God’s 1st Command: To Know Him

How Do We Fulfill It?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“I am God your Lord who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slaves” (Exod. 20:2). This forms the first of the 10 Commandments. What response does this impose on man?

Thank you to Rabbi Ruben Gober for raising this matter and his questions on the difference between Ramban and Maimonides. What are these great rabbis’ definitions of this command?

Ramban says knowledge of God imposes an obligation to serve God: 

This Divine utterance constitutes a positive commandment. He said, “I am God, your Lord,” thus teaching and commanding them that they should know and believe that the Eternal exists and that He is G-d to them. That is to say, there exists an Eternal Being through Whom everything has come into existence by His will and power, and He is G-d to them, who are obligated to worship Him. 

But Maimonides’ formulation of “I am God, your Lord”  and the command to know God’s unity indicates no obligation to serve God…merely to accept a truth. Only in Mitzvah #5 (Sefer Hamitzvos) does Maimonides discuss the mitzvah to serve God, derived from other verses. On knowing God Maimonides writes:  

The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being. (Foundations of Torah 1:1)

This Existence is the God of the world and the Lord of the entire earth. He controls the sphere with infinite and unbounded power. (Ibid. 1:5)

The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as [implied by Exodus 20:2]: “I am God, your Lord.” Anyone who presumes that there is another god transgresses a negative commandment, as [Exodus 20:3] states: "You shall have no other gods before Me" and denies a fundamental principle because this is the great principle upon which all depends. (Ibid. 1:6)

This God is one. He is not two or more, but one, unified in a manner which [surpasses] any unity that is found in the world; i.e., He is not one in the manner of a general category which includes many individual entities, nor one in the way that the body is divided into different portions and dimensions. Rather, He is unified, and there exists no unity similar to His in this world.

If there were many gods, they would have body and form, because like entities are separated from each other only through the circumstances associated with body and form.

Were the Creator to have body and form, He would have limitation and definition, because it is impossible for a body not to be limited. And any entity which itself is limited and defined [possesses] only limited and defined power. Since our God, blessed be His name, possesses unlimited power, as evidenced by the continuous revolution of the sphere, we see that His power is not the power of a body. Since He is not a body, the circumstances associated with bodies that produce division and separation are not relevant to Him. Therefore, it is impossible for Him to be anything other than one. The knowledge of this concept fulfills a positive commandment, as [implied by Deuteronomy 6:4]: "[Hear, Israel,] God is our Lord, God is one."  (Ibid. 1:7)

Maimonides repeats: “to know” (1:1), “The knowledge of this concept” (1:6), and again, “The knowledge of this concept” (1:7).  Unlike Ramban, Maimonides says knowledge of God does not form an obligation to serve God. 

In his Sefer Hamitzvos, mitzvah #1, Maimonides again teaches that “I am God, your Lord” commands us in a belief: “I am God is part of the 613 commands and it is a command in belief.” Maimonides leaves no room for doubt: “I am God, your Lord” is a command in belief, requiring no obedience or service like Ramban says. What is the distinction between Maimonides’ and Ramban’s theories, leading them to debate this command’s requirements? 

In Sefer Hamitzvos, mitzvah #1, Maimonides felt it necessary to teach that 611 commands were received through Moses, while the first two commands —“I am God, your Lord” and “Have no other Gods” —were received through God. What is the necessity of this lesson inserted when describing the command “I am God, your Lord”?  In his Guide, Maimonides teaches that the Jews did not hear any distinct commands from God but “God commanding the first two” means that regarding them, prophets have no advantage over ordinary Jews:

The Israelites “heard the first and the second commandments from God,” i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses. For these two principles, the existence of God and His Unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect (Guide, book ii, chap. xxxiii).

Maimonides means that these first two commands are of mind, and not of action: not of service or worship. Belief alone is the command.

According to Ramban, “I am God, your Lord” creates an obligation of worship: “He is G-d to them, who are obligated to worship Him.”  According to Ramban, God’s very capacity as our Lord imposes worship. Man’s realization of God cannot be without worship. True knowledge is gauged by human response. One who claims to value charity, but never gives, has no conviction in charity’s value. Similarly, realization of God as Lord must follow through with our worship of Him. But this is all in the context of post-Sinai Torah, and why Maimonides disagreed. 

Maimonides identifies God as the cause of all existences, disconnected from Torah, a belief alone. And disconnected from Torah, means disconnected from obligation. Therefore, Maimonides did not include in this law an obligation for worship. Talmud Sanhedrin 56b says even Adam had the command of not accepting any other gods; that was pre-Torah. This proves Maimonides’ point. This command today is part of Torah, but it refers to pre-Torah, to creation, to “reality” as Rabbi Chait and Rabbi Gober stated, that long predated Torah. Reality existed prior to Torah, and a command without obligation highlights this. That God did not give Torah for 2448 years after Adam indicates that man can follow God without Torah. This may also be one of the reasons Torah commences with the patriarchs who had no Torah. They had reality. 

I thank Rabbi Gober for sharing his intriguing questions and answers with me.