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Dividing the Dibrot

By: Rav Uri Cohen

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

And every single one of them is right!

Rudyard Kipling, "In the Neolithic Age"

I used to think that there was only one Jewish way to divide the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments). It turns out that there are four ways (at least), every single one of which has a Jewish source.

The Torah itself refers to Aseret HaDevarim, the Ten Statements.<1> So there must be ten. Yet for some reason, sifrei Torah don't include numbers for handy reference. (Sorry, there's no Top Ten listicle.) What then are the different ways of dividing the Aseret HaDibrot unit into ten?


The first approach understands Anokhi Hashem Elokekha (I am the Lord Your God) as a preface which is not counted in the list. Lo Yiheyeh Lekha (Do Not Have Any Other Gods) is #1, and Lo Ta'aseh Lekha Pesel (Do Not Make an Idol) is #2. The last commandment, #10, is Lo Tachmod (Do Not Covet); even though there are two warnings not to covet,<2> they are included together as one commandment.

The idea behind it is that Anokhi can't be on the list, since God wouldn't command us to accept His authority. Rav Dov Linzer explains:

[F]or God to command belief in Himself is nonsensical, even paradoxical if one believes, he does not need to be commanded; if one does not believe, he will not believe that he is being commanded by God, so the command serves no purpose.<3>

The rabbinic authority who does not count Anokhi on the list is the Behag (Ba'al Halakhot Gedolot).<4> The approach is also followed by Protestants, including Anglicans and Reformed (Calvinist) Christians.<5>


The second approach, which people usually call the Jewish one, says that Anokhi is #1. Lo Yiheyeh and Lo Ta'aseh the prohibitions of idolatry are included together as #2. Lo Tachmod is #10.

The idea behind it is that it makes sense for God to start the commandments by telling us Who He is. That statement itself counts as a commandment according to the Rambam.<6> Whether we understand this as a commandment to know that God exists<7> or a constant and continuous awareness of the reality of God,<8> it is most certainly #1 of the Ten Commandments.

This approach is assumed by the Mekhilta.<9> It is also followed by Ta'am Elyon, which is the unusual form of ta'amei hamikra or trup (cantillation marks) that a ba'al korei (Torah reader) uses when reading the Aseret HaDibrot as part of keriat haTorah.<10> Ta'am Elyon divides the unit into exactly ten pesukim (verses) one for each of the Dibrot. A careful examination of this division indicates that it corresponds exactly with the Rambam's understanding of Anokhi.


The third approach includes Anokhi and Lo Yiheyeh together as #1. Lo Ta'aseh is #2. Lo Tachmod is still #10.

The idea behind it is that the commandments to believe in God and not to believe in other gods are two sides of the same coin, so they should be counted as one. The ban on bowing to idols is important as well, but it's a separate issue.

This approach appears in Ta'am Tachton, which is the normal form of ta'amei hamikra or trup for the Chumash.<11> It is also followed by the Septuagint and Orthodox Christians.


The fourth approach combines together Anokhi, Lo Yiheyeh, and Lo Ta'aseh as #1. Since Lo Tachmod appears twice, the warnings not to covet are considered separate commandments #9 and #10.

The idea behind it is that #1 includes all the aspects of choosing God over other gods. As for coveting, presumably the prohibition to covet someone else's spouse (#9) is much more severe than the prohibition to covet someone else's stuff (#10), since only the first one can lead to committing adultery and breaking up a marriage.

This approach appears in the parashiyot, the spaces that traditionally are the only divisions that appear throughout sifrei Torah. There are no indications of the divisions of pesukim, just petuchot (spaces at the beginning or end of a line) and setumot (spaces in the middle of a line). A careful examination of the parashiyot in the Aseret HaDibrot unit indicates that they follow the fourth approach.<12> It is also followed by Catholics and Lutherans.

As you can see, even something as deceptively simple as how to divide the Ten Commandments reveals a depth of interpretation that is invisible to the naked eye. This is one of the seventy facets of understanding the Torah, and every single one of them is right.


1. Shemot 34:28; Devarim 4:13 and 10:4. (As for the number of the 613 mitzvot that appear in the Ten Commandments, the Rambam and Sefer HaChinukh think there are fourteen. Go figure.)

2. Shemot 20:13 twice uses the expression "Lo Tachmod"; Devarim 5:17 first uses "Lo Tachmod" and then "Lo Titaveh."

3. Rav Dov Linzer, "Parshat Yitro." The idea was formulated earlier by Rav Chasdai Crescas, Ohr Hashem, introduction, s.v. ve-ulam.

4. As presented by Ramban in his Hasagot to Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh #1. Ramban himself does not agree with the Behag, as is evident from his Hasagot to Mitzvat Lo Ta'aseh #5.

5. For this and the other Christian identifications coming up, see the handy chart by Neil MacQueen, "The Numbering of the Ten Commandments,"

6. Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh #1.

7. Rav Yosef Kapach (Kafih), "Limudei 'Chol' BeMishnat HaRambam," Techumin, Vol. 2 (1981), p. 243.

8. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "Two Aspects of Faith," adapted by Rav Pinchas H. Peli, On Repentance. It's p. 145 in the Oroth edition (1980) and p. 130 in the Jason Aronson edition (2000).

9. Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael, Yitro Masekhta deBaChodesh, end of #8.

10. For the different customs as to when we use Ta'am Elyon, see Rabbi Phil Chernofsky, Torah Tidbits #431 (VaEtchanan), 11 Av 5760 / August 11-12, 2000 (, and Dr. Joseph Ofer, "Upper and Lower Cantillation Marks on the Ten Commandments," Bar Ilans Daf Parashat Hashavua, Shavuot 5758/1998 (

11. See Rabbi Yehuda Rock, "Parashat Yitro: 'The Ten Commandments'," The Virtual Beit Midrash.

12. Ibid.


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