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Yitro(Exodus 18-20)

Why is Adultery So Bad?

Some years ago a rabbinic colleague of mine in Chicago was giving a class on the Ten Commandments to a secular audience. Not one given to apologetics, he staunchly defended the death penalty the Bible prescribes for adultery. The rabbi argued that society as a whole, even today, would be a much better place if adultery was a capital crime.

Everyone in the class vociferously disagreed, saying that the Biblical punishment was too harsh. Except for one young man who sat there silently. This fellow had suffered through horrible teen years in large part because his father had been involved in an adulterous relationship. When he spoke up, all he said was "I see nothing wrong with the Torah's penalty." His words brought the rest of the class - who knew of his background - to immediate silence.

* * *

This week's Torah portion, Yitro, tells of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Why did God single out these ten? In analyzing the Decalogue, many commentaries note how the Ten Commandments focus primarily on relationships: between God and man, between man and man, between children and parents. Central, to any successful relationship is fidelity, loyalty. Without that, any relationship is bound to flounder.

Let's examine some classical commentaries on the commandment prohibiting adultery.

Nachmanides (13th century Spain) describes our relationships as a "ladder of love." He says that a person must first love himself before he can successfully love his spouse. Then, if he has formed a solid relationship with his spouse, this will help develop his relationship with the Almighty.

The converse, however, can also be true. A man who is disloyal to his spouse will most likely be disloyal to his God as well.

The Midrash Mechilta says this idea is alluded to by the placement of different commandments on the two tablets. The seventh commandment, the prohibition against adultery, appears opposite the second commandment, "Do not have other gods before me." Suggests the Mechilta, this positioning is not accidental. It is to hint to us that one who is disloyal to one's spouse will eventually be disloyal to God.

* * *

Another Midrash observes that the Hebrew word for adultery, "tinaf," can be split into two words, "ten af," which translates as "giving anger." The Midrash explains that adultery is an action particularly abhorrent to the Almighty - which particularly invokes His anger. The hallmark of the Jewish People has historically been the stability of family life. One who commits adultery violates and ignores this hallowed tradition.

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century), says that adultery also violates the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself." Adultery is a grievous sin against one's neighbor - treating the neighbor in a way that one would not want oneself to be treated.

Maimonides explains adultery in powerful, eternal terms. He says that the entire purpose of creation is to establish "Shalom Bayit" - harmony between husband and wife. The adulterer destroys that harmony and, in the process, undermines the very purpose of creation.

Published: January 11, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 26

(23) Anonymous, January 18, 2014 5:24 PM

The Beauty and Sanctity of the Jewish Home

Properly understood and practiced the Serenity, Wisdom, Love, Honor and Respect that grace the Jewish Home reveals itself in the fruits of the vine that surround the table.

(22) sharon, June 30, 2013 4:40 PM

destroys people's lives

I really enjoyed this article. I've also been called a moral dinosaur... but the truth is adultery DOES A lot of damage to people. The spouses cheated on Often feel so bereived and depressed.... it is such a betrayal.. not to mention the humiliation and in this day in age the possibility of incurable STDs. Marriage can sometimes be difficult but bringing a third person into your bedroom is not the answer! I working through these differences you find patience, compassion and Grace. Adultery is just simply wickedness that leaves nothing but hurt, pain and destruction its wake!

(21) Carol Romine, February 6, 2013 7:32 PM

The Ten Commandments

It would be great if we all followed The Ten Commandments! Teach it to our children!

(20) Brian, February 1, 2013 3:21 PM

Conversely it’s true also

SO glad I clicked on this! You could say that the inverse is also true, a person who is obviously disloyal to God, male or female, would also be disloyal to their mate. This is an alarm before marriage, not to be ignored. If you sense that your intended is doing things disloyal to God, things that don’t work, on purpose but maybe unconsciously, that person has issues, possibly undiscovered by them, that prevent their full participation in marriage and life. THIS SHOULD BE PART OF ALL PRE MARRIAGE COUNSELING! Wonderful.

(19) Michal, February 1, 2013 1:41 PM

I agree with everything you say...

... but what is strongest in my mind? Shalom Bait. That is most important. How can there be Shalom of any kind, if one does not love her/his spouse really love. More than oneself!.

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