reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
The Ten Commandments begin with the declaration; “I am (Anochi) the Lord thy God” and conclude with the injunction “thou shalt not covet”
Much discussion is to be found in our commentaries both old and new, centering around the question whether the opening phrase of the Decalogue “I am the Lord” constitutes one of the Ten Commandments, since, in contradistinction to what follows, it is not phrased in the form of either a negative or positive precept. It stands out in splendid isolation possessing the character of a declaration rather than a commandment. This point is made by Crescas, the renowned Spanish Jewish philosopher (1340-1410) in his work Or Ha-shem:
He who includes among the list of positive precepts belief in existence of God falls into common error. The very character of the term mitzvah indicates by definition, that it can only apply to matters governed by free will and choice. But faith in the existence of God is one of those things which are not governed by free will and choice. Consequently the term mitzvah (commandment) cannot apply to it.
Abarvanel advances a similar view:
The phrase ” I am the lord thy God ” constitutes no commandment, either dogmatic or practical, but is merely a preface to the subsequent commandments and injunctions, a declaration making known to the Children of Israel, Who was addressing them
Rambam, however, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (Book of Divine Precepts) and in his famous Code considers the first verse of the Decalogue to constitute a positive mitzvah. Moreover he makes into the first and foremost mitzvah, laying down that it embodies the “most fundamental of fundamentals and the pillar of all sciences.” Here are the relevant citations:
The first mitzvah is that he commanded us to believe in the Deity, that is, that we believe that there is a cause and motive force behind all existing things. This idea is expressed in the statement; ” I am the Lord thy God.” (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Mitzvah 1)
It constitutes the most fundamental of fundamentals and pillar of all sciences to know that there is cause bringing into existence all existing things, and that all that exists on heaven and earth and between them, exists only through the truth of his existence.
The knowledge of this concept constitutes a positive precept, as it is said: “I am the Lord thy God,” and whomsoever it enters his mind to think that there is any other god besides, transgresses thereby a negative precept, as it is said: ” Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”, and repudiates a fundamental principle, since this is the most important principle on which everything depends. (Code, Yesodei Hatorah I:6)
A significant variation between Rambam’s wording of this precept in the Sefer Ha-mitzvot and the code has been observed. In the former, he calls on us to believe in the Deity. In the latter, we are no longer enjoined to believe there is a first cause or informed that the belief in this concept constitutes a positive precept. He writes that it is fundamental to know there is a first cause and that the knowledge of this concept constitutes a positive precept”.
A well-known rabbinic dictum cited by Rambam in his guide affords a clue to the change in wording:
R. Simlai expounded; Six hundred and thirteen precepts were transmitted to Moses at Sinai Said R. Hamnuna, What is the textual support (for this figure)?Moses commanded us torah” (Deut. 33, 4). TORAH adds up to 611 (tav=400; vav=6; resh=200; heh=5). Anokhi and lo yihyeh (the first two commandments of the Decalogue: ” I am the Lord” and “You shall have no other gods”, are not counted since they heard them directly from God (and not via Moses). (Makkot 23b)
This idea is further elaborated by Rambam:
They mean that these words (the first two commandments) reached them just as they reached Moses our Teacher. But it was not Moses who transmitted it to them. For these two principles, I mean the existence and unity of God, are knowable by human speculation alone. Now with regard to everything that can be known by demonstration, the status of the prophet and that of everyone else is equal. The Torah states: “Unto thee it was shown”)
Malbim makes an interesting attempt to accept Rambam’s view of anokhi as a commandment and yet meet the objection raised by Crescas:
In his code Rambam deliberately changed the wording from “believe” to “know”. He wished to stress the intellectual basis of this precept. This as he pointed out in the Guide is based on the rabbinic dictum that we heard the first two commandments of the Decalogue directly from God, implying purely intellectual apprehension. In other words, the whole of Judaism apart from these two precepts is based on faith, faith in Moses as the messenger of God; faith that all that he commanded constituted the authentic message of God. But these two commandments—the existence and oneness of the Divinity is attained by the direct exercise of men’s intellectual faculties. The Lord implanted these concepts in him from birth. They are innate ideas. A Man has only to look into his own soul to discover them just as he develops all the rest of his faculties. There was no need to receive them from Moses as an act of faith. They were therefore imparted directly by God who fashioned man’s soul. The precept consists of making every effort to clarify our knowledge of this, in accordance with the text (Job 12:9): “Who cannot fail to discover that the hand of the Lord is behind all this.”
