The Ten Commandments v. 1.1

The ‘Ten Commandments’ are listed twice in the Torah. They are recorded as part of the Exodus narrative in Shemot, and retold as part of Moshe’s valedictory address in Devarim, where he recounts the story of Sinai for the benefit of the next generation. As is well-known, the version of the ‘Ten Commandments’ which appears in this week’s parsha differs from the version which appears in Parshat Yitro in a number of places. Sometimes the differences consist of entire changed words and additional phrases, but usually the differences are limited to variant spellings. The best-known difference regards the opening word of the paragraph on Shabbat. In Yitro, it begin with the word ‘Zakhor’, and in Va-etchanan, it begins with the word Shamor, ve-acamo”l.

Earlier today, I noticed a particular difference regarding the tenth and final commandment, the prohibition against coveting. Below are the Hebrew and English of the two versions:

"לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ " (שמות כ', י"ג)

“Do not covet the house of your friend. Do not covet your friend’s wife, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else which belongs to your friend (Shemot 20:13)

" וְלֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ. וְלֹא תִתְאַוֶּה בֵּית רֵעֶךָ שָׂדֵהוּ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ"(דברים ה', י"ז)

“and you shall not covet your friend’s wife. Do not desire your friend’s house, field, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else which belongs to your friend (Devraim 5:17)”

One difference, which I will not address here (but see Rambam Geneiva Ve-aveida 1:9-10) is the fact that the passage in Devarim replaces the word ‘tachmod’ with the word ‘titaveh’ in one instance, while leaving it unchanged in the other. Also, the list in Devarim includes your friend’s field, whereas Shemot does not.

The difference which jumped out at me today regards the item which is singled out from each list. In each version, there is a single entity which is singled out, followed by a longer list. In the Shemot list, the friend’s house is singled out. The following list is all living things – wife, slave, maid, ox, and donkey. There’s clearly a regression in that list – from most to least intimate, and from a lesser to greater degree of ‘ownership’. The Devarim list separates the wife from the longer list. The longer list then contains three pairs of objects – real estate (house and field), human property (slave and maid), and livestock (ox and donkey). This method of separation calls attention to the fact that there is no parallel to the relationship between husband and wife; it’s sui generis. Of course, the fact remains that the Ten Commandments seem to be addressed exclusively to men – it never says ‘do not covet your friend’s husband’. And the fact remains that, in Shemot, the wife is still lumped together with the ox and the donkey. Nevertheless, there seems to be a shift in the woman’s status from Shemot to Devarim. In Devarim, the woman is incomparable. She doesn’t even get the same word – she’s ‘coveted’ and plain old property is ‘desired’; desire for one’s friend’s wife is completely different from desiring his material wealth. There’s something subtly romantic in that.

If I had to explain why this shift takes place between Shemot and Devarim, I would say that it has to do with Devarim’s greater attention to human nature. On an abstract plane, the ‘acquisition’ of a woman and the acquisition of an ox might be comparable; they might belong on the same list of things one can own. In human experience, however, the nuptial bond is experienced in a completely different way than ownership. Moshe’s address is closer to the human experience, because he was one of us. Similarly, Shabbat is linked to Creation in Shemot, but to the Exodus in Devarim; the former is an abstract idea – no human witnessed Creation. The latter relates directly to human experience.

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