What are the Ten Commandments in the Bible? - explainer

The Ten Commandments have a central place in Judaism and Jewish history, given by God and Moses at Mount Sinai. Here's what you need to know about them.

 Moses and Aaron with the 10 Commandments (illustrative). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Moses and Aaron with the 10 Commandments (illustrative).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Ten Commandments have a central place in Judaism and Jewish history, being the first 10 commandments given by God through Moses to the Jews at Mount Sinai.

Taking place following the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the moment of delivering the Ten Commandments remains a central part of the Jewish faith, as it marks a time where God Himself spoke to the entirety of the Jewish people, rather than to just a single prophet. The delivery of the Ten Commandments are still celebrated every year in the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

According to Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments were inscribed on a set of two tablets by God Himself. These were the second set of tablets, however, as the first set were destroyed by Moses after he witnessed the sin of the Golden Calf. These two tablets were said to have been placed in the Ark of the Covenant, where they supposedly remain, though there whereabouts following the destruction of the First Temple are unknown.

But what are the 10 commandments? Where are they mentioned in the Bible? What do they mean? And what did Jesus think about them?

Here's everything you need to know.

‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day? (credit: Wikimedia Commons)‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day? (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
What are the 10 commandments in simple terms? Where are the 10 commandments in the Bible?

The Ten Commandments are as follows, as listed in the Torah:

  1. I am Hashem, the Lord, your God.
  2. Do not worship other gods, do not make for yourself idols.
  3. Do not take the Lord's name in vain.
  4. Remember Shabbat, the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not bear false witness.
  10. Do not covet.

Moses_521 (credit: Courtesy)Moses_521 (credit: Courtesy)
What do the 10 commandments mean?

While several of them are rather short, the exact meanings of the Ten Commandments has been the subject of fierce rabbinic debate for thousands of years. 

Broadly speaking, there are two points that are widely agreed upon regarding these rules.

The first is that the Ten Commandments themselves are divided into two parts, with the first five being mitzvot that deal with the relationship between people and God and the second five being mitzvot that deal with the relationship between people. This can be a bit confusing, however, regarding commandment five, honor your father and mother. However, it is from this interpretation that we are able to infer that respecting one's parents is a divinely ordained mitzvah and should be treated with the same level of seriousness as one's relationship with God.

The second point is the severity of the Ten Commandments. For the most part, violating any of the Ten Commandments, assuming there is such a punishment in Jewish law for it, is always a capital offense. In other words, breaking the Ten Commandments would be a death sentence.

However, each of the commandments have also been the subject of its own interpretation. Here are some breakdowns of the deeper meaning behind the Ten Commandments:

