Take the 2-minute tour ×
Mi Yodeya is a question and answer site for those who base their lives on Jewish law and tradition and anyone interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I am studying to convert to Judaism and one of the questions I was asked was about the Ten Commandments. I remember reading at that time that there was debate about the division of the statements Moses brought down on tablets and that they are, in Hebrew, more commonly called the "Ten Statements" than the "Ten Commandments." I am particularly interested in the "first" and whether or not it is considered a commandment to believe in G-d. After all, how can a person be commanded to have a particular belief?

share|improve this question
IIRC Rashi asks your question, but I probably won't have time to look it up before Shabbat so I'm leaving this breadcrumb instead. –  Monica Cellio Feb 3 '12 at 13:59
Can you clarify your question a bit? Are you asking if that first phrase "anochi Hashem" is part of the 10 commandments vs an opening paragraph, or are you asking if in the world of 613 mitzvot "anochi Hashem" is a mitzvah? (Both are classical Jewish questions on the 10 commandments) –  avi Feb 3 '12 at 14:02
@avi: A little bit of both I guess. I am most interested in the broader question of "Is it a commandment to believe in G-d?" but it seems like the Ten Commandments played into that broader conversation. I am also interested in Spinoza's excommunication for heresy but that seems like a question for another day. –  AdamRedwine Feb 3 '12 at 14:13
@AdamRedwine It doesn't have to be a question for another day, just another question :) –  avi Feb 3 '12 at 14:41
@AdamRedwine I hope you find the time to word your question about Spinoza –  avi Feb 4 '12 at 17:10
add comment

4 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Belief in God cannot possibly be a commandment.

A commandment is something one fulfills because he already believes in the one who is commanding it. Thus, a commandment to believe in the existence of the commander is an absurdity; it assumes in its fulfillment that it has already been fulfilled. (This argument was presented by R' Hasdai Crescas.)

For this reason, many Rishonim did not count those first few words of the ten statements - "I am the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" - as a commandment, but rather as an introductory line to the entire monologue. [There is a Talmudic statement, though, that the first two commandments came from God directly, and they are identified as the first two statements of the ten. How to count those two commandments is a discussion in itself.]

Now, what to make of the Rambam, who counted belief in God as the first commandment, and tied it to this first verse of the ten commandments? The answer is proposed by Abarbanel in Rosh Amanah as follows:

The commandment is not belief in God, but rather the belief that God has certain qualities, namely that He is independent of all other existences and that all other existences are dependent upon Him. This is evident from Rambam's description of this mitzva in the Mishna Torah (Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 1:1-3) (my own translation):

יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון והוא ממציא כל נמצא וכל הנמצאים משמים וארץ ומה שביניהם לא נמצאו אלא מאמתת המצאו. אם יעלה על הדעת שהוא אינו מצוי אין דבר אחר יכול להמצאות. ואם יעלה על הדעת שאין כל הנמצאים מלבדו מצויים הוא לבדו יהיה מצוי ולא יבטל הוא לבטולם שכל הנמצאים צריכין לו והוא ברוך הוא אינו צריך להם ולא לאחד מהם לפיכך אין אמתתו כאמתת אחד מהם.

The cornerstone of cornerstones and the pillar of all wisdoms is to know that there is a first existence who brought into existence all existences, and all existences, the heavens and Earth and all that is in between would not exist without the truth of his existence. If it enters the mind that He does not exist, then nothing else is able to exist. And if it enters the mind that nothing else besides Him exists, then He alone will exist and He will not cease because they have, for all existences require Him and He, blessed is He, does not require them, nor any one of them. Therefore, His reality is not like theirs.

A more detailed description of this idea can be found in the first of Rambam's thirteen principles. Essentially, the commandment is that we should believe that God, whom it is already assumed that we believe in His existence, possesses the above qualities.

What about the fact that I cannot command someone to believe something? A person believes what he believes; he cannot be forced. To this Abarbanel responds that the commandment is not to actually believe, but rather to contemplate. We are commanded not to blindly follow faith, but rather to strive toward knowledge and to weigh it approprately to come to the conclusion that the above is true. (Admittedly, I don't fully understand this concept, but it seems that given the information that is available to us and our traditions, it is reasonable that we come to the correct conclusion.)

