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Mishpatim (judgments)

Exodus 21:1 to 24:18, Jeremiah 34:8-22 and Jeremiah 33:25-26


How different these chapters of mishpatim (judgments) are from the d'varim (words) of the previous chapter. The Ten Words (called that in Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13 and Deuteronomy 10:4) were broad principles with no details for enforcement. These rulings are details of enforcement (verses 21:1 through 22:19(20)) or expectation (verses 22:20(21) through 23:19) with few explicit, broad principles.

Verses 21:12-12 and 21:22 show the political slogan "abortion is murder" is not scriptural. (Note: these are not about when life starts; scripturally, life does not start at conception—it starts before conception! See Jeremiah 1:5, Ephesians 1:4, etc.)

Note that in verses 24:1-11 it is the elders, not the priests, who are invited up to a covenant meal with God. This is true even though verse 19:22 says that priests "are allowed to approach God". Apparently they are no longer allowed to do so after backing away from God in verse 20:16(19).

The phrase "eye for an eye" appears three times in the Torah. It is the punishment for injuring a pregant woman (Exodus 21:22-24), for "blemishing" (crippling) someone (Leviticus 24:19-20), and for giving false witness (Deuteronomy 19:16-21). The general punishment for intentionally hurting someone is to conpensate for their lost time and be responsible for their recovery's costs (Exodus 21:18-19). Tradition interprets the intended repayment as being financial compensation, not corporal punishment; the Talmud records that historically the Israelites used capital punishment but never corporal punishment.

There are four general categories of punishments in these mishpatim. The general rule seems to be that a crime is more serious when it is more preventable (with cursing parents being a notable exception). Accidents are not punished. Neglect requires compensation. Giving in to anger or lust requires compensation. Theft is serious, but not a capital offense: someone so desperately starving as to steal food is not risks his freedom but not his neck. Crimes that require planning or an unusual lack of self-control can be capital offenses.

Crimes Categorized by Punishment

No Penalty

Your ox gores for the first time, accidentally hurting someone, destroying your own property, killing a thief in your home at night, caring for an animal which gets hurt or dies

Even Compensation

Injuring someone when fighting, leaving an open pit into which an animal falls, animals fighting, animals grazing someone else's land, arson whether intentional or not, caring for an animal that gets stolen, borrowing an animal that gets hurt or dies, sleeping with an unmarried woman

More Than Even Compensation

Theft (double compensation) and selling or slaughtering stolen livestock (four-or five-fold compensation)

Capital Crimes

Intentional murder, attacking or cursing a parent, kidnapping, keeping a dangerous animal that kills someone, killing a thief in your home during daylight, sorcery, bestiality idolatry

Note that three of the Ten Commandments, when disobeyed, are punishable by death (idolatry, attacking/cursing parents, murder), one is double compensation (theft), and the others still lack such detail. Later we learn that violating Shabbat and comitting adultery are punishable by death (Exodus 31:14, Leviticus 20), and presenting false evidence is punishable by "eye for an eye" (Deuteronomy 19:16-21). I don't know of any place scripture explains the proper punishment for coveting, or for using the name Adonai in vain.

The sequence of events in chapter 24 is interesting. Aharon and the elders are invited to worship "at a distance", but evidently closer to God than the camp. Moshe is is invted to approach God further. Before Moshe accepts this invitation, he writes down all the mishpatim and reads them during a ceremony of accepting the covenant. (This happens in summary form in verse 24:3, with the "zooming in" elaboration of verses 4-8 interrupting the narrative.) Then, only after the people know what is expected of them while he is gone, Moshe departs with the elders. They approach God close enough to see God. The text does not tell of their descent back to the foot of the mountain, but verse 24:14 implies this. Then Moshe ascends the mountain again, seven days later, for a forty-day time within the cloud of God.

Note that in chapter 24, only Moshe claims a covenant is being made. God had said in verse 19:5 that he was about to make a covenant, but never claims the covenant happens until verses 34:10,27, after the episode of the golden calf and the giving of many additional commandments.

Oddly, the festivals of Firstfruits and Sukkot are introduced in verses 23:14-19, but without any calendar dates specified.

Verse 23:18 implies that, at that point in time (with the priesthood of the firstborn, before the Levitical priesthood) a typical sacrifice focused on blood, whereas a festival sacrifice focused on fat.

This wee's Parsha ends with Moshe ascending Mount Sinai to spend forty days with God. Today we use the phrase "a mountaintop experience" to describe a moment of being especially united with God. Moshe was not able to remain on the mountaintop while leading the people: he had to, in some sense, leave God and descend to the people in order to do the day-to-day work God had called him to do. And today many believers think that their spiritual lives must in this way resemble the life of Moshe. But we should not need to separate our spiritual lives into "mountaintop experiences" and "day-to-day life". Unlike Moshe, we are blessed with all that Yeshua's covenant provides for us, which includes a more constant unity with God (see Second Peter 1:2-4).

Traditional Jewish Commentary

Rabbi Ibn Ezra offers a complimentary interpretation of verse 21:7, about a daughter sold as a amah, a handmaid or concubine: besides not "going out" from bondage after six years, the handmaid should not be assigned work that physically requires her to "go out" from the house.)

