Watch your language: The Third Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, May 2010

Candace R. Kwiatek

You’d think the current trends to get God out of the public arena — no prayer in schools, no commandments in courthouses, no crosses on city seals — would have made the Third Commandment largely irrelevant.

After all, if God is relegated to the religious environment, the chance of “vain” or “irreverent” use of God is diminished.

Yet God-talk increasingly seems to be everywhere: “God Speaks” billboards. “Higher Authority” hot dog advertising.  Bruce Almighty on the big screen. Quantity is not quality, however, and the Third Commandment challenges us to watch the quality of our language.

In a number of translations, the command reads as follows: “You shall not take the Name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain.”

According to the most common interpretation, the main issue of the Third Commandment seems to be the disrespectful or profane use of God’s name, as in increasingly common interjections.

To avoid dishonoring God by being irreverent, many avoid using God’s name outside of prayer or Bible study, and a common substitute in Jewish circles is to use “G-d” in writing or the term Hashem (The Name). Even when reading from the Torah scroll itself, God’s four-letter Hebrew name is never pronounced, replaced instead by a euphemism.

Because names and reputations go hand-in-hand, to avoid diminishing God’s reputation in the world, we treat God’s name with respect.

But in the midst of Commandments to reject idols, remember the Sabbath, and eschew murder, doesn’t avoiding the frivolous use of God’s name seem a bit trivial?

The original Hebrew suggests a second interpretation. “You are not to take up (upon the lips, utter) the name of Hashem your God for emptiness…,” writes Everett Fox in the English translation most closely aligned with the Hebrew. Emptiness, not just frivolity. So what is an “empty” use of God’s name? In ancient cultures, possession of a god’s name implied influence and power; people believed names were powerful tools that allowed them to control the spirits.

God tells the Israelites, however, that He is different, that He cannot be controlled or manipulated.

Do we approach God as a celestial butler? “If you do just this one thing, God, then I will _____” Do we pray for some outcome and then fume when God “doesn’t come through?” Do we believe that if we give more tzedakah or checked the mezuzah, God will prevent some calamity or reward us in some manner?  Don’t try to control Me by calling upon My name, God commands — it’s an empty purpose.

The nuances of Hebrew offer yet another possibility: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God…”  Not “vain” or “empty,” but “false” — as in committing perjury in a legal setting.

According to Rashi, this Commandment cautions us about using God’s name in a vain, pointless, or insincere oath. At first, this seems to be a rather narrow interpretation; after all, how many opportunities do we have to swear in God’s name?  Then again, have we ever used the phrase “so help me God” to mask a lie?

David Klinghoffer (Shattered Tablets) offers an additional perspective, explaining that this Commandment “…involves lifting up His Name ‘for falsehood’ as you would lift up a banner or flag… If (a) ship flies the flag of a country under false pretenses … we say it is ‘sailing under false colors.’ People often sail under false colors, claiming a distinction or an affiliation they don’t actually possess.”

Politicians who “get God” to get into office. Solicitors who claim to be doing God’s work to encourage more generosity. Assassins and suicide bombers who claim God sanctions their actions. Those who use God to legitimize their own selfish purposes desecrate God’s name and bring God into disrepute in the eyes of the world.

Revisiting the Hebrew one last time, it becomes clear that the Third Commandment is not just about how we speak: “You shall not carry the Name of the Lord, your God, in vain…” Not just speak or swear, but carry.

“That means that actions, behaviors, and positions we take in God’s name must not defame Him,” writes Laura Schlessinger in The Ten Commandments.

When a Jew wears a kipah in public, he is “carrying God’s name.” What image of God does he project if he helps a stranded motorist? A Jewish bride “carries God’s name.” When she turns into a bridezilla, what image of God does she communicate?

When a businessperson, lawyer or teacher is known to be Jewish, he or she he is “carrying God’s name.”

Bernie Madoff, Dennis Prager, Barbra Streisand, Harold Kushner: they all “carry God’s name.”  Do they honor or desecrate God’s image in the world?

The First Commandment establishes God as the single source of all creation and ethics. The Second says we are not to elevate anything in the universe — including ourselves — to the level of a god. The Third cautions against words or deeds that would weaken people’s belief, respect, and awe for God and thereby diminish God’s presence in the world.

Don’t disrespect or trivialize God. Don’t use God’s name in magical thinking, to manipulate or control God. Don’t make false oaths or use God’s name to conceal a lie or evildoing. Don’t break your word. Don’t use God for selfish gains. Don’t misrepresent God in the public sphere through word or deed.

Each time we break this Commandment, we are saying we don’t take God seriously. And if we don’t take God seriously, why should anyone else?

In future columns, I will continue to explore the significance of each of the Commandments, their influence on us and on our communities today, and their usefulness as guides in our everyday lives.

Family Discussion: According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics I, sanctifying God’s name means that a Jew should conduct his life in such a way that non-Jews will think, “If that is how Judaism causes Jews to act, then Judaism is a wonderful religion and Jews are good people.”

Desecrating God’s name is when a Jew, acting in a dishonest or obnoxious manner in dealings with non-Jews, causes them to view Jews and/or Judaism with contempt.
How are sanctifying and desecrating God’s name connected to the Third Commandment?


Literature to share

Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer: From the very first anecdote about an Israeli fraud-hunter whose system wowed the internet giant PayPal, I was hooked. Engaging, informative, and not too technical, Start-Up Nation answers the question: “How do they do it?” and offers solutions for America’s current economic mess.

Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim by Deborah Cohen:Bold illustrations capture the flavor of ancient days as the simple text recounts a midrash about the first person to step into the Reed Sea during the Exodus. A perfect tale to share in the days between Passover and Shavuot, Nachshon is about faith and bravery.

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