Interpreting the Second Commandment

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Jared Anstandig

Though the Torah consists of 613 mitzvot, there is no question that we ascribe the Ten Commandments a more significant and fundamental role. Accordingly, readers of the Ten Commandments look carefully at the content and presentation of the Ten Commandments. Though each one appears quite straightforward, many of them are subject to great, and somewhat surprising, dispute.

Consider the beginning of the second commandment:

לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי

You shall have no other gods before me.

At its surface, this verse appears quite simple. Nonetheless, commentators interpret these words in various ways. Namely: does this verse prohibit the worship of other gods because other gods do not exist? Or, is the fact that the verse has to prohibit worship of other gods indirectly affirm the existence of other supernatural powers?

Rambam, in his Mishna Torah, emphatically takes the former approach. In the first chapter of Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, halacha 6, Rambam writes,

כל המעלה על דעתו שיש שם אלוה אחר חוץ מזה עובר בלא תעשה, שנאמר: ‘לא יהיה לך אלוהים אחרים על פניי

Anyone who entertains the idea that there is a G-d aside from G-d transgresses the negative commandment of “You shall have no other G-ds before me.

Here, Rambam recognizes this mitzva as delegitimizing any other metaphysical powers. To be sure, in his commentary to the tenth chapter of Masechet Sanhedrin, when explaining his 5th Principle of Faith, Rambam acknowledges the existence of angels. He writes,

אין משפט ולא בחירה להם אלא לו לבדו השם יתברך

            There is no judgement and no choice [for angels] but to perform G-d’s will

This statement does indicate that Rambam recognizes metaphysical powers. Nonetheless, for Rambam these powers are fully subservient to G-d, exercising no will of its own. Therefore, within this mitzva is the understanding that G-d is the Supreme Ruler, and that no angel possesses any power of its own.

Ramban, however, views this mitzva slightly differently. In his commentary to this verse, Ramban writes,

והנכון גם לפי הפשט … שלא יהיה לנו בלתי השם אלוהים אחרים מכל מלאכי מעלה ומכל צבא השמים הנקראים אלוהים, כענין שנאמר (להלן כב יט): “זובח לאלוהים יחרם בלתי לה’ לבדו,” והיא מניעה שלא יאמין באחד מהם ולא יקבלהו עליו באלוה ולא יאמר לו אלי אתה

What is correct, even according to the peshat…is that, aside from G-d, we cannot have any gods from among all of the angels on high and from the hosts of the heavens, which are called gods (elohim), just as it says later “One who sacrifices to the gods, aside from G-d, shall be destroyed.” This is a prohibition not to believe in any of them, nor to accept them upon oneself as a G-d, nor to say “you are my G-d.”

For Ramban, it is clear that there are independent supernatural powers in existence. The prohibition here is saying to any of them, as he puts it, “you are my G-d.”

Whereas Ramban acknowledges that it is fair to refer to the supernatural powers as independent “gods,” Rambam appears to discredit their independent existence entirely (This argument manifests itself in each of their opinions toward the prohibition on magic; Rambam believes it is forbidden it because it is false, while Ramban believes it is forbidden precisely because it works).

This metaphysical machloket between Rambam and Ramban may be difficult for modern day Jews to appreciate; belief in numerous supernatural powers is not prevalent in our society. Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, in his Akedat Yitzchak, presents a more relatable approach to this prohibition. He expands the prohibition of idolatry to include subservience to material goals and wealth. He writes,

ויש בכלל זה העבודת אלילים הגדולה המצויה היום בעולם מציאות חזק …לקבוץ הממון והצלחות הנכסים שהמה להם האלהים האדירים אשר עליהם הם נשענים ובאמונתם הם נסמכים

Included within this prohibition of idolatry is something significant that is common and strong in our world today, and that is … the pursuit of gathering wealth and success. These have become mighty gods for people, upon whom they rely and have faith.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama argues that the prohibition of idolatry extends to more than the belief or reliance upon supernatural powers, but even upon very natural and basic necessities. If we allow ourselves to be driven not by the Divine, but by our material wants and needs, then we are guilty of idolatry. Our belief in G-d, as laid out in the Ten Commandments, demands that we give up our obsession with and dependence upon the superficial “gods” in our lives.

Jared Anstandig (SBM ’11) is from West Bloomfield, MI, and is currently in his fourth year of RIETS.


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