People who keep very little day to day Judaism boast of their dedication to the Decalogue. Kashrut, daily prayer, even the m’zuzah on the door – all are brushed aside, but we are solemnly assured, “I do live by the Ten Commandments”. If only this were really true in an age when murder and mayhem, adultery and theft are so powerful! If only those who boast about the Ten Commandments kept the fourth one, about Shabbat!
Christianity gave Judaism some problems with the Decalogue. The Midrash revelled in its poetical acclaim for the Revelation, but the sages removed the Ten Commandments from the daily liturgy. That they were part of the daily service in the Temple is recorded in the Mishnah (Tamid 5:1), reflected in the Nash Papyrus in which they are side by side with the Sh’ma, and confirmed by fragments of t’fillin found in the Qumran caves.
However, Judaism abandoned the daily reading “because of the claims of the sectarians” (Ber. 12a). The followers of Paul believed that only the Ten Commandments and not the rest of the Mosaic law were Divine, eternal and binding. For Jews to give priority to the Decalogue might have signalled agreement with the sectarians, so the daily reading was abandoned in order to show that all the 613 mitzvot were Divine commands.
From then onwards, the Decalogue has not formed part of the statutory service, though some people add it to their personal prayers and the commentators averred that the teachings of the Ten Commandments were hinted at in the Sh’ma. Chief Rabbi JH Hertz wrote, “The Teachers of the Talmud were most careful to emphasise that the Ten Commandments did not contain the Whole Duty of Man. The Decalogue laid down the foundations of Religion and Morality, but was not in itself the entire structure of Human Duty”. Maimonides opposed standing for the Ten Commandments on Shabbat Yitro and Va’et’chanan or on Shavu’ot unless one always stood during the Torah reading, “as this may lead to the mistaken idea that one part of the Torah is greater than another”.
The Decalogue is quoted frequently in the New Testament, but Christian attitudes varied. Because some laws were a source of embarrassment, the commands about idolatry and the Sabbath received re-interpretation. The phrase “thou shalt not” was deprecated as too negative and unfavourably compared to Christian formulations of ethics.
The Decalogue “was of no particular importance in Christian tradition until 1246 CE when it was for the first time incorporated into a manual of instruction for those coming to confession. The traditional division of the commandments into two ‘tables of duties’ toward God
and toward man made it possible to regard the second table as a succinct statement of the ‘law of nature’ within the framework of medieval Christian theology” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Protestantism, however, included the Ten Commandments in manuals for instruction. Luther set the seal on Protestant approval when he wrote, “Outside the Ten Commandments there is no good and God-pleasing work thinkable”.