Former Rosh Kollel (Chicago, 1999-2002)
Currently Rosh Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi

Much has been written trying to explain the distinctions between the Aseret Hadibrot as originally formulated in Parshat Yitro as opposed to the way they are relayed in Parshat VaEtchanan (see, for example, Ibn Ezra and Ramban Shmot 20:7 and Rambam Moreh Nevuchim II:31). While those changes are significant, the basic order and structure of the commandments remains consistent in the two presentations. 

The order is fundamental to the understanding of the dibrot. As already pointed out by the Ibn Ezra in his commentary to Sefer Shmot , the dibrot are representative of three basic categories of mitzvot – namely those that deal with thought (belief), speech and action. Moreover, the commandments are clearly ordered. The first tablet,  dealing with Mitzvot Ben Adam LaMakom  – the commandments governing our relationship with G-d, begin with dictates  that deal with thought and belief, continue on to mitzvot of speech and are followed by those of action. The second luach, focusing on Ben Adam LaChaveiro – the commandments dealing with our interactions with our fellow man – is laid out in the inverse order, starting with mitzvoth that govern action (the prohibitions against murder, adultery and robbery), passing through speech (the injunction against testifying falsely) and finishing with Lo Tachmod – (Do Not Covet), a command whose demands impact on thought and emotion. 

In summary, if we were to look at the tablets as a table, the following picture would emerge:

Lo Tirzach –action

Anochi Hashem- thought

Lo Tinaf- action

Lo Yiheh – thought

Lo Tignov – action

Lo Tisa- speech

Lo Taamod…Ed Sheker-speech

Zachor/Shamor – speech/action

Lo Tachmod – thought

Kabed et Avicha-action


On first glance, one might be tempted to explain the order reversal as another example of the chiastic literary structure which is found frequently in Tanach. This is undoubtedly true.  Yet it would be a mistake to stop at the literary explanation; the structure itself is instructional. It represents an ever developing sense of obligation. 

When we look at Mitzvot Ben Adam LaMakom, belief presents but the first step. Billions on the planet profess to believe in G-d. A good first step to be sure, but where does it place them on a spiritual scale? Acceptance of the existence of G-d along with the rejection of other gods and all forms of avoda zara expressed in Anochi Hashem and Lo Yiheh respectively (even with the corollary kabalat ol malchut shamayim – acceptance of the divine yoke – see Rambam Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah1:6-7) hardly suffices to define a religious persona. Belief must be fostered to develop and inform our speech and actions. Faith needs impact on how a person behaves, on who he is. Accordingly, the first five dibrot begin with Anochi Hashem and Lo Yiheh – the necessary and basic conditions of faith but continue on with mandates in the realm of speech.  The commandment of Lo Tisa expresses the expectation and demand that the belief in G-d and His sanctity will carry over into the practical; it must preclude blasphemy, or even the unnecessary mention of G-d’s name.

In turn, speech flowers into concrete action. The duel nature of the Zachor/Shamor command of sanctifying the day verbally with Kidush and concomitantly refraining from Melacha underscores this. Avodat Hashem can not culminate in lip service alone.  Chazal’s assertion that Zachor V’shamor  were uttered simultaneously can be understood in this light. True observance of the Shabbat requires both verbalization and commitment to action in order to absorb the message that G-d is sovereign in the universe. Zachor and Shamor are equally critical; they had to have been commanded in the same instant. Similarly, honoring one’s parents is halachically expressed as a merger of practical obligation to provide for their needs with a respectful demeanor. 

The order switches for Ben Adam Lachavero, but holds true to the development from basic responsibility to advanced moral worth. Shunning murder, infidelity and theft does not earn one a badge of tzidkut. Their rejection forms the common denominator of civilized society. Lo Tachmod , on the other hand, is so demanding that some commentators limit the prohibition to situations where a person acts upon his desires. Their argument? It is impossible for the Torah to expect a person to control his emotions to such an extent. Those who accept the plain meaning of the text and incorporate an issur which exists regardless of its translation into practice acknowledge the difficulty involved. Simply put, not even desiring something which isn’t ours requires a life time of work. 

Viewed as a whole, the dibrot offer us a microcosm of the demands of the Torah as a whole. The expectations cover the gamut of man’s relationship with G-d and man. While all encompassing, they are gradated as well.  We are, the dibrot tell us, expected to start with the basics and aspire to the challenges that are truly transformative.