What Is the Moral Code of Judaism?

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  • 0:03 613 Mitzvot
  • 1:52 Shema & Shamar
  • 3:38 Tzedakah
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mara Sobotka

Mara holds an MA in Comparative Religion, and she teaches writing, religious studies and the Hebrew language.

In this lesson, we'll discuss some of the basic principles of Jewish ethics. We'll talk about the key points in the Jewish moral code and briefly examine what sources they come from.

613 Mitzvot

In Judaism, the question of ethics is a complicated but a fascinating topic. There's a saying in the community that goes: 'Ask three Jews, get six opinions.' This tradition of debate in Judaism has led to people seeing similar issues in many different ways. However, these opinions are commonly grounded in some basic principles that we're going to examine in this lesson.

When you think about the Jewish moral code, the first thing you'll probably think of is the Ten Commandments, basic guidelines found in Exodus 20:1-17 in the Torah. The Torah is the primary source for Jewish ethics, or the 613 mitzvot, a Hebrew word that literally means 'commandments.'

The Talmud, or commentaries written by Jewish thinkers before the 6th century, teaches that the Ten Commandments are actually ten categories of commandments from God. The Talmud also recounts how the rabbis who compiled the Talmud combed through the entire Torah to find each individual rule God gave to the Jewish people. Centuries of debate among scholars concluded in most circles that the rabbis found 613 commandments in the Torah. This is the number that most Jews agree on today.

The root for the word 'Talmud' means to study or learn, or sometimes to infer or conclude. The rabbis who compiled the Talmud studied for decades in order to collect all of Jewish law in one place. The 613 mitzvot include 365 positive and 248 negative commandments. In the mitzvoth, Jews find commandments concerned with clothing; kashrut, or kosher dietary rules; and how to be a good person.

Shema & Shamar

Shema is a command word in Hebrew that means to 'hear' or 'listen;' it's is also the name of an important prayer in Judaism. The most well-known part of the Shema can be found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and in the surrounding verses where were find another important concept in the Jewish moral code: shema and shamar. The first line of the Shema is often printed over the door to many synagogues:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

You may notice that shema and shamar sound very similar, which is why some people believe that they're a a conceptual pairing in the Jewish moral code. This makes sense because Judaism was once an entirely oral tradition. A conceptual pairing refers to two ideas that mean something special when they're combined.

The word shamar means 'guard,' 'keep,' or more loosely, 'obey.' In Hebrew, this word appears in Exodus 20:6, which is part of the commandment that discusses having no other gods before the One God of Israel:

  • '…but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.' (Exodus 20:6, NASB)

Shamar appears again in Deuteronomy 5:1, just before Moses speaks to the Israelites and reminds them once more about the importance of the Ten Commandments:

  • 'Then Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I am speaking today in your hearing, that you may learn them and observe them carefully.' (Deut. 5:1, NASB)

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