Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

The “Ten Commandments”1 are fundamental precepts, good for all time, right? Well, maybe.

The first four of the ten commandments (which appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in the book of Exodus, and again in Va-etchanan in the book of Deuteronomy) are religious injunctions. They prohibit having other gods,2 making or worshiping idols, swearing falsely in the name of God,3 and working on the holy seventh day of the week, Shabbat. These four commandments are hardly universal precepts, since they do not apply to people with other religions (including atheism).

The next six commandments, however, are about ethics, i.e. the right way to treat other people:

  1. Honor your father and your mother …
  2. You must not kill.
  3. You must not commit adultery.
  4. You must not steal.
  5. You must not testify falsely.
  6. You must not covet …

Not all of these commandments are easy to interpret outside the context of the social customs of the Ancient Near East.  Does that mean they are morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture? Or are they nevertheless moral absolutes, still relevant today?

This week’s post examines commandments five and six. Next week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven and eight. The week after that, Part 3 will explore the last two commandments.

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The Fifth Commandment

Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving to you. (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = honor, treat as important. (From the same root as the adjective kabeid, כַּבֵּד = heavy, weighty, impressive, oppressive, dull, hard.)

According to traditional commentary, if you honor your parents, your children will honor you.4 That means your adult children will make sure you are well fed and housed when you can no longer manage on your own, and therefore you will indeed live longer. (No wonder having children is a top priority in the Torah!)5

Maimonides wrote that in addition to making sure our parents have food, clothing, and shelter, we must be indulgent with them if they have dementia. When adult children can no long bear the strain of tending such a parent, they may hire others to take care of them.6

Honoring one’s parents goes beyond providing for their physical needs in the Torah. Next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, assigns the death penalty to the crime of hitting parents, or even speaking ill of them.

And one who strikes his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:15)

And mekaleil his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

mekaleil (מְקַלֵּל) = one who belittles, one who curses.

There is no penalty in the Hebrew bible for a parent hitting or belittling a child. Hitting children in order to discipline them is considered a good deed in the book of Proverbs.7 Elsewhere parents are required to teach their children certain laws and traditions from the Torah,8 but the bible is silent about child abuse or neglect.9

This silence reflects the culture of the Ancient Near East, in which underage children were the property of their fathers and had no rights of their own. In other cultures, child abuse and neglect are considered criminal, and the ethical standard is for parents to treat their children with kindness and respect them as individuals, while still teaching them acceptable behavior in their society.

The fifth commandment implies that we should treat our parents with respect whether they deserve it or not.10 This may be a worthy aspiration, but when parents have seriously abused or neglected children while they were growing up, honoring and taking care of these bad parents could make the lives of their adult children unbearable.

I believe the fifth commandment should not be a universal ethical rule as it stands. I would amend it this way:

Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents.

The Sixth Commandment

The Servants of Absalom Killing Amnon, Heinrich Aldegrever, 1540

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

This commandment is sometimes translated into English as “You shall not kill” and sometimes as “You shall not murder”. Does the Torah distinguish between accidental manslaughter and deliberate murder?

The death penalty is prescribed only for pre-meditated murder in next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.

One who strikes down a man so that he dies, he [the one who struck] shall certainly be put to death. [However, if it was] one who did not stalk him, but God let [the one who died] fall by his hand, I will appoint a place for you where he can flee. But if someone plots against his fellow to kill him with cunning, from [even] my altar you shall take him to die. (Exodus 21:12-14)

More specifics are given in the Torah portion Masey in the book of Numbers, which also uses a form of the same verb as in the sixth commandment: ratzach.11 Here God orders the Israelites to set aside six cities of refuge once they have conquered Canaan.

… cities of refuge they shall be for you, and a rotzeiach who struck down a life inadvertently will flee there.” (Numbers 35:11)

rotzeiach (רֺצֵַח) = someone who commits either  premeditated murder or involuntary manslaughter. (The participle form of the verb ratzach).

