Are the Ten Commandments Jewish?

Jewish culture By Jeremy Hugh Baron 10th Sep 2015

This article was typical of my father, Hugh Baron, who died on 11th December 2014. It was originally presented as a Shabbat ’tisch’ or shiur in October 2012 at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in New York. On his retirement as an NHS consultant gastroenterologist in 1996 my father had begun to divide his time between London and New York, avidly engaging in the different intellectual quests of Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ New London Synagogue and Mordecai Kaplan’s still more radical Reconstructionist movement. My father’s favourite question, in synagogue attendance and indeed in life, encapsulated that quest: ‘What have I learnt today?’. He would ask it of me almost every day on my return from school. He explained he had heard it first at Oxford from the great Jewish historian Cecil Roth.

In retirement my father wrote and gave at least 75 tisches (so-named from the custom of studying the Talmud sitting around a table). The first 50 were published as ‘Fifty Synagogue Seminars’ in 2010. I found another 25 among his papers on his death.

I chose to offer this one to the new publication he was so keen for Masorti to pursue because it encapsulates my father in so many ways. There’s the challenging, disarming, heterodox, even mischievous title – it’s an invitation to question anything and everything. In fact, in the original manuscript I discovered he had overwritten the title – replacing it with the blander, but as you’ll see more precise, ‘Which of the Ten Commandments were uniquely Jewish?’ But I think the provocative title serves it better. Then there’s the article’s tone and style: singular, eclectic, to-the-point so it is almost brusque, careering off in odd directions, but packed with challenging ideas and scholarly range (not to mention some very long and rather obscure words – a particular trope of my father). There’s also a seasonal relevance – the revelation, at least to me, that our most revered Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur confessional prayers, Ashamnu and the Al Heyt, bear close relation to even more ancient Egyptian confessions.

Most importantly, however, I chose it because it illuminates the tension between the particular and the universal in our identity as Jews and modern humans. My father was committed to demonstrating the Mesopotamian and other ancient roots of so much that we have inherited and cherish as our own. The borders and boundaries between us and the wider world were always much more porous than our own tradition would often have us believe, especially in its all too tiresomely ubiquitous self-congratulatory mode. And yet no-one was prouder than my father of the truth, beauty and intellectual vigour and universal legacy of our own particular inheritance. (Archie Baron August 2015)

The Saturday before Passover is Shabbat Gadol, the Great Sabbath, when the Haftorah portion we read from the Hebrew Bible is from the last of the prophets, Malachi. In chapter III: 5 God promises I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat labourers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.

Malachi thus attributes these seven sins as crimes against God’s commandments, but none of the commentaries explain that Malachi in about 460 BCE must have been aware that most of these prohibitions are not theonomous, even though some of them are in the Decalogue, the preferred name for The Ten Commandments. They are anthroponomous, secular laws by human Mesopotamian kings a thousand or more years before Malachi’s time and had been displayed to the general public on stelae. It is therefore appropriate to compare the individual ten commandments of Exodus 20:1-14 (in preference to Deuteronomy 5:6-18) with their Mesopotamian and Egyptian predecessors, and then look at the Mesopotamian originals of Malachi’s other prohibitions.

First: I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. This is uniquely Jewish, in so far as it claims the statements in the Decalogue are divine in origin, and that the Jewish God is the deity who caused the Exodus.

Second: You shall have no other gods besides me. The rest of the world was polytheist; monotheism was uniquely Jewish. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image’¦ Again uniquely Jewish; almost all other religions made pictures or sculptures of their gods.

Three: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God. In Middle Assyrian Laws about 1400 to 950 BCE a woman who blasphemes bears her responsibility – not her husband or child. 1

Four: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Uniquely Jewish.