See this article for more information.

share|improve this answer
Fantastic answer and very helpful. Thank you so much. –  AdamRedwine Feb 3 '12 at 17:49
If belief cannot be commanded, can one be commanded to not believe in the Ba'al? –  Ariel K Feb 3 '12 at 18:14
@ArielK, Certainly not. But if someone has already fulfilled the above commandment and "come to the conclusion" that everything is dependent upon God's existence, I would assume non-belief in Baal would follow, although I'm not sure what belief in Baal entails. Either way, though, we are commanded "לא תשתחוה להם ולא תעבדם", which is legitimate commandment. –  jake Feb 3 '12 at 18:22
@ArielK There is no commandment to not believe in Ba'al. There is a commandment to not worship Ba'al very different things. –  avi Feb 4 '12 at 16:54
@Jake I'm glad you were able to provide this answer, I tried to hint at it in my comment on the question, but didn't have the time or resource to explain it. –  avi Feb 4 '12 at 16:55
add comment

There is no question that knowing that Gd exists is a Commandment (Mitzvah). It is listed as Mitzvah number 1 in Rambam's list of 613.

However, in Judaism we have an obligation to Know, and to learn, and to understand that Gd exists, not to believe, in the Western understanding of the word believe.

As you state in your question, how can you force a person to believe something they don't, or how can you even ask them to? It's impossible!

The Hebrew word for "faith" or "believe" is Emuna. And there is certainly a mitzvah to have Emuna IN hashem, in addition to the mitzvah to know and understand that Gd exists. The main difference here, is that in modern western colloquial speech we talk about "Faith THAT Gd Exist", instead of "Faith IN Gd". The difference is large. One does not need Faith that a parent exists. However, if a parent is abusive or doesn't follow up on their word, a child might lose faith in that parent. The same meaning here is for Gd. We must trust that Hashem will provide for us, that He will keep his word, etc.

The first commandment of the 10 commandments is that we should know and understand and have faith that Hashem, the creator of the World, is the same Gd that took us out of Egypt and deals kindly with the Jewish people. We must build a relationship, learn about Gd's ways, and have faith In him.

share|improve this answer
I find your reasoning appealing. It does, to my mind, beg the question "How do you define G-d?" A parent is a well defined (more or less) object. Even amongst ardent believers, I find that G-d is less well defined. –  AdamRedwine Feb 3 '12 at 15:01
@AdamRedwine, that's because we don't need to define God, much as I don't need to define my father. Like my father, God is a well-defined object. And as for my father, if I try to compose a definition of God I'll fail. (My father is... what? I can give his name, his height, his weight, his mannerisms, his Social Security number; do those define him?) –  msh210 Feb 3 '12 at 16:17
@msh210: Do they define him? Perhaps not, but they are certainly a valiant attempt. I used qualitative language because, to me, the definitions are not clear. If you believe G-d is a well defined "object," would you please provide your definition? –  AdamRedwine Feb 3 '12 at 16:22
@AdamRedwine, I can't, much as I can't provide my definition of my dad. In general, a word referring to one specific object are hard to define. E.g., Wiktionary currently defines Casey Stengel as "A baseball player, who became a long-standing manager of baseball teams, known for his turns of phrase". (You can look it up.) Really? That's the definition of Casey Stengel? I think not; but [cont'd] –  msh210 Feb 3 '12 at 16:32
@AdamRedwine I agree it begs the question of how you define Gd. Ask 2 Jews how they define Gd and you will get (hopefully) more than 3 answers. Great debates have been waged over the definition of Gd. But one thing is clear, Gd is the one who took us out of Egypt and commanded us to have a Faith in his actions. –  avi Feb 4 '12 at 16:50
show 6 more comments

There are different views among the rishonim whether this belief counts as one of the 613 mitzvos or is a more fundamental basis for all Judaism. Either way, it is definitely obligatory, and without the belief in God, Judaism is meaningless.

Just as God commanded man to not believe in other gods, He also commanded us to believe in God. Someone who believes in a rain-god must work at eradicating this belief, perhaps by recognizing that the clouds and rain are not an interdependent force, but part of nature. Similarly, if one doesn't believe in God, he should work at recognizing God. For example, by recognizing that there has to be a source of the world's existence, or that the universe is too fine-tuned to have happened by chance.

