Understanding the commandments is practically important to avoid unnecessary guilt when someone sees others observing them strictly. Torah’s recommendations are practical, natural, and easy to follow: no need to look for loopholes. Laborious interpretation makes them unrealizable, like the prohibition of killing instead of murder, or hypocritical, like having goyyim children work in Jewish houses on the Sabbath, though no foreigner may work in Jewish homes on that day. Interpretation is arrogant, since elucidation requires reading the mind of the one who wrote the book. Torah speaks a language of man, and that language is Hebrew. The depth of meaning is lost in translation.
There is little need to dwell on the first commandment. What could be clearer than the unity of God? But look deeper and you will see society competing for your unconditional allegiance and replacing the Mosaic law with human codices. The demands to worship the state come clad in the guise of national interest. People who lose religion wander around bowing to anything superficially suitable: stones in India, communism in Russia, movie stars in America. Universities opened on Sabbath, judges requiring an oath on the New Testament, sport events where crowds stand motionless listening to a national anthem—all whisper to forget religion. Secular requirements contradicting Jewishness need not be discarded, just not followed wholeheartedly. Remember your primary allegiance.
The second commandment does not prohibit images; it prohibits treating any object, a book of scripture, a flag, as a god by swearing by it or dying for it, for example.
The commandment against wrongful use of the name prohibits emptying it, dissipating its sacredness through impious or frivolous, to say nothing of profane, use. Idle speculations or doubts shared with those who would interpret uncertainty as disbelief fall under the prohibition.
Shabbat is the most pleasant and the most difficult commandment, since there are many opportunities and temptations to break it. Torah does not say expressly what work is prohibited, but the Hebrew text shows the meaning. Not physical work, oved, is prohibited, but creative work, oseh, work so important that it could be likened to the supreme act of oseh, the creation. Not any amount of work is prohibited, but only melaha, exhausting work or mission. To program a microwave before Shabbat to cook on the Saturday or to drop a hint to a gentile about doing it would be both ludicrous and hypocritical. But refusing only unpleasant work is still more dangerous. Good and pleasant things should also wait. The day is for unalloyed enjoyment. Most people are used to work discipline, and many – to discipline of physical exercises and meditations; both are certainly positive qualities. Judaism goes further and mandates the discipline of rest. Stop and smell the roses—every week.
The requirement to respect—love cannot be mandated—one’s parents is an evident consequence of the commandment of reciprocity: the children will in turn become parents and hate disrespect from their children, the people closest to them. Respect, however, is a mistranslation of do not burden.
The prohibition of adultery is an inexact translation that misses an important qualification: the injunction prohibits defiling oneself with adultery. A contemporary analogy might say that we may drink but not get drunk. Adultery was prohibited not for its own sake, but because it was a part of pagan worship. No other reading is possible, since neither concubinage nor prostitution were prohibited. The commandment is unrelated to inheritance and avoidance of bastards: female infidelity in small patriarchal villages is low, anyway; the prohibition is universal, not limited to neighbors as are the other commandments of specifically communal significance.
Torah establishes what could be termed the relativity of ethics. One must avoid deliberately harming others. The greater the harm, the wider the circle of protection. Stealing is prohibited for everyone, and murder—even for animals. The order of the two commandments indicates that the second is not absolute but rather subject to the first: one may steal if not stealing results in murder, even of oneself.
Evil thoughts (you shall not covet)—as opposed to actions—are prohibited only toward neighbors, other Jews included in the circle by default, but not exclusively. While medieval cultures condoned murder, advanced modern societies hesitate to kill even criminals. The mass media turn distant strangers into perceived neighbors, entitled to forbearance and charity.
Many commandments deal with animal sacrifices, extraneous to the Decalogue. It is unlikely they were observed; the thrice-annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem from afar would have disrupted the sustenance economy, and such a large number of sheep could not have been slaughtered during the brief festivals.
Sacrificial offerings are beneficial only if repentance precedes them. They are a kind of chastisement, a sacrament of regret. Talmudic scholars rightly concluded that charity replaces offerings: both prove the regret by actual expenses. Legal fiction qualifies repented sins as unintentional, since repentance presumes good inclination and allows for forgiving sinners.
