What Is the Mosaic Law?

Laura M. Sands
Laura M. Sands
Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Mosaic law, also referred to as the Law of Moses, is used to describe Jewish law as set forth in the Torah. According to Jewish tradition, these laws were handwritten by the Hebrew God and given to Moses to pass on to the Israelites. A total of 613 laws are included in the Mosaic law including the 10 laws, or 10 commandments, taught in Christian theology.

The Torah sets for Mosaic law.
The Torah sets for Mosaic law.

Religiously observant Jews are required by the tenets of their faith to abide by the Mosaic law. These laws include observing the Jewish seventh day Sabbath, keeping precise holy days and abstaining from eating pork and other forbidden foods, such as shellfish and other foods coming from animals deemed to be unclean. It is from Mosaic law that kosher dietary guidelines are derived.

The Mosaic law is contained with in the first five books of the Old Testament, also called the Torah.
The Mosaic law is contained with in the first five books of the Old Testament, also called the Torah.

Traditionally, most Christians do not adhere to all 613 Mosaic laws. Of these laws, however, 10 are considered standard for adherence by Christians. A few of these include honoring one’s parents, refraining from adultery, not murdering another individual and not bearing false witness, or telling lies, against another.

To many, Mosaic law is known simply as Jewish law. Not only is this due to the history of these laws, but also because most of the religious traditions and observances practiced within various sects of Judaism are based on Mosaic law. The laws are all contained within the first five books of the Bible’s Old Testament, which is what Jews refer to as the Torah.

The Tanakh is also fundamentally based on Mosaic law. Comprised of the Torah, as well as the teachings of the Jewish prophets and the Writings, the Tanakh contains all of the Jewish scriptures. For Christians, the Tanakh is referred to as the Old Testament, or the time before the writings dedicated to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The embodiment of all of the Mosaic law, as well as all of the Jewish rabbinical laws is contained within halakha. Also contained in halakha are all of the customs and traditions assigned to the Jewish people. This collection of laws, traditions and customs is intended to provide direction to the daily lives of religiously observant Jews from the moment an individual awakens in the morning, throughout her or his waking hours, and even provides instructions on where and how an individual is allowed to sleep, as well as with whom a person is allowed to sleep with.

Can Anyone Practice Mosaic Law?

The Mosaic law is traditionally and fundamentally upheld by people of Jewish faith and heritage. The 613 directions given to Moses by the Hebrew God became tenants of Judaism. However, portions of the law do transfer over to other religions, primarily Christian.

Despite Mosaic law being fundamental to Judaism, many Christian believers feel connected to the law, adopting many portions of it into their lives. As Christians, the Mosaic law is not a required observance — the New Testament makes this abundantly clear — yet many Christians still observe portions, primarily the Ten Commandments, of the Mosaic law.

Therefore, anyone can practice or observe Mosaic law. The law dictated 613 rules for a good life. While these rules were meant to reference obedience to the Hebrew God, nothing says that obeying or practicing portions of the law will not create meaning and purpose within some other faiths or even nonbelievers.

Following Mosaic law does not make you Jewish, just as attending a mass does not make you a Christian. The tenets of your faith will demand specific things from you, but that does not mean you should deprive yourself of knowledge. Learning is the key to understanding, and many religions and belief systems encourage knowledge in combination with adherence to religion.

Despite not being a requirement, many Christians still practice Mosaic law, at least to some extent. Those that practice it are not considered any less Christian. Life is a journey of learning, and each person is responsible for their education.

Are Christians Under the Mosaic Law?

Christian faiths do not observe the Mosaic law as an authority. The law represented the authority of the Levitical priesthood, but Jesus is from the line of Judah, not Levi, meaning an entirely new Melchizedekian priesthood formed through the power of his resurrection.

Through the institution of the new line of priests, a new law was formed from the new covenant. The transfer of focus and belief supersedes the Aaronic priesthood and the Mosaic law. Christians were no longer beholden to the old covenant.

While the “law of Christ” is the foundation of Christian beliefs and existence, scholars still insist on the authority of the Old Testament. Mosaic law still influences Christian life, but it does not carry the same weight as it did under the old covenant.

Primarily, the Mosaic law is a provision of patterns and principles of wisdom, providing guidance on life, depicting the prophecies of Christ, and carrying the authority of Scripture. However, for Christians, Mosaic law no longer holds covenantal force.

Therefore, Christians are not necessarily under Mosaic law, they operate under moral law or the testimony of natural law and Christ’s law: love your neighbor as yourself. The New Testament and the new covenant free Christians from the burden and judgment of the law.

Despite the lack of obligation to the Mosaic law and its authority, many Christian faiths are built upon its foundation, especially as it is representative of moral or natural law. With free will comes the burden of sin, and Mosaic law helps people define moral boundaries and guide rails.

When Was the Mosaic Law Given

There is no specific date for when Moses delivered or divined the 613 commandments that make up the Mosaic law. Some scholars believe the date of inception to be between the 16th and 13th centuries BCE. However, Rabbinic teachings suggest Moses was given the Oral Torah in 1312 BCE, meaning the 14th century BC.

While the date is unclear, most people can agree that Moses received the foundation of the Mosaic law on Mount Sinai. Unfortunately, even knowing the events surrounding Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai, it is seemingly impossible to specify a year for the creation of the Mosaic law.

