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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 13

The Decalogue.

Having in the preceding chapter enumerated the precepts contained in the Decalogue, I hope to be excused, if I pause in my argument relative to the divine origin of our law, and proceed to explain the Commandments themselves; for I can assure my readers, that if they once understand the true bearing of the Mosaic institutions, they must confess either that Moses, more than any other man who ever lived, united in himself the philosopher, legislator, and governor, and that as such, he is entitled to be imitated and obeyed from our own free choice; or that his wisdom and power of mind were given him for the special purpose mentioned in his books, by the immediate inspiration of the Most High, that he merely copied the words spoken to him, and therefore, Moses's laws (not Moses himself) are to be obeyed implicitly, without our enquiring at every turn: "Can I understand the reason of this or that particular precept?" For since they are all and every one the emanations of the will of God, they must be obeyed, though we be ignorant of the reasons the Almighty had in giving these, to us mysterious, laws. This point will be more clearly illustrated in a subsequent part of this work, and I shall therefore commence, without further preface, with the explanation of the Decalogue.

PRECEPT I. I am the Eternal thy God, who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.

Most, if not all Christian commentators, think this verse only a kind of preamble to the Decalogue; we Jews, however, take it to be the first commandment. Its meaning is this: "You Israelites have been in Egypt, and you were taken thence by a Power superior to man. I am that Power, I am the Eternal; do not believe that there are more persons in the Deity than one; no, I am your God, indivisible and all-powerful. Acknowledge me alone and none else. — Therefore,

PRECEPT II. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, &c.

Since I have told you that there is no God besides me, it is unlawful for you to worship any thing else, no matter what its strength, beauty, or wisdom may be. But some of you may think: "True, I will not worship any other being, but the Eternal God; but can I do wrong, if I make myself a symbol, to remind me always of his power? I will make an image to represent God, and this image shall admonish me of the greatness of my Creator; I will look at the sun, and prostrate myself before him, and adore the Creator by worshipping the most powerful creature; the earth, through God's bounty nourishing all mankind, shall be to me the emblem of his goodness, and the pure flame, the emblem of his purity." — Therefore do I command you, not to make yourselves any personification or representation of the Deity, for I am incorporeal, you know not My essence (Deut. iv.); and under what figure will you represent Me, since you have never seen Me? And then you will sin if you prostrate yourselves before images and creatures, or pay them religious adoration. No image can represent Me, the light of the sun is darkness compared to Me, and the fire is impure compared to My holiness. — But do not imagine, that because I am good, deviations from My commandments will have no serious consequences; do not deceive yourselves with such specious self-delusions, for I am careful of My honor, and you will be punished if you act wrong; and if the son follow the sins of the father, if the grandson or great-grandson imitate his ancestors' apostasy, each will be punished, not alone for his own sins, but receive also a share of the punishment his progenitors have incurred for their wickedness. But do not think, that the punishment for vice will be in a greater degree, than the reward for virtue; no — for I will do good even to the thousandth generation for the virtuous actions of their ancestors, if they obey My words. You will therefore be convinced, that though I will punish vice, I am yet benevolent, and that I rather reward, than punish; since the punishment for sin will be continued only to the fourth, whilst the thousandth generation will be benefitted by the virtue of the ancestors.

PRECEPT III. Thou shalt not bear the name of the Eternal thy God in vain, &c.

When you are called upon to testify to the truth of any thing, be very careful how you call upon Me to be a witness to your actions; no falsehood can I allow, nothing but truth will satisfy Me, who am the God of truth. Do not mention My name upon frivolous occasions, for I am holy, I am your God, your Father, your Protector, you must venerate Me even in your words and thoughts; do not therefore mention My name, except when it becomes necessary, either to asseverate any thing, the truth of which can be established solely through your oath, or when addressing Me in prayer. — I cannot suffer any levity with My name, and will therefore punish every one, who impiously uses it frivolously or falsely.

PRECEPT IV. Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy, &c.

