 Commandments


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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