Civil commandments provided for mutual accommodation, and sacrifice rituals were personal ethics dressed in religious garb. Rites cannot right wrongs; only coming to terms with the offended does that. Delaying that is sin as well. Torah prescribes rectification through repentance—under the threat of punishment.
Modern people whose life is permeated by rituals, from fashion to elaborate use of crockery, should not laugh at ancient rites. People ready to die in meaningless wars should not despise religious Jews who hold their values dear.
Observing the commandments does not make people perfect. Perfectionism is not only futile but also detrimental, draining energy that could be put to more productive use. Being good to oneself and tolerable to others is enough. No need to love everyone as oneself, an impossible feat. The love of neighbors and resident aliens Torah requires is opposed to oppression. People must not love others in the sense of doing something for them but rather as abstaining from harming them. Hillel avoided this ambiguity by negative reformulation of the commandment. Torah prescribes love only to neighbors and resident aliens—essentially neighbors too because they accepted the rules of community. People compete with other groups and cannot love their opponents.
Torah does enjoin doing good when minor efforts produce big results. For example, help an enemy unload his fallen donkey, and make an enemy a friend. The mechanisms of social beneficence are self-correcting, reaching an equilibrium between effort and result reminiscent of economic processes. The more time a person spends for others, the more he resists spending more.
The mass media raises public consciousness of sufferings and increases the value of preventing it while technology and modern transportation lower its cost. Military hegemony can promote human rights with little more than a threat. The world is replete with opportunities for the Torah charity.
Sharing a tithe is a milestone of biblical ethics. One can distribute charity at his discretion to those who positively cannot sustain themselves. Torah does not prescribe welfare; charity is a means to prevent starvation, not equalize incomes. Only staple foods are therefore tithed, not all income. The act of giving can inspire compassion and become second nature, not an obligation. Some people skimp on charity, but many more on taxes. People would have paid their dues if charity remained only a means to escape starvation and ten percent tax were imposed on basic food consumption only.
Prescription of reasonable charity releases the people from the sense of guilt they naturally feel for homeless or hungry. One can never do enough to help everyone, and yet must live his own life, and care about himself and his family. Tithe strikes the balance between enjoyment and compassion.
Prohibition of usury does not apply to business loans; interest-free loans are charity, as the restriction on pledging personal items proves. Seemingly superstitious, the commandments might be rational. Prohibition of intercourse for fourteen days from the start of menstruation is adjustment to human fertility: animals, on the contrary, are fertile during menstruation. Forehead baldness, covered with scull-cap, occurs because of testosterone; the cap covers sexually demonstrative spot. Obeying religious commandments develops discipline and teaches people to trust their wisdom. Someone who does not eat pork simply because the commandment forbids it will likely not question the prohibition of stealing.
Judaism has three major types of food prohibitions. One is unhealthy food, such as suet. Another is swarming and creeping creatures. While some peoples with limited access to other forms of necessary protein eat them, the revulsion they cause universally across cultures suggests that the Judaic prohibition is not arbitrary.
The prohibition of eating all but four animals is unrelated to filth; highly valued camels and horses are also prohibited. People are not filthy, but eating them is prohibited and filthy. Pig was originally a respectful animal, and for that very reason eating it was disgusting. Eventually, that disgust passed on the pig itself.
Pigs might be tasty, and we lose some enjoyment when refuse to eat them, but humans are possibly no less tasty, yet we do not eat them. Judging by the number of criminals, it must be enjoyable to rob and to rape. Ethics is about refusing some enjoyment for the common benefit.
Torah, unlike totemic religions, does not prohibit “sacred” animals but establishes the criteria of hoofs and chewing, likely related to animals’ intellect. The animals permitted for food are folklore examples of silliness: cows, sheep, goats, and gazelles. Similarly, the truly scaleless—prohibited—fish are sea mammals, smart compared to other fish. Landlocked Hebrew knew neither dolphins nor that pigs are anatomically close to humans. Judaism prohibits swarming creatures, and see how incredibly smart are the truly swarming ants and bees. Jews do not eat creeping creatures, because the creeping creature par excellence is serpent, an archetype of wisdom. Life is sacred, and people are not allowed to kill even animals, but humans must eat; the concession is made, therefore, allowing the people to kill a few intellectually less advanced animals, and even that killing was limited to domestic animals whom the people gave life in the first place, and rigidly regulated to minimize suffering.