Whether we take the first verse of the Decalogue to be a commandant (Rambam) or merely a preamble (Abarvanel), one thing is clear. It is not formulated as a principle as in: “thou shalt know this day that the lord, He is God in heaven above and the earth beneath: there is none else”. It is not stated as an impersonal law as in (22:23): “He who sacrifices to the gods except to the Lord alone shall be utterly destroyed”. It takes the form of a personal proclamation, a manifest of Divine revelation ” I am the lord thy God who brought thee out of Egypt.”
This is the reading followed by Shadal:
Anonhi is the subject and the succeeding words form the predicate. This is the division followed by the cantillation. We could divide the sentence differently and link anochi to adonai and insert there a pause making (I the Lord) the subject and (am thy God who) the predicate. The reading would then be: “I who am called ‘the Lord’, am alone thy God who watches over thee by a special providence, who already brought thee out of Egypt.”
This is indeed how N. Herz Weisel explicates the text, and Ibn Ezra too. But in my opinion if that were the case the verse should have read: “I the Lord am thy God who brought thee out” (hoziyacha and not as it actually states: hozeticha “that brought thee out”) or: “I the lord am Thy God; because (ki) I brought thee out” or: “I the Lord am thy God, I brought thee out” The first reading therefore indicated by the cantillation is the correct one in my view.
But Shadal’s proof from hozetikha is far from convincing. His own formulation of the reading that he rejects (Ibn Ezra) adds the relative clause “who has already brought thee out” (asher kvar hozeticha). In other words, in his view, whoever regards “thy God” as the predicate does not read asher hozeticha as a restrictive relative clause at all, but rather as non-defining as if it said, I the Lord am thy God, I brought thee out. This is far removed from Ibn Ezra’s understanding of the text and all who follow in his footsteps.
Benno Jacob who takes issue with Shadal (incidentally most non-Jewish scholars regard “the Lord” as the predicate) advances the following objection to his reading. We should not forget that the Ten Commandments follow chapter 19 and the whole preceding narrative of the exodus. Israel were well aware of who was addressing them. God did not reveal Himself on Sinai to proclaim Himself. They had already made His acquaintance. He made known to them certain other aspects of the Godhead:
By anochi He referred to the person of God. He was not an impersonal idea one speaks about or believes in but the living God directing his “I” to the “Thou” of the hearer who can, by that same token address him as “Thou”. The I (anochi) whose name is “the Lord”. He is thy God in this, that I brought thee out. The text does not read: ki hozeticha “because I brought thee out” since this bringing out constituted the actuality of his being thy God not the reason for it. His role as your Lord consists of this bringing out, this intervention in your life, this direction given you, this leading of you from Egypt to this point. Hosea evidently understood the verse in this way too: “I the Lord thy God from the land of Egypt.”
This close linking of “thy God” and “who brought thee out”, the latter defining the former as a restrictive relative, provided Rabbi Yehuda Halevi with an answer to the famous question he posed Ibn Ezra and which he put in the mouth of the King of the Khazars: The latter had criticized the Rabbi’s declaration of faith which echoing the opening words of the Decalogue went: “We believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.”
Here is the relevant citation from Ibn Ezra:
R. Judah Halevi, may he rest in honor asked me; Why did the text read: “I the Lord am thy God who brought thee out of the Land of Egypt” and not: “who made heaven and earth and made you too”? This was my answer to him. Know that not everyone is capable of attaining the same level of faith. Some believe in God on the basis of hearsay. Those in authority tell them it is written in the Torah given by God to Moses. Should a heretic question their faith they are dumbfounded because they don’t know what to answer. One who aspires to master the sciences which are stepping stones to the desired goal will see the work of God in the animal, mineral and vegetable around him, in the human body, the workings of every limb … he will master astronomy and the laws of nature. The ways of God will lead the philosopher to a knowledge of God. This is what Moses meant when he said: “Make known to me Thy ways and I shall know thee” (Ex. 33:13). The Almighty stated in the first commandment: “I the Lord am thy God”. Only a person of deep intellectual attainments will be satisfied with this formulation. The message of “I (am) the Lord” will satisfy the intellectual elite of any nation.