Five: Honour your father and your mother. The king of Isin, about 2000 BCE, boasted, ‘I made the father support the children, and the child support the father’.2

In Babylon about 1750 BCE King Hammurabi ordered, ‘the hand of the son who strikes his father was amputated’.3

Six: You shall not murder. In Ur about 2100 BCE capital punishment was the penalty for murder.4

Seven: You shall not commit adultery. A man’s wife lies with another man: drown her..5 A wife goes to another house where a man fornicates her – kill both.6

Eight: You shall not steal. Robbery was often a capital offence in Mesopotamia. In Babylon a man who broke into a house was killed and hanged in front of the breach in the house.7

Nine: You shall not bear false witness. In Babylon a man who gave false testimony in a trial of a capital offence was killed himself, and punished in a non-capital offence.8

Ten: You shall not covet. This is uniquely Jewish, referring to both trying to acquire property of another, and perhaps also simply wishing to possess such property.9

Social Justice Malachi listed five other sins not denounced in the Decalogue. Sorcery, and those who cheat labourers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan and stranger are condemned in Exodus, but most had already been specified in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Thus in Middle Assyrian laws (1400-950 BCE) ‘A man or a woman practicing witchcraft – kill them.10 In Ur ‘I did not deliver the orphan to the rich, nor the widow to the mighty, nor the man with but one shekel to the man with one mina [60 shekels]’.11 Hammurabi claimed ‘I prevent the strong from oppressing the weak’¦ I provide just ways for the waif and the widow’.12

Palestine’s other neighbour, Egypt, had in the Middle Kingdom the Books of the Dead, a written guide for the ethics of its citizens when they were undergoing final judgements after death. 13 Versions of these guides were partly based on earlier Old Kingdom (2500-2000 BCE) royal texts of spells, Ma’at (also the name of a creator goddess, who made every man like his fellow). A man could attain to happiness in the hereafter only if he could satisfy the gods that he had been upright and just in his earthly existence. The mummified dead were urged by papyrus inscriptions in, on or around their coffins, or on tomb walls to recite in their defence against Osiris and his 42 divine assessors any or all of a list of confessions. You can find 42 claims of guiltlessness of the Book of the Dead in the Papyrus of Ani, who lived about 1275 BCE in the 19th dynasty.

Confessions of Innocence by Ani

I have not committed sin.

I have not committed robbery with violence.

I have not stolen.

I have not slain men and women.

I have not stolen grain.

I have not purloined offerings.

I have not stolen the property of the god.

I have not uttered lies.

I have not carried away food.

I have not uttered curses.

I have not committed adultery, I have not lain with men.

I have made none to weep.

I have not eaten the heart [i.e I have not grieved uselessly, or felt remorse].

I have not attacked any man.

I am not a man of deceit.

I have not stolen cultivated land.

I have not been an eavesdropper.

I have slandered [no man].

I have not been angry without just cause.

I have not debauched the wife of any man.

I have not debauched the wife of [any] man. (repeats the previous affirmation but addressed to a different god).

I have not polluted myself.

I have terrorised none.

I have not transgressed [the Law].

I have not been wroth.

I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.

I have not blasphemed.

I am not a man of violence.

I am not a stirrer up of strife (or a disturber of the peace).

I have not acted (or judged) with undue haste.

I have not pried into matters.

I have not multiplied my words in speaking.

I have wronged none, I have done no evil.

I have not worked witchcraft against the King (or blasphemed against the King).

I have never stopped [the flow of] water.

I have never raised my voice (spoken arrogantly, or in anger).

I have not cursed (or blasphemed) God.

I have not acted with evil rage.

I have not stolen the bread of the gods.

I have not carried away the khenfu cakes from the Spirits of the dead.

I have not snatched away the bread of the child, nor treated with contempt the god of my city.

I have not slain the cattle belonging to the god.

Jewish Confessions of Guilt

In Leviticus 16:21 the High Priest confessed over the head of a live goat all the iniquities and confessions of the Israelites, In I Kings 8: 46-53 Solomon’s memorable congregational prayer was ‘we have sinned, we have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly’¦’ Since the Talmudic era we have in each of the services on the Day of Atonement recited both a Lesser Confession Ashamnu of 24 sins, ‘We abuse, we betray, we are cruel’¦’ There follows the Greater Confession Al het, with 20+12+12=44 sins in a double alphabetical acrostic beginning ‘We have sinned against you unwillingly and willingly’, and ends with a list of nine punishments we deserve. The Rabbinical Assembly Mahzor explained that the 44 sins in the Al Het include 12 from Amron Gaon (9th century), six from Saadiah Gaon (10th century) and 22 from Maimonides (12th century).14 Moreover sins in Al Het are those of daily life and not violations of Judaism. These would be considered as sins between people and God, and are not between one person and another which sins cannot be forgiven on Yom Kippur.

