Though we use the phrase, "The Ten Commandments", the Decalogue is ten Words or Principles. The first says that there is One God and He brought us from bondage to freedom.
After proclaiming His existence, why does He speak of His deeds?
Because the crucial thing is not just that He is, but that He has a relationship with the people of Israel and He acts within history. His deeds prove His power and confirm His nature. They show what He is capable of doing and indicate why He does it.
Without this information, we might have found it hard to be certain of His existence. As the Torah says in Parashat Ki Tissa (Ex. 33:19-20), we cannot see Him, but we can see His deeds: He is not visible or tangible, but He is powerful.
THEY SAW THE THUNDER
An array of noisy phenomena accompanied the Revelation on Mount Sinai. There was thunder. There was lightning (Ex. 20:15). But strangely, the thunder was seen and the lightning was heard, the opposite of what normally happens.
In the Mechilta, the rabbis draw our attention to what took place. They say, "They saw what is normally heard, and heard what is normally seen". Both seeing and hearing are modes of sensory perception. The moment was so elevated that the experience transcended the usual way of the world.
If anyone had asked the Israelites to articulate what took place they would not have been able to give a straight answer. They would probably have said, "How did we know what occurred? We just knew!"
According to Ibn Ezra, their experience at the great moment was a miraculous combination of all their senses.
Q. Since the Ten Commandments forbid making any graven image or likeness, how could ancient synagogues have artistic representations of animals and even the human form?
A. It is not only that these figures found on ancient synagogues do not seem to comply with the Ten Commandments, but also that they arose at the same time as the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud were formulating detailed laws, e.g. in the tractate Avodah Zarah, against idolatrous practices.
Amongst the leading scholars to address the problem was ER Goodenough, in his Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 1953.
His theory was that after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE there was a tug of war between the rabbinical leaders and the people; rabbinical control ceased to be effective and the people came under the influence of Greco-Roman culture even to the extent of introducing painting and sculpture into the synagogues.
Professor EE Urbach subjected Goodenough’s theory to searching criticism in an article in the Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 9, no. 3 (1959). He rejected the possibility that the sages had lost control and insisted that all the evidence says the opposite.
Further, the people who introduced representational art to the synagogues, e.g. at Dura-Europos, "did not live in an entirely different spiritual world from the sages", and the same people introduced pictures with Biblical themes, utilising rabbinic exegesis and interpretation.
Rabbinic texts frequently indicate that by the 3rd century there was no evidence of idolatrous practice amongst Jews, and although there was occasional use of representational art in synagogues, burial places and elsewhere, it was not an indication of idolatry. Indeed the falsity of idolatry was constantly reiterated by sages and people alike.
But after the destruction of the Temple there were constant population shifts and many Jews moved to gentile cities and gentiles to Jewish cities.
Amongst the trades which Jews practised was the making of vessels, utensils and trinkets for gentile use, and these utilised conventional symbols. The sages ruled (Avodah Zarah 1:8) that it was forbidden to make ornaments for idols, though Rabbi Eliezer allowed it for payment – i.e. so no-one would think the Jew was making something he personally believed in.
Not all the sages were as lenient as Rabbi Eliezer, but there was a general feeling that Jews could be trusted not to worship the images since even the gentiles themselves were not serious about the powers of their idols or the efficacy of idol-worship.
How then did artistic representations enter the synagogues? Without idolatrous motives, but under the influence of the culture in which many Jews lived.
However, many of the sages bitterly criticised the practice; Rabbi Nachum ben Simai was known as "the holy one" because he had never looked at an image, not even on a coin (Jer. Talmud A.Z. 3:1, Kohelet R. 9:10).
Tacitus, Pliny, Strabo and Varro all remarked on the absence of statues and images from Jewish synagogues and cities.
The priest of Midian who became Moses’ father-in-law had several names including Chovav. The most famous name he bore was Yitro.
The rabbinic sources think highly of Yitro and say that he was the first person to utter a benediction, a b’rachah in praise of the Israelite God. He had no doubts in his mind that HaShem was greater than any of the gods of the nations because his spiritual journey had taken him through many faiths and he recognised how unauthentic, inept and ineffective the other deities were. He acknowledged that HaShem was Melech HaOlam, the Ruler of the World.
There is a rabbinic view that when the Torah was revealed on Mount Sinai, Moses sent Yitro away somewhere so that he should not be embarrassed or put to shame by his earlier repudiation of the Divine Ruler.