Scholars and religious leaders disagree on a specific timeline. Many religious experts now believe that the Torah, despite the belief it was written solely by Moses, was an interpretation conceived by many authors.

The new assumptions and lack of specificity of a date do not eliminate the merit of the law or its fundamental nature in religion and life. All religion stems from somewhere, and the discovery of origination should be a goal of every faith to further understanding and belief.

However, there will always be fundamentalists. For pure believers, Moses is the tool God used to author the Mosaic law, which occurred in the 14th century BC.

The Mosaic law is an interesting piece of world and religious history. Regardless of your views, there is likely room to review the moral and ethical underpinnings of the centuries-old law.

What Are the 10 Commandments?

In the Hebrew scriptures, the 10 Commandments are foundational laws that God gave to the nation of Israel. According to Exodus 24:12-18, God wrote these 10 laws on two tablets of stone before giving them to the prophet Moses. These are the 10 Commandments in order, cited from the American Standard Version of the Bible.

1. Worship Only One God

“I am Jehovah thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt… Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:2

This commandment requires the Israelites to worship only one god. This was different from Egypt and other nations that practiced polytheism, or belief in many different gods.

2. Do Not Make Idols

“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image… Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them.” – Exodus 20:3-6

The mosaic law forbid the nation of Israel from making any kind of idols or statues for worship. This included golden calves and temples to other gods.

3. Do Not Use God’s Name In a Disrespectful Way

“Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain; for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” – Exodus 20:7

According to the Bible, the name of the Hebrew God is Jehovah, or Yahve. This name, also known as the tetragrammaton, is represented by four letters, YHVH or JHVH. It appears 6,828 times in the Hebrew bible. The Jews were to treat this name with great respect.

4. Observe the Sabbath Day and Treat It as Sacred

“Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto Jehovah thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.” – Exodus 20:8-11

For Jews, the Sabbath was a mandated holy day of rest from work. It was a time dedicated to God and the family. The Sabbath began at sundown on Friday and extended to sundown on Saturday.

5. Show Respect for Your Parents

“Honor thy father and thy mother.” – Exodus 20:12

This law required Israelites to show respect to their parents. Children were supposed to be obedient, but the law also applied to adults. Every Israelite was to care for older parents.

6. Do Not Murder

“Thou shalt not kill.” – Exodus 20:13

Killing someone innocent was a direct violation of the mosaic law. In Hebrew, this law didn’t apply to killing someone in self-defense or to protect other victims. It applied to murder.

7. Do Not Commit Adultery

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” – Exodus 20:14

Adultery means having sex with a person who is married to someone else. It also includes being unfaithful to your partner. The Israelites were expected to be faithful to their husband or wife.

8. Do Not Steal

“Thou shalt not steal.” – Exodus 20:15

Taking what belonged to someone else was against the mosaic law. This included stealing clothing, food, animals, money and other possessions. As time went on, this commandment was also applied to other types of theft, such as cheating people or committing fraud.

9. Do Not Give False Testimony

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” – Exodus 20:16

Lying was condemned in the mosaic law. This was especially true during cases where witnesses were required to testify about what they saw. Intentionally making up lies or offering deceitful answers was a serious offense.

 10. Do Not Covet

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife … nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”

This law warned the Israelites not to be greedy. They were supposed to avoid envying or craving the things another person had. This included someone else’s wife, house, wealth and possessions.

How Are Mosaic Laws Different From the Ten Commandments?

The mosaic law includes the 10 Commandments but also many other laws. The mosaic laws include topics such as proper hygiene, diet, forgiveness, education, spending time as a family, animal sacrifices and worship. Together, they acted as a set of laws for the entire nation.

Does the Mosaic Law Still Apply?

Different religions view the laws given to Moses in distinct ways today. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all connected in some way to these laws.

For some believers, elements of the mosaic law still apply, such as sabbath laws. For others, the law represents a valuable resource into the feelings and personality of God, but not a requirement to be followed today.

For example, orthodox Jews adhere strictly to each part of the mosaic law, including laws regarding animal sacrifices and avoiding certain types of meat. Conservative Jews also follow mosaic laws, but may interpret them in different ways for modern worshippers.

Discussion Comments

Phaedrus

I can understand why the Hebrews wanted to have a set of Mosaic laws to live by instead of living in confusion and chaos. We Americans did the same thing when our founders created the US Constitution. We needed to know where the boundaries were, and what punishment we could expect if we violated those important laws.

However, I think the Mosaic law crumbled under its own weight, even before the arrival of Jesus Christ. Creating laws that protect society in general is a noble goal, but pretty soon it starts turning into disputes over minutiae. Mosaic law started getting weighted down with specific laws that only addressed very minor issues. Very few authority figures could even interpret all of the intentions behind every one of the laws, let alone enforce them.

RocketLanch8

I've always seen the Ten Commandments as the fewest number of "rules" necessary to hold the Hebrew nation together during the time of Moses. If people were left to their own devices, especially people who had been oppressed all of their lives, they might want to do some things contrary to God's will. The thought of killing their former oppressors comes to mind, for instance. Having a direct Commandment that says "Thou Shalt Not Kill" would let people know revenge killings would not be condoned by God.

Being a Christian, I was taught to believe that Jesus' sacrifice on Calvary freed us all from Mosaic law. We now live under a state of grace, not under the law. But we still respect the 10 Commandments, even if we Christians don't feel the need to live under the Mosaic law anymore.

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