share|improve this answer
And yet for many people who have deeply studied the nature of the world it appears that there does not need "to be a source of the world's existence, or that the universe is too fine-tuned to have happened by chance." Why do you claim that "Judaism is meaningless" without a belief in G-d? I do not believe that claim is justified. –  AdamRedwine Feb 3 '12 at 14:58
As for the meaning of Judaism, I'll give an example. Jews do not keep shabbos because its nice to take a day of rest, we keep shabbos because God commanded it, and it recalls God's creation of the world and the Exodus. This is spelled out in the Torah. Shabbos might have many other benefits, but that is not the reason a Jew keeps it. To keep shabbos without believing in God would be meaningless from a Jewish perspective. –  Ariel K Feb 3 '12 at 15:07
@AdamRedwine I mean in respect to its being a religion. Culturally, I'm sure many people have something that can connect them to their heritage and be meaningful. But religiously there's little left. –  Seth J Feb 3 '12 at 18:20
@AdamRedwine For the record, I completely agree with you. I remember studying when I was in highschool, and coming the conclusion that really, if someone would not be able to discern the existence of Gd, or of a Gd that rewards and punishes, or acts through history, that they would still be able to fully keep Judaism and it's Mitzvot. On the other hand, for other people that is inconceivable. .. cont –  avi Feb 4 '12 at 17:02
cont.. However, there is no doubt that it's much easier on the brain to just accept Gd's existence and figure out the qualities after the fact. Just like one should first accept the principle of infinity, and then learn the formulas to understand how it works. Going the other way around, is just way too complicated, IMO. I still think that Stephen Hawkings said it best, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”.. Some ask what, some ask who, at some point it's just semantics. –  avi Feb 4 '12 at 17:07
show 6 more comments

There are two parts to your question.

The first is an apparently simple question as to whether or not there is an actual commandment in Judaism to believe in God. Maimonides, and most other authorities, consider the obligation to believe in God to be one of the 613 commandments, and see this as the commandment expressed in the first sentence of the 10 "commandments". There are some authorities, such as the Behag, who did not include this obligation in their catalog of the 613 commandments.

It is important to understand that all of these opinions, whether or not they include the obligation to believe in God in their formal catalog of the commandments or not, consider belief in God to be absolutely obligatory and foundational to Judaism. There are several reasons why the belief in God might not be listed in a formal catalog of the commandments. One simple reason is that the concept of a commandment presupposes the existence of an authority that issues commands. A commandment to believe in the existence of the authority that issued the commandment is logically impossible. In this sense, belief in God would constitute a kind of "meta-obligation" that exists independently of, and logically prior to, the commandments.

This question is so basic that it raises the question of how to understand the position of those, like Maimonides, who included the obligation to believe in their catalog of the commandments.

It also brings us to the second part of your question, how can a person be commanded to believe in God? Either he believes, in which case the commandment is unnecessary, or he doesn't believe, in which the commandment has no authority to him.

(I would point out that this question does not apply to other beliefs. Once a person has accepted that God exists, and that He reveals His will to human beings, then it is perfectly possible for Him to command us to believe various other things, which we can and must believe based only on the authority of His statement.)

There are several answers to this question, all of which basically create a separation between the basic recognition of God's existence, which, in fact, cannot be commanded, and the commandment of belief, which starts only after that basic recognition has been achieved.

One such approach is that the commandment to believe is to internalize that basic intellectual recognition of God's existence into our personality. There is a great distance between intellectually acknowledging a truth and making that truth an integral part of how you think and feel. There are a wide range of methods that can be used for this purpose. It is this that we are commanded to do by the first commandment.

A somewhat different, more mussar oriented, approach is found in other sources (the best known exposition of this approach is from Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman). This approach argues that the truth of God's existence is so self-evident that it should be immediately obvious to any person of normal intelligence. Why then do so many intelligent people fail to recognize this truth? The answer is that human beings have an extraordinary talent for self-deception, and when we don't want to accept a truth, we are very capable of fooling ourselves into believing that the truth isn't true.

According to this approach, the commandment to believe is a commandment to work on ourselves to remove those natural inclinations and character flaws that cause us to fool ourselves and to deny that which should be obvious. Once we do so, the truth of God's existence will come naturally as a self-evident truth.

share|improve this answer
This answer does not seem to add anything from the other answers, other than to insult people. –  avi Feb 5 '12 at 7:53
Imagine if every time someone didn't up vote an answer you suggested it was a character flaw and they are just fooling themselves into not believing that the answer is correct, since it's self evident? –  avi Feb 5 '12 at 9:24
Whether you agree with the approach or not does not change the fact that this is an established approach to the issue in Jewish thought. –  LazerA Feb 5 '12 at 13:35
I'm curious where this idea comes from. R. Wasserman is quoted as saying ""Producing chiddushim (novel Torah concepts) is not for us. That was only in the power of the Rishonim. Our task is to understand what it says."... So, there must be a Rishon which says this concept as well? I'm not aware of any. –  avi Feb 5 '12 at 13:46
Guide for the Perplexed 3:51 - "...all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition.... I consider these as irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey." Sure sounds like thought they had a character flaw. –  LazerA Feb 5 '12 at 20:18
show 7 more comments

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.