Non-Supremacy of the Decalogue

Later Jewish authorities were concerned that too much emphasis on the Decalogue might infer that their contents were more important than the rest of the Hebrew Bible, because only these commandments had been revealed by God to Moses. 15 16 So much so that Maimonides and others disapproved of congregations in synagogues standing during the readings of the Commandment passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Few congregations today read aloud the Decalogue in their printed prayer books. Some rabbis have opposed even the display of the initial Hebrew words of the Decalogue over the Ark. Some non-fundamentalists have suggested a 9th century BCE composition of the Decalogue, and even a precise date of 899 BCE.17

Similarly while centuries ago parish churches had over their altars the full text of the Ten Commandments, few do so today, and rarely use them in their services. However certain fundamentalist judges in the United States Bible Belt have placed large plaques of the Ten Commandments in official public places, but have been ordered to remove them by Supreme Courts because of the principle of separation of church and state in the American Constitution. 18


I make no apology for challenging Scripture because my title has never been used in any book in English in the millions in the British Library. Moreover the Revd Professor Christopher Evans asked Is Holy Scripture Christian? 19 However he did admit it was a ‘perhaps foolish title’. Yet he used other interrogative chapter titles, one of which he described as, ‘The question might appear flippant. But it is not intended to be so, and indeed it is not so’. He also asked three questions:- What was the original meaning of the passage? What further meaning has it had? What is its meaning in the here and now? 20


Most of the so-called Ten Commandments are based on earlier Mesopotamian laws and Egyptian ethics, yet we should particularly treasure those verses that extol monotheism, freedom, the Sabbath and non-covetousness.


Most of the so-called Ten Commandments are based on earlier Mesopotamian laws and Egyptian ethics, yet we should particularly treasure those verses that extol monotheism, freedom, the Sabbath and non-covetousness.

Jeremy Hugh Baron (z”l) was a consultant gastroenterologist, a previous contributor to Quest, a prolific author on Jewish topics, and a member of New London Synagogue.


Mesopotamian laws were extracted from Martha Roth’s Law collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Georgia: Scholars Press, 2nd ed, 1997.

The 42 Negative Confessions from the Papyrus of Ani can be found here in the translation of the Victorian Egyptologist Sir Earnest Wallis Budge who bought the papyrus to the British Museum (where you can see it to this day):

Hamm = Hammurabi. M.A.L.= Middle Assyrian Laws.

1. M.A.L. A2.

2. ISIN, Prologue.

3. Hamm 195.

4. Ur 17.1.

5. Hamm 99.

6. M.A.L. A!3.

7. Hamm 21.

8. Hamm 3.

9. Louis Jacobs. The Jewish Religion: a Companion. Oxford: University Press, 1995

10. M.A.L. A47.

11. UR Prologue.

12. Hamm Prologue.

13. John Taylor, ed. Journey through the afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. London: British Museum Press, 2010.

14. Mahzor Lev Shalom – Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2010, 237.

15. Emil Hirsch. Decalogue. In: Jewish Encyclopaedia. New York: Funk and Wagnall, 1925; 4: 492-498

16. Moshe Greenberg. Decalogue (The Ten Commandments), Encyclopaedia Judaica . Jerusalem : Keter, 1972; 5:1435-1450 (1443). 2nd ed 2007; 5: 520-525.

17. Julian Morgenstern. Decalogue. In: Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. New York1941; 3: 506-513.

18. Jeremy Hugh Baron. Is ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ a Biblical Commandment? In: J H Baron, Fifty Synagogue Seminars. Lanham: Hamilton Books, 2010: 254-257.

19. Christopher Evans. Is ‘Holy Scripture’ Christian? and other questions. London SCM Press, 1971.

20. Obituary, Christopher Evans. Times (London), August 29, 2012: 47.

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