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This Study Series is being released according to the Torah Reading Schedule.

This week- Section 20
Name- תצוה (You Are To Order) (You Command)
Parashah/Parsha- Sh’mot 27.20-30.10
Torah Portion: Exodus 27.20-30.10

Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from the JPS edition of The Torah, The Five Books of Moses, A New Translation of The Holy Scriptures, according to the Masoretic Text, First Section. Copyright 1967 by the Jewish Publication Society of America, Second Edition.

This week I want to discuss Deuteronomy 5.17d [5.20] and Exodus 20.13d [20.16].

Deuteronomy 5.17d JPS [Deuteronomy 5.20 KJV]
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Exodus 20.13d JPS [Exodus 20.16 KJV]
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

– – – – –

As I discussed in Year 2 Essay 10, the Deuteronomy narrative of the Ten is from Moses’ perspective. In previous Essays, I have given substantial reasons explaining why. For this Essay, I am not going to restate or summarize any of those reasons. Instead, I assume my reader to have read those Essays.

In the previous Essay, I discussed the eighth of the Ten.

In this Essay, I want to discuss the ninth of the Ten.

As I discussed in the previous Essay, there is no movement from first person to third person with the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.

That absence of movement from first person to third person means that an inline comment explaining these particular commandments is clearly absent.

That absence of inline comments encourages multiple facets of interpretation as to the intended meaning of the commandment, which I will discuss as I go through this Essay.

Whether Deuteronomy 5.17d JPS or Exodus 20.13d JPS, the JPS presents the commandment the same within the English: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

In Year 2 Essay 18, I discussed that in the Hebrew there exists a difference between Deuteronomy 5.17 and Exodus 20.13 in that Deuteronomy 5.17 contains a conjunctive. I also mentioned that Bibles enumerate these verses differently.

Those differences in the Hebrew exists for Deuteronomy 5.17 and Exodus 20.13. For a short discussion about those differences in the Hebrew and my thoughts about how I account for those differences refer to Year 2 Essay 18.

In Essays 17, 18, and 19, I discussed that there is no inline commentary regarding the commandments, which has led to many commentaries about the intended meaning of each commandment.

Similarly, the ninth of the Ten has no inline commentary.

Unlike how the eighth of the Ten is a general prohibition, the ninth seems specific:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

The questions are:
what is false witness?
who is one’s neighbor?

To begin answering that, I will discuss three Hebrew words.

The JPS translates the Hebrew word shav (H7723) into the English word “false”.

Interestingly, the KJV also translates shav into:
– vain (e.g. Exodus 20.7 KJV, Psalm 26.4 KJV),
– vanity (e.g. Psalm 12.2 KJV),
– lying (e.g. Psalm 31.6 KJV),
– falsely (e.g. Hosea 10.4 KJV).

Brown-Driver-Briggs states that shav means: emptiness, vanity, falsehood, nothingness, to include emptiness of speech, lying, and worthlessness of conduct.

From that then shav covers a wide aspect of things that don’t quite ring true.

The second word is the word where the JPS translates the Hebrew ‘ed (H5707) into the English word “witness”.

When singular, the KJV consistently translates the Hebrew word ‘ed into the English word “witness”; when plural, the KJV consistently translates the Hebrew word into the English word “witnesses” (e.g. Numbers 35.30 KJV, Deuteronomy 17.6-7 KJV, Deuteronomy 19.15 KJV).

However, in Joshua 22.34 KJV, the KJV does not translate the Hebrew word ‘ed. Instead, the KJV transliterates the Hebrew word into English letters, giving the English word “Ed”.

Importantly, that same verse translates the Hebrew word ‘ed into the English word “witness”, which is done in order to explain the name Ed.

Brown-Driver-Briggs states that ‘ed:
– can mean witness, which refers to someone who observed an event and thus becomes a witness of that event; also
– can refer to someone who provides a testimony which is a type of evidence, also
– can refer to evidence itself which does not have to be provided by a person as a witness’ testimony; also
– can refer to the “witness” of the people.

