Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Mishpatim

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Mishpatim 5759/1999

These Are the Rules

Rabbi Shimon Golan

Midrashah for Women

The climax of last week's reading, Parshat Jethro, is the theophany at Mount Sinai, during which we were given the Ten Commandments, the foundation of the entire system of mitzvot (commandments) binding on members of the Jewish people. The present reading primarily concerns the "rules" or system of laws (mainly civil) governing relations between people, so as to "found Jewish society on principles of justice and humanity," in the words of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary.

The subject of maintaining a legal system already came up in the beginning of Parshat Jethro, before the Torah was given, when Moses appointed judges over the people at Jethro's suggestion. Exodus Rabbah (par. 3) remarks on this:

"These are the rules" (Ex. 21:1) -- What is written before this? "Let them judge the people at all times" (Ex. 18:22), and here it says "These are the rules," and in between (ch. 20) we have the Ten Commandments. It is like an important woman who goes out to take a walk, she has bodyguards fore and aft and she walks between them. Thus it is with the Torah: laws before it, and laws after it, with it (the Ten Commandments) in the center.

Thus the Law is the protector of the Torah, both in the sense of an honor guard and also as the guarantor that the principles of the Torah are carried out.

The homily continues (loc. sit, par. 15):

Rabbi says: Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, warned regarding observing the Commandments, so too he warned about the law. Why? Because the world depends on it, as it is said: "By justice a kings sustains the land" (Prov. 29:4).

Still further we read (loc. sit., par. 19):

Rabbi Eliezer said: The entire Torah depends on justice. Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, gave laws after the Ten Commandments, since human beings break the law and He punishes them.

It is remarkable how much the Rabbis stressed the notion of protecting the legal system as the protector of the Torah. For example, we find that other subjects intervene between the Ten Commandments in Parshat Jethro and the civil laws in Parshat Mishpatim. The verses at the end of Parshat Jethro deal with two subjects:

1. "With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold" (Ex. 20:20).

2. Rules concerning the construction of the altar (20:19-22).

However, the interpretations of the Sages relate even these subjects to the main issue of law (and judges) in the reading. For example, in Tractate Sanhedrin 7b we read:

Scripture says, "With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor of gold." Gods of silver and of gold are forbidden, but does this mean gods of wood are permitted? Rav Ashi said: Gods that serve for silver and gods that serve for gold.

Rabbi Samuel Eliezer Edels (Maharsha) offers the following interpretation of Rav Ashi's words in his insights on aggadot:

This should be interpreted with respect to two evil things that they did: They [judges] were appointed on account of the gold and silver that they gave the king or the president; and what they do [as judges and Rabbis] is for the silver and gold they wish to collect through the office of rabbi and dayan, ... eating off of it and waxing rich from office.

He adds a remark which was germane in his time (approximately four hundred years ago), and is all the more so today:

This sin is something people have been blameworthy of even close to our own times. Indeed, our Rabbis have on several occasions ... issued edicts and severe sanctions, bans and fines in this regard, that no rabbi or halakhic instructor be appointed because he bought that office for silver or gold... Such things have become a stumbling block and testimony to wrongdoing, for how may mishaps and misfortunes have befallen our generation thereby!

A rather transparent allusion to the qualifications necessary (and those unnecessary) for judges to fulfill their office suitably!

The Talmud continues to relate idolatry and the altar to the Law:

Bar Kappara said: Whence comes the saying by the rabbis, "Be moderate in judgment" (Ethics of the Fathers)? From the placement of "Do not ascend..." (Ex. 20:23), in juxtaposition to the words, "These are the rules..." (Ex. 21:1).

R. Eliezer said: Whence that a judge should not tread on the heads of the people? From the placement of, "Do not ascend..." in juxtaposition to "These are the rules...."

This juxtaposition of verses (semikhut parshiot) is to teach us the sort of behavior expected of judges. Although the idea itself is reasonable, its relationship with the verse "Do not ascend My altar by steps" is obscure. The connection is elucidated by Kli Yakar:

Any judge who does not judge with moderation lacks refinement, for he wishes to show all people that he is expert in the law and knows how to infer from one thing to another, and in his arrogance does not consult