  1. I am Hashem, the Lord, your God. This commandment is widely understood to be that one must recognize the existence of God and that Hashem is God. This, in turn, would also mean it is a prohibition against atheism.
  2. Do not worship any other gods, do not make for yourself idols. This commandment follows the previous one in establishing the supremacy of Hashem as God. It does not imply that other gods exist, but does state that trying to worship another god that is of man's own creation, an idol, is a sin. It also further enshrines monotheism, the belief in only one God, as a core component of Judaism.
  3. Do not take the Lord's name in vain. This commandment explicitly refers to using God's true name, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, in vain. However, this is likely more than just a prohibition against blasphemy. Some scholars have posited that the commandment is meant to refer to a prohibition against sorcery, where invoking God's name could be used for supernatural purposes, something that is forbidden elsewhere in the Bible. Others say that the commandment is against swearing false oaths, since oaths were often sworn in the name of God. This has support too, considering how seriously Judaism takes the sin of false oaths and how similarly legal-oriented laws exist (see commandment number nine).
  4. Remember Shabbat, the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. This commandment explicitly refers to keeping Shabbat, the day of rest, which is the seventh day of the week. It is a day where work must be forbidden and is instead a holy day focused on prayer and resting. The exact details regarding the definition of "work" are further elaborated upon in rabbinic literature. However, the fact that keeping Shabbat is important in Judaism is reinforced in the Bible, including in parts of the Torah where breaking Shabbat was shown to result in the death penalty.
  5. Honor your father and mother. On the surface, this is among the most self-explanatory of the ten commandments. Simply put, one should respect and honor their parents. However, the nuances are the subject of considerable debate, especially surrounding the exact definition of "honoring" one's parents. Regardless, the law is important and while there is no explicit punishment for violating it, it is one of the two mitzvot in Judaism that are said to result in a long life.
  6. Do not murder. This law is surprisingly complicated. However, part of that is due what seems to be a mistranslation, where "do not murder" is sometimes translated as "do not kill." This is erroneous, as it is not a prohibition on killing, but on unlawful killing that could result in bloodguilt. This is usually taken to refer to outright murder or aiding in it. It does not refer to accidentally killing someone, nor does it refer to justified killing like self-defense, warfare and execution.
  7. Do not commit adultery. This law is also the subject of considerable debate considering that married men are allowed to have sexual relations with other women or even marry multiple women, though women are under more obligations than men. The most common interpretation is that this commandment is a prohibition on violating any of Judaism's sexual prohibitions such as incest, rape, bestiality, sleeping with another man's wife, and so on.
  8. Do not steal. Like commandment number six, this has been the subject of considerable debate. The reason is that while all stealing is bad and prohibited, stealing in and of itself does not warrant the death penalty like violating any of the other ten commandments does. This issue seems to be rooted in the fact that the word used here, the root of which is "ganav," has become used to simply mean stealing, and is even seen used as such in the Talmud. However, it is widely agreed that the commandment is a prohibition against kidnapping, which would indeed result in the death penalty.
  9. Do not bear false witness. This commandment is widely seen as referring to sins of perjury and perverting the course of justice. It is seen as specifically being a legal-related commandment in order to uphold the sanctity of the courts and to make sure justice is carried out. Attempting to sabotage justice by providing false testimony is something condemned multiple times throughout the Bible.
  10. Do not covet. This is arguably the strangest and most complicated of the Ten Commandments. Coveting, which essentially means desiring that which is not yours and is seen by some as a prohibition on the sin of envy, is not usually something one can control. So why is it expressly forbidden? There have been many commentaries on this, with some positing that the commandment itself exists as a preventative measure, making sure one does not give in to covetous desires and prevents further sinning.

Mount Sinai 370 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Mount Sinai 370 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
What is the 10 commandments Bible story?

If by Bible story you mean where in the Bible they are located, they are in two places. The first is in parashat Yitro in the Book of Exodus, where the Ten Commandments are given at Mount Sinai. The second is in parashat Ve'etchanan in the Book of Deuteronomy, as part of Moses's speech to the Jewish people before they enter the Land of Israel.

But if by Bible story you mean the story about the Ten Commandments leading up to it, this follows hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt before the Exodus. It is immortalized in both the Bible, artwork and many adaptations, most famously the 1956 film The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner, considered one of the greatest and most successful films of all time. Since the 1970s, it is even aired every year on TV in honor of Passover and Easter.

How many commandments are in the Bible?

Despite the significance and importance in the Ten Commandments, these 10 mitzvot are not necessarily considered the most important in Judaism, nor are they all the mitzvot. Jewish tradition emphasizes that there is a set number of 613 commandments in the Bible.

Did Jesus abolish the 10 commandments?

Not entirely. 

Christian belief holds that the New Testament invalidated a lot of Mosaic law, as shown in the Old Testament. As such, the idea of the Ten Commandments as a concept may have been invalidated. However, Jesus himself reaffirmed most of them in his lifetime, as shown in the New Testament. It is for this reason why Christians still prohibit murder, idolatry, adultery and so on.

The one commandment that was not reaffirmed by Jesus, however, was commandment number four, remember Shabbat, the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. This is why while Christians do have a Sabbath, on Sunday, they do not keep it the same way the Jews do.