Then God tells Moses:

But if one struck with an iron implement and [the victim] died, he is a rotzeiach and the rotzeiach must certainly be put to death. … Or [if] in enmity he struck him with his hand and [the victim] died, he shall certainly be put to death. (Numbers 35:16, 35:21)

Someone who kills accidentally can live in exile; someone who kills deliberately (either out of hatred or by using an implement well-known to cause death) gets the death penalty. The executioner, in that case, is the “redeemer of bloodshed”, a designated avenger from the family of the deceased victim. The commandment against killing does not apply to the avenger.

Nor does it apply to soldiers who kill enemies in battle. The Torah never criticizes the Israelites for starting a war, regardless of the reason. Moses only rules (in the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy) that when the Israelites attack a town outside Canaan merely in order to expand their territory or get some booty, they must first offer the option of “peaceful” surrender.

And if [the town] answers you with peace and opens itself to you, then all the people found inside it will be yours for forced labor, and they must serve you. But if it does not make peace with you, and does battle, and you besiege it, and God places it in your hand, then you shall put all its males to the edge of the sword. However, the women and the little ones and the livestock and everything that is in the town, all its plunder you shall plunder for yourself … However, in the towns of these peoples [Canaanites] which God, your God, is giving you as a hereditary possession, you shall not let a soul live. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:11-16)

These two approaches to conquest were considered ethical in the Ancient Near East. But today, an increasing number of people believe that even when a killing is legal, it may not be ethical.

Many people would agree with the commandment lo tirtzach, you must not kill without a legal sanction. But standards have changed for when it should be legal to kill someone. The death penalty is now banned in a majority of countries in the world, and is controversial in the United States.

War, on the other hand, is still an option for every nation. But some acts during war are now considered war crimes, and there is more interest in minimizing the deaths of non-combatants. Most people condone killing in self-defense, whether it is killing an individual who is about to kill you, or fighting a nation that has attacked yours. But is initiating a war justified if the purpose is to defend the citizens of an allied nation, or to defend a principle such as democracy?

A basic moral rule must be brief and express an ethical ideal, even if there are gray and cloudy areas in its application. The sixth commandment, which merely says “You must not ratzach” (You must not kill without a legal sanction) meets this requirement as it stands.

But I believe that too many types of killing have been legal, in both ancient Israelite and modern Western societies. An ethical ideal, in my opinion, would be more restricted. So I would like to propose this amended sixth commandment:

You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed.

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Next week I will address what the seventh and eighth commandments mean when they prohibit adultery and theft—then and now.

  1. Exodus 20:1 introduces what we call “the Ten Commandments” in English with “And God spoke all these devarim”. Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls the ten “commandments” the devar of God; devar is the singular of devarim.
  2. See my 2011 post Yitro: Not in My Face.
  3. See my 2014 post Yitro: The Power of the Name.
  4. E.g. the Book of Sirach, 3:1-16 (second century B.C.E.)
  5. In first-world countries today, the whole society pays various taxes to take care of its aged population through various taxes. Yet when old people can no longer manage certain tasks themselves, their adult children are still expected to meet some obligations.
  6. Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon or “Rambam”), Mishneh Torah, book 14, treatise 3, chapter 6:10, as quoted in Edward Hoffman, The Wisdom of Maimonides, Trumpeter, Boston, 2008, p. 114-115.
  7. Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 29:15.
  8. E.g. Exodus 13:8; Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and 11:19.
  9. One father, Jepthah/Yiptach, vows that if God gives him success in battle he will offer to God whatever comes out of his house first when he returns. He is dismayed when his daughter runs out to greet him. But this father is portrayed as foolish, not abusive. He immediately grants her request for a two-month postponement so she can “cry over her virginity”. The cautionary tale ends without clarifying whether Yiptach’s daughter was slaughtered at the altar or given to the local sanctuary. (Judges 11:30-35)
  10. See my 2015 post Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents. The Book of Sirach adds: Help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; Even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance …”
  11. For more on the words ratzach and rotzeiach, see Marty Lockshin, “Does the Torah Differentiate between Murder and Killing?”, thetorah.com.

 

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