I have commanded you to acknowledge Me your God, and to abstain from idolatry; and I now further command you to set apart the seventh day of every week for My service and your recreation, as I abstained from work after I had created the world. But if you should ask, what proof have we, that that Being who speaks to us now, is the author of all? Then will I advise you to remember, that you have been slaves in Egypt, and that I conducted you thence. Your redemption was brought about, as you remember, by My changing the regular course of nature. The river was filled with blood, instead of water; the land that formerly smiled with plenty, and was as lovely as Eden, was visited with hail and locusts, in a manner unheard of before; and the country, where the sun always shines bright, where a cloudy day is never known, was shrouded for three days in impenetrable gloom. After you had left the land of your affliction and had arrived near the Red Sea, you saw nothing before you, but death in the troubled billows of the ocean, and naught behind you, but destruction from the countless host of Egypt; when all of a sudden the sea divided and piled itself up in two solid walls. — Who wrought these wonders? It was I the Eternal, who have also redeemed you to be my people. Who, I ask you, can change nature, but nature's Lord? Who again is nature's Lord, but nature's Creator? You must therefore acknowledge, that I your God, who changed the natural course of events in Egypt, (and of this you were all witnesses,) am nature's Lord, am nature's Creator. I created the earth you stand on, the sea which surrounds you, and the wide expanse of ether, in which the innumerable systems are fixed and sustained by My will alone, in six days: I spoke, and all that you see rose into existence; but when I on the sixth day had finished My creation, by making man, I ceased and made nothing more; for on the seventh day, after all had been produced from nothing, I added not the least to the system I had approved of on the sixth, (Genesis i. and ii.) and I now fix it as a day of rest to be held sacred, and to be strictly observed by the last descendants of your nation, in remembrance of the creation of the world and your redemption from Egypt.

I moreover do not command the heads of families alone to rest, but each member of your families, even your servants, nay even your cattle — every thing shall rest on My Sabbath-day; the voice of the oppressor shall then be hushed, and the sigh of the bondman shall not be called forth, but calmness, peace, and content shall, on that day, reign amongst you. — You have no right to call this commandment hard and oppressive, to be compelled to rest one day out of seven; for I allow you six days, to do every thing you have to do; I do not restrain you from doing any lawful work in all this time; but having been employed six days in pursuits for the promotion of your interest or amusement, you must dedicate one day to My service. On that day you must visit the places where you can receive instruction in My laws, that you may know how to serve Me. You are also to abstain from labor, that by a suspension of your daily toil, you may acquire fresh strength for renewed exertion in the coming week. On that day your servant shall have leisure to think, as well as his master, of their common Maker, and breathe more freely than he can do on those days when he is engaged in his toilsome task. Your rest shall be quiet; no noise or shout of revelry must be heard in your streets, and not even slight work, which requires no exertion, is allowed to be done. Remember it is the Sabbath! Do not speak about business, make no bargains even by word alone, and do not arrange plans of labor for the coming week; but abstract yourselves altogether from your usual occupations, devote this day entirely to Me, your God, and let the weekly day of rest be a symbol to you of the day of bliss of the righteous, after they have thrown off the covering of clay, when there is no care, no toil, no grief, no tears, no master, no oppressor; but where all is security, peace and joy!

PRECEPT V. Honor thy father and mother, &c.

When hitherto, O children of Israel, I have spoken to you only of things relating to My own service, I have not to reveal to you the duties from man to man. The first of human beings, who claim the attention, regard, and honor of each of you, are his father and mother. Be careful in your behavior towards them, honor them while living, and do not slander their memory when they are dead; and although they are then not present to punish you, yet have I given the judges amongst you power to punish with death that ungrateful son, who curses his father or his mother. — Do not think this punishment too severe, for he who can forget his duty towards his father and mother, will soon neglect his duties towards God and his fellow-men, and he does not, therefore, deserve to live. — Do further treat both your parents alike. Though your father may chastise you more than your mother, remember he is your father, that his chastisements are intended for your benefit, to bring you to be gentle and well-times punishment to an acknowledgement of your errors and failings, and that, by correcting them, you may become better and more worthy members of society, than if he, by ill-times indulgence, be blind to your errors, and from mistaken affection fail to correct you. Be also careful of paying proper respect to your mother's commands. Though she may not always inflict punishment when you deserve it, do not on that account grow indifferent about obeying her; consider she is your mother, and therefore, entitled to your obedience no less, than your father. In short, honor your father, although he chastise you, and fear your mother, though on account of the benignity of female disposition, she be often too indulgent towards your failings.