In verse 21:23-25 the word translated "for" is tachat, meaning "below". Some scholars have interpreted this to mean (in the context of 21:22-27) that the monetary value of the body part should be paid for compensation of the loss.

Rabbi Reuven Semah comments on "An animal that is torn apart may not be eaten; instead you shall throw it to the dog" (verse 22:30):

The Torah teaches us that if an owner of livestock finds a torn animal amongst his herd it is a terefa, unkosher. Since it died without shehitah, ritual slaughtering, it may not be eaten. The owner should take the dead animal and give it to his dog. The commentary, Da'at Zekenim, sees an important moral lesson in this command.

Dogs were commonly used as guards against attacking animals such as wolves and lions. A person's first reaction when he finds his cattle killed by a wild animal would very possibly be anger at his dog, for not having fended off the wild animals.

The Torah tells him to react in the opposite manner. It is specifically when one finds his cattle killed that he should appreciate all the other times he found everything in order. No doubt the dog risked its life previously to protect the livestock successfully until now. The practical application of this lesson is obvious. When feeling disappointed with the performance of a family member, we should focus on appreciating all the previous times when things were done properly.

If the wife doesn't have dinner, if the husband forgets to do his errand, if the child misbehaves or didn't do well in school, or if your boss is not nice, remember and appreciate all the times that things went well. Rabbi Avigdor Miller z"l would go one step further. If one gets hurt, thank Hashem for all the times you didn't get hurt. We have a lot to be grateful for to Hashem and to our fellow man.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab comments on verses 21:15-17 about children:

The Torah mentions two tragic sins which a child may transgress against his parents: striking or cursing one's parents. The presentation of these two transgressions, however, is interrupted by a third sin: a kidnapper who steals a human being and enslaves him.

This interpretation is deliberately designed to allude to the psychological causes which may induce a son or a daughter to stoop so low as to strike or curse his/her parents. Although not a justification for this dreadful act, it is an admonishment to parents not to treat their children like hostages. They should not stifle their child's initiative, berate them for every little thing they do wrong or suppress their youthful aspirations. Parents who act as slave drivers might one day instigate their children's insurrection against them, resulting in tragedy and disaster. (Peninim on the Torah)

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky comments on verse 22:20 about how struggles build character:

Why does the Torah have to mention our experience in Egypt? Wouldn't it be wrong to taunt the stranger even if we never went to Egypt? Why is the slavery a factor in this misvah?

The suffering that we endured in Egypt was a needed ingredient in our development as a nation. It strengthened and unified us to be able to endure any future difficulty. As a result, we might make the mistake and put the stranger through the same difficulties that we had to go through. We might say it is for his own good. Therefore we can now look at our verse in a different homiletic light. "Do not taunt or oppress the newcomer because you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

From here:

Ch. 21, v. 37: "Chamishoh bokor y'sha'leim tachas hashor v'arba tzone tachas ha'seh" - The gemara B.K. 79b gives two reasons for the disparity between payment for an ox, 5 times its value, and a sheep, 4 times its value.

Rabbi Yochonon ben Zakai says that the Torah has mercy even upon a thief. Since the thief wants to make a quick get away, he can carry a sheep. Since this entails some great effort and embarrassment, he only pays quadruple the value of the sheep. An ox is too heavy to carry, so the thief leads it away. He is not subject to the embarrassment of carrying an animal in front of people, and therefore pays more, five times the value of the ox.

Rabbi Meir says that one pays only 4 times the value of a sheep because its loss is not that of a working animal. However, when an ox is stolen, not only does the owner endure the financial loss, but also loses a working animal. Therefore the thief pays 5 times its value.

The Rambam in Moreh N'vuchim explains that in general people can keep personal items locked and away from thieves. This serves as a deterrent and thus theft of such items is not so common. The Torah therefore suffices with a double payment from the thief.

Cattle must be brought to pasture. This leaves them open to theft without having to break into someone's property. To avoid this becoming widespread the strong deterrent of double double payment is levied. This explains the quadruple payment for the theft and sale/slaughter (so that the thief would not be caught redhanded with the theft in his possession) of a sheep.

Why five times the value for an ox? Sheep generally graze together and the shepherd can keep an eye out over his whole flock for theft. Oxen graze in a very spread out area. It is impossible for one guard to keep an eye on all of them, thus raising the ease of opportunity for stealing an ox. This deserves even stricter retribution, hence a payment of five-fold is levied.

Jacob Solomon comments, "It is notable that the Torah only imposes servitude on thieves, not on debtors." This is based on a midrash stating that the servitude as an eved is for people who are caught stealing but cannot repay the loss, based upon Exodus 22:2(3).

The Beis HaLevi asks about verse 24:8: "Why did each individual respond in the plural, Na'aseh v'nishma, we will do and we will listen? More correctly, each person should have said E'eseh v'eshma, I will do and I will listen. How could they speak for everyone else? The Beis HaLevi answers that everyone made two commitments: one to personally observe the Torah, and a second to take responsibility over his friend to ensure that he would also keep the Torah faithfully.