Deriving from Judaism and spread by the daughter religions, it strikes an instinctive chord in the heart and mind of every responsible person.
The style of the commandments varies. Some are long, some are short. Some are negative, some positive.
One promises a reward for obedience, the others do not. No wonder there is such a vast literature on the subject.
One of the major themes that is analysed over and over is the second commandment, which describes the Almighty as “a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate Me, but showing loving kindness to the thousandth generation of those that love Me and keep My commandments.”
The critics understandably object to children suffering for their parents’ sins.
That people should bear the consequences of their own deeds, that we can understand. But to suffer because of what others have done – isn’t that monstrous?
The sages scrutinised every word of this commandment. They contrasted the timetable that applies to the children of the wicked (“to the third and fourth generation”) and to the righteous (“to the thousandth generation”).
Ibn Ezra said: God is patient until the fourth generation, and only then is punishment inflicted.
Tosafot HaRosh declares: Until the fourth generation punishment is not imposed; God is waiting for repentance. But if a fourth generation persists with a family tradition of wickedness, they will suffer.
Saadya states that the children, in addition to being punished for their own sins, are now punished for their ancestors’ sins because they could have improved the family record but failed to do so.
The effect of righteousness, however, has a different timetable. Here, the moral foundations laid by one’s ancestors work for the benefit of future generations to the end of time.
“To the thousandth generation”, whilst a most impressive statement, is not to be taken literally. The Targum understands it as “for thousands of generations”; says the Mechilta, “for innumerable generations”.
Hence, even though future generations may have their failings, the merits of their ancestors weigh with God in arousing His compassion and forgiveness.
The prophet Ezekiel seems to reject the concept of this commandment. “What do you mean,” he asks, “that you use this proverb, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? Use it no more! The soul that sins, it shall die… The son shall not bear the sin of the father, neither shall the father bear the sin of the son” (Ezek. 18:2-3, 20).
Yet Ezekiel is not actually in opposition to the Decalogue. His emphasis is on personal responsibility: if I sin, I will suffer; if I suffer, let it be for my own sin.
As the sages understand the Decalogue, the second commandment is saying the same thing. You do not suffer for the sins of your forebears unless you yourself are also sinful. You can overcome an encumbrance from the past by ensuring that what you yourself do is upright, just and moral.
You have to know your family history and be aware that sometimes there is baggage that you have to lift off your back and a past that needs to be overcome.