Now God had performed signs and wonders in Egypt till He brought them out from there to become their God. Thus said Moses (Deut. 4:34): “Has God tried to take one nation from another”. In other words, God did for Israel what He did for no other people Moses referred to the impact of the miracles the Almighty performed in Egypt when he stated (4:35): “You were made to see that you might know that the Lord He is God.” Everyone saw them – both the scholar and the laymen, old and young. He also added to the impact through the revelation of Sinai when they heard the voice of God (4:36) “From the heavens did He cause thee to hear His voice, to instruct thee.”
Finally he referred to the absolute conviction that there is no God besides Him, to be attained by the believer through clear proofs; “know this day and keep in mind that the Lord He is God, there is no other”. “I the Lord” was meant for the intellectual: “who brought thee out” for the non-intellectual.
But Judah Halevi’s answer is completely different. Here is a summary following Isaak Heinemann:
All other medieval authors, in presenting Judaism pass from the general to the particular. They dwell first on the justification of faith in God and consider hereby to have proved the justification of religion as a contact with God and as a belief in historical revelation.
But Halevi does not start with natural phenomena and from there proceed to the Creator. The fact of revelation, recognized in ancient times and in their own days is the proof of the belief in God; whereas the attribution of organic wonders to a cosmic intelligence is firstly less convincing and acceptable, and secondly only leads to a God of metaphysics, and not a God of religion who is concerned for the individual and expects a definite reaction from him.
Fundamental for Halevi is the distinction between Aristotle’s God, to whom “speculation alone conduces” and the God of Abraham for whom “the soul yearns”. Moses does not invoke the Creator in pressing Pharaoh to let the people go but the God of the Hebrews.”
Heinemann observes that Ibn Ezra’s answer we cited above is diametrically opposed to Halevi’s. For the latter, faith in the Creator of philosophical theology is inferior to the religious experience of God’s miracles. He who has discovered God in the abnormal will recognize Him in the “wonders of everyday”. Even an image such as “God’s hand”, or apostrophizing of God as light has more effect on us than all abstractions. Halevi unlike Ibn Ezra teaches us that metaphysical conceptions of God are a poor substitute for the real thing and are designed for those who are incapable of rising to the level of faith. Note that Halevi does not explain the phrase ehyeh asher ehyeh in philosophical abstract terms as does the Rambam (“the existing that is existent”) but: “The existing one, existing for them whenever the seek me. Let them seek for no stronger proof than My presence among them and accept me accordingly”. If this then is the true connotation of ehye asher ehye then God had made Himself known both to Moses at the first revelation and Israel on Sinai as the One who was always in contact with them: “I the Lord am thy God who brought thee out of Egypt.”
Let us now return to the end of the verse to the last two words: mi-bet avadim “from the house of serfdom”. What is the purpose of this latter prepositional phrase when Egypt has already been mentioned by name? This extended delineation of Egypt as a “house of serfs” throws into bold relief by contrast the all-pervading purpose of their release there from:
On bringing the people out of Egypt you shall serve God on this mountain.(3:12)
They were redeemed from the serfdom of man so that they could serve God. Prior to the prohibition of serving anyone or anything beside God in the second commandment; Thou shalt not bow down to them nor serve them” the phrase “from the house of serfs” is added to underline the link between the first and second commandments.
Benno Jacob draws attention to the contrast between the two phrases – “from the land of Egypt” “from the house of serfs”. The former centre of ancient culture, the home of the wise men, famed for its pyramid and art. But for Israel it was nothing more than a house of serfs. The whole grand superstructure was built on human slavery. In Benno Jacob’s view that last two words of the first commandment are meant to teach us that “if a land of culture has no room for freedom then the servant of God renounces culture”. Accordingly: “I have brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of serfs!”