Literacy and Lifecycle

The Ten Commandments has been the most influential legal document in history; its directives have influenced the legislation of every Western and Arabic society. It is also the most famous document in the Hebrew Bible.

All this you know. So now a question. How many of the Ten Commandments can you name?

If you can't come up with all ten, don't feel too discouraged. Few people can. Studies of Americans routinely show that half the people can name no more than two of the Ten Commandments. When I've posed this question in front of Jewish groups before whom I've lectured, I've generally found that about 15% of the people claim they know all ten, and most people say they can name five or more.

Even among those who can name the commandments, there often are misconceptions about their meaning. For example, many people believe that the Sixth Commandment reads, "You shall not kill." In actuality it reads, "You shall not murder." This is not a minor semantic difference. A prohibition on all killing would mean that the Torah believed in pacifism, and even opposing killing in self-defense. But it doesn't. The Torah gives one the right to kill in self-defense, fight wars in self-defense, and legislates, in all five of its books, that premeditated murderers should be executed.

Ignorance of, and misconceptions about, the Ten Commandments, is just one small example of the knowledge about Judaism that many Jews lack. To be a literateJew is, in actuality, a somewhat daunting task. It involves acquiring a knowledge of the Torah, other books of the Bible (particularly the Psalms which are the backbone of the prayer book, and the Five Scrolls, which are read each year in the synagogue), the Oral Law (which encompasses the Mishnah and the Talmud) and the Jewish legal codes (e.g., Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, and Joseph Karo's Shulkhan Arukh. On a practical level, it involves acquiring a knowledge of the prayer book, and Jewish lifecycle events (circumcision and baby naming, bar and bat mitzvah, the wedding ceremony, and rituals surrounding death). It also involves learning Jewish history, from the biblical period onward. Twentieth century Jewish history alone involves the rise of Zionism and the history of Israel, the Holocaust, and the development of the Jewish community of the United States.

But while it is possible to spend one's entire life studying a small branch of Jewish knowledge (e.g., there are Bible scholars who specialize in one biblical book), beginning students of Judaism need not be alarmed. So much Jewish material is now available in well written English translations that it is not hard, no matter what your level of knowledge or non-knowledge is, to systematically start studying Judaism.

The most famous story in the Talmud tells of a non-Jew who asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the essence of Judaism while he was standing on foot. "What is hateful to you, don't do unto your neighbor," Hillel responded. "The rest is commentary. Now, go and study." Two thousand years later, no one has yet improved on Hillel's statement of Judaism's essence, nor on his concluding suggestion. So, like the great sages, I advise you too (as I daily advise myself), "Now, go and study."



Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is a widely known spiritual leader and scholar. He lectures widely throughout North America, is an associate of CLAL and serves as rabbi for the Synagogue of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. He lives with his wife, Dvorah, and their four children in New York City.