In the New Testament it’s reduced to only two. Love your neighbor as you would yourself. Which would preclude you breaking most of the 10 commandments. And the place no Gods before me. The only one left out is remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy.
I see two main reasons, and one requires a little background.
The main account of the giving of the Ten Commandments is in Exodus 19, with the text of the commandments themselves beginning chapter 20. But at the end of the 40 years in the Wilderness, as described in Deuteronomy, Moses calls the people together and repeats them, and adds a bit of detail:
So one big reason is that while God is depicted as dictating the rest of the Law to Moses at various times on the forty years in the Wilderness, these ten are set apart as having been written down by the Divine Hand Itself.
Second, you’ll take note that the contents are pretty well applicable to everyone and deal with issues important to any person (well, any religious person, for the first few). While it may be interesting to know whether one may licitly eat the liver of a camel or how to become ritually pure if you have a discharge from an open wound, I think there’d be common consent that cheating on one’s spouse, stealing, murder, willful and malicious false statements, and such are probably more important than the examples I gave at the beginning of this sentence.
I think those two factors have worked together to set off the Ten Commandments as “special” as opposed to the rest of Torah.
(Apologies for the F11 and such in the quote – Moses didn’t have Israeli Air Force overflights going on – they were references to footnotes in the text I copied and pasted, which I neglected to edit out.)
Exodus 34:28 at first glance seems to be saying that Moses wrote the Ten Commandments on the tablets – which would be another in our ongoing collection of Internal Contradictions of the Bible – but that “he” could refer either to Moses or to the Lord, as opposed to the “Write down these words” instruction to Moses a couple of verses before – which would refer to the commandments in this chapter. (BTW, I have no idea why anybody would want to seethe a kid in goat’s milk – it sounds like a gross sort of dish!)
I don’t have the upbringing in Christian tradition to necessarily get all this stuff, I own a bible and have read the relevant parts but I may be missing some things. I am making quite an effort of late to understand Christianity, thus my inquisition into this subject. So, the covenent made in “Horeb” as referred to above, was that the covenant with Abraham promising a homeland? Is that significant, that the laws connected to the covenant would be of a different stripe than merely the laws proferred in general? Is it the pretense under which they were presented that sets them apart from, say, the dietary laws, or is it the fundamental nature of those laws?
I think this is the only place where “ten commandments” appears in the Bible, but even if these are not necessarily a reference to the traditional ten, it does at least answer the OP’s question doesn’t it? I mean, it’s not like the “ten” part came out of nowhere, especially given the significance of ten to Hebrews.
With regard to your last question, I strongly suspect that it’s the combination of the two that sets them apart. Perhaps Chaim or Zev will wander by and say what the Talmud has to say about the distinction as seen in Judaistic tradition. Since the early Christians seem to have picked up on an existing Jewish tradition, the answer would be much the same.
“Horeb” appears to have been a synonym for “Sinai” – meaning the mountain on which Moses received the greater part of the Law. There are several mountains on the Sinai Peninsula and the area just north of it which are in contention for the title, but there seems to have been a traditional acceptance of “Mount Sinai” AKA Jebel Musa towards the tip of the peninsula, nearly opposite the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba on a map of the area. Some modern scholarship suggests a lower mountain further north, southwest of Kadesh-Barnea, as what was referred to by these names.
RexDart, you’re quite correct. There are many more than 10 commandments. In fact, there are 613 (in the “Old Testament”), and the Big 10 are not even the first ones. (The first commandment is “be fruitful and multiply”).
These ten are particularly special for a few reasons:
They are written on stone tablets.
They are given immediately after the children of Israel decided to accept the Torah.
According to Midrash (an interpretive Rabbinic commentary), these ten were to have been declared by G-d directly to the people. However, after the first commandment, the people begged G-d to stop, and to give them via Moses.
Despite this special treatment, these laws do not necessarily rank above others. In Jewish tradition, it is practice generally not to compare the importance of commandments.
These ten, as quoted above, were spoken by God to the whole people Israel gathered below the mountain. After these ten, the people request Moses to hear the rest and pass them on, because the thunderous Voice is too terrible for them to hear more.
Hence, these ten had “special significance” as being the only ones spoken to the people as a whole.
What boyohboy says is correct but reflects later tradition. In the early days of Synagogue services, the Ten Commandments were recited at services. However, somewhere around the 1500s (give or take a century or two), Christians argued that the Ten Commandments were the ONLY commandments that need be followed, and pointed to their prominence in the Jewish service as evidence of this. The recitation of the Ten was then dropped from Jewish services, to avoid any implication that these ten are more important that the other 603.