I have said that you should be punished for disobedience to your parents; but there is also reward destined for you, if you observe this My commandment. Though I have said that father and mother are to be obeyed, yet must you never think yourselves at liberty, to violate any of My commandments, because your parents desire or even command it; no — they, no less than you, are My creatures and My servants. — You, it is true, owe in a measure your life to them; but they and you live solely by My will, and equally with yourselves they are bound to serve ME. If therefore, your father tells you to violate, for instance, the Sabbath, you must disobey him, because obedience to him in that case, would be disobedience to your God!

PRECEPT VI. Thou shalt not commit murder.

Not alone towards Me and your parents have you certain duties to fulfill, but also to your other fellow-mortals. Whatever has been assigned by My providence or permission to your neighbor, or even to your enemy, must be sacred in his possession. In the first place: You shall take away no man's life, unless he aim at yours, and in that case only when he has expressed his intentions so fully, that there is no doubt of his willingness to do so, whenever he has an opportunity, and then only, if his death is the only means of saving your or another person's life. At all events it is your duty to apply to the judges, rather than to procure justice for yourselves by your strong arm and violence. You are not allowed to maim any person or do him any bodily mischief whatever. — You are not permitted to lay violent hands upon yourselves, your lives are in My keeping, for I have placed the soul in your body, and as men, therefore, you can have no right to appear before My judgment-throne uncalled; but through whatever sufferings you have to pass, you must remain on earth, and bear your misfortunes with fortitude; for know, that there is sufficient reward in My power to pay you for your patience in enduring, and resignation in suffering! Even in this life, you see that I often reward constancy and patience; and can I not repay him a thousand-fold, who suffers with patience and dies resigned, because he thinks that by so doing he is serving Me?

PRECEPT VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Since the object of the promulgation of My commandments is to secure in the most ample manner the security and peace of society, I enjoin upon you to abstain from every act, which in the most remote degree could injure the security and peace of the domestic circle, or which could lead others to ruin, or bring them in the sway of sin. — You have heard, that the safety of your neighbor's life and limb is dear to Me; but his home also must remain uninvaded by the arts and wiles of the seducer. Permit him therefore to be gladdened by the partner that has been assigned to him to share his earthly toil, and who is the solace of his hours of woe, and the attentive mother of his children; and rather rejoice, that your brother is so blessed. And reflect, how miserable he would be, if he discovers that she, in whom he so fondly confided, has been untrue to her duty, and bestowed her embraces upon a stranger. — Think how perhaps he may become infuriated, and aim at the heart's blood of the destroyer of his peace; and that even if the husband should not succeed in his revenge, I the all-seeing One do not slumber, but will assuredly send destruction unto him who is regardless of My precepts. — Further you must know, that on no account can you be excused for incontinent conduct. You have no right to lure any female from the path of virtue to gratify your unholy desires, for all departures from the rules of strictest morality are odious to Me. And O consider, the state of misery to which the fallen, weak-minded and confiding woman is exposed! Spurned by friends, neglected by her lovers, and an object of derision to every stranger, her very touch is pollution, her breath is like the pestilence! And she is rendered so only to gratify the consuming passion of the ungodly lover of pleasure; and only when too late she curses herself and her immolator, when she sees herself forsaken and despised, and dying prematurely, without the voice of comfort to breathe consolation to her, when racked by sickness and overwhelmed at the idea of appearing in judgment before My awful throne! — Let it therefore be your constant study, ye children of Israel, to show to all the world the example of a holy life, which I demand of you, and that you are deserving of the name I have given you, when I said: "Israel is my first-born."

PRECEPT VIII. Thou shalt not steal.

Whatever property any man has acquired is to remain his, unless I, for reasons known to Me, deprive him of it, or he himself voluntarily resign it. You have no right to take even the smallest trifle, which is not strictly and honestly your own. I have given a man riches, and who should have the right to take it away from him by force or stratagem, without offending Me? Does not the thief say by his actions, that he knows better than Myself, your God, how to distribute My bounties? But let not the rich man by carelessness or design withhold from the poor laborer his wages, even for one hour; the poor man deserves to possess that, for which he has worked, and to withhold it, therefore, is theft. — Let every man, who may be appointed to the exalted station of judge amongst you, be careful, how he decides in disputed affairs laid before him for his decision. Let him be careful to scan the evidence on both sides, and decide impartially, unswayed by bribes, favor, partiality, compassion or prejudice. Let him decide on the mere abstract question, "who is right," and let him consider, that he is in a measure My representative on earth, and he must therefore, like Myself, be strictly adhering to what is right without the slightest deviation; for if through neglect or precipitancy a wrong verdict should be given by him, he robs the party, against whom the wrong decision is made; and the man who has been appointed a guardian of the rights of the people, and a defender of the oppressed, is no better than a prowling thief or a highway robber, again, if the poor man come before a judge with a complaint, he is to give an attentive hearing to the cause, though the matter, for which the poor man seek redress, be but a trifle! And let him consider, that, what is to the wealthy man a trifle, may be of great service to the poor; and further, that I, the Eternal God, watch with as much solicitude over the most abject wretch, as over the king on his throne, and the judge shall for this reason also, consider the trifle of the poor as of equal importance, in point of right, with the immense treasures of the rich man.

PRECEPT IX. Thou shalt not answer as a false witness against thy neighbor.

Some one of you may say: "I will not murder my neighbor, I will not seduce his wife, nor will I steal his property; but he has offended me, and since he is sued for a certain sum of money, which in fact he does not owe, but if I give testimony against him, he will be obliged to pay it; I will not let this opportunity pass without making him feel my resentment." Let Me admonish you all, not to rob your neighbor in such an indirect manner, though no ultimate benefit may result to you from such conduct. — If a man is upon his trial for any crime, for which, if convicted, he is to suffer bodily punishment, do not speak any thing as a witness against him, which in any manner might be adverse to truth. On the contrary, when you are obliged to give evidence, consider that you are standing before your God, that every action, every word, of yours will be noticed, never to be forgotten; say nothing which is not strictly true to the best of your knowledge; but it is also obligatory upon you, to say all you may happen to know, though it might injure your friend and benefit your enemy, for it is your duty to speak out, and to show favor to no man; but let truth be ever your guide, and fear not the consequences, for the more painful the duty, the greater the sacrifice of personal feelings is: the greater must your merit be, the greater also will be your reward!

PRECEPT X. Thou shalt not covet &c.

I have already told you, that you must not injure your neighbor by conduct; but in your own thoughts even you are not to meditate him any injury, much less attempt to execute your thoughts; for you are not permitted to covet that which is not yours. Do not desire to possess any thing belonging to any body else; for if once you give full sway to your desires, if but once you contemplate the means of satisfying your wish, you have already committed the sin of trespass by half. You will not long remain satisfied with desiring; but you will soon contrive means of getting the desired article in your possession. Do therefore guard yourselves against temptation to sin. Let your expectations be moderate, and less will satisfy you; desire little, and you will be content with the humble lot I may assign to you; envy not your neighbors, and you will be happy, if they are happy, and feel heart-felt pleasure, if all around you are affluent, honored, and beloved. And think not, that you will suffer any loss by so doing; for your own peace of mind will be accompanied by the respect, love and gratitude of all good men, and by the good will, grace and satisfaction of your Maker!"

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