Importantly, none of those situations automatically require that ‘ed has to occur or be limited to events within a court proceeding. One commentary states:
The prohibition [within the ninth of the Ten] covers not only the act of witnessing in court, it [the prohibition] addresses itself also to the character of a person.[1]

From that information then, “false witness” refers to the concept where an individual presents empty baseless words.

The question then is:
are baseless words prohibited in a general sense?
are baseless words prohibited in a specific sense?

To answer that question, we need to look at the Hebrew word that is translated into the English word “neighbor”.

The Hebrew word is spelled rea or reya (H7453).

The KJV also translates that Hebrew word into:
– friend (e.g. Deuteronomy 13.6 KJV),
– companion (e.g. Exodus 32.27 KJV),
– another (e.g. Exodus 18.16 KJV, Exodus 21.18 KJV),
– other (Exodus 18.7 KJV),
– brother (e.g. Deuteronomy 24.10 KJV),
along with several other words.

Brown-Driver-Briggs states that rea / reya can mean: friend, companion, any particular fellow, or simply another person whether there is a close intimate relationship or simply friends, or a fellow-citizen, or simply another human.

Therein sets the difficulty of the entire ninth of the Ten, who is one’s neighbor?

Why does that matter? Because depending upon how one wants to define neighbor, some will interpret this passage that false witnessing can be done or false witnessing cannot be done.

Herein sets the difficulty, others, whether personally intimate or simply friends or simply another human, others do not always treat others properly.

The question is: does the honorable or dishonorable behavior of others dictate how one should interpret the ninth of the Ten?

As I have mentioned elsewhere, first and foremost, the Ten were given to Israel, which means those living within Israel’s borders, whether Israelite or a foreign national, when within the borders of Israel the Ten have impact upon social conduct and social life within Israel.

That seems to open many issues. But to refer to another commentary, it states:
For when Gentiles [non-Israelites, those outside the borders of Israel], who do not have the law [the Torah], by nature do what the [Torah] requires, they [being Gentiles] are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the [Torah]. They [as Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts [which either] accuse or even excuse them.[2]

Therefore, it can be seen that while the Torah was delivered specifically to Israel to govern within Israel’s borders, there is a law of conscience that can govern those outside of Israel.

Admittedly, that can create a huge discussion itself, but I will refrain from doing so in this Essay.

However, for brevity of discussion we can see that for Israel, Israel and all of her residents are prohibited from speaking and providing baseless words against their neighbor.

The issue still remains:
are baseless words prohibited in a general sense?
are baseless words prohibited in a specific sense?

For me, I find the answer to be completely dependent upon contextual circumstance, and completely dependent upon one’s conscience.

Why do I answer it that way?

I answer that question using a hypothetical example:
an attacker is physically attacking me, bringing bodily harm to my being, in that moment of bodily harm the attacker demands information from me. Under duress of physical harm, do I give the attacker the information?

Some could interpret the ninth as prohibiting them from lying to an attacker in order to protect themselves and others, which means that they interpret the ninth as compelling them to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth in all circumstances, immaterial of contextual circumstance.

In the above hypothetical, I do not interpret the ninth as compelling me to inform my attacker of the whole truth and nothing but the truth, immaterial of contextual circumstance.

In other words, in the hypothetical because I am under duress of physical harm from the attacker that attacker has displayed no honorability to me as their fellow human neighbor, which means that in the hypothetical I do not see the ninth compelling me to tell the attacker the truth.

Why do I answer that way? Because in that hypothetical question, when an attacker is attacking me and bringing bodily harm to me, the attacker has shown that they participate in worthlessness of conduct. Therefore, the attacker has become a type of false witness to how a human is to conduct themselves with their neighbors (fellow humans). Therefore, in that hypothetical I am under no interpretative constraints of the ninth to provide truth to the attacker who is themselves not being truthful.

In light of the ninth not having an inline commentary, in light of that I think the interpretation of the ninth is completely dependent upon contextual circumstance and completely dependent upon one’s conscience, and in light of the hypothetical, it seems then that discussions about the intent of the ninth seem almost endless.

[1] The Torah, A Modern Commentary; commentary regarding You shall not bear false witness.; p. 1357; ISBN 0-8074-0165-X.

[2]Letter to the Romans, Romans 2.14-15, English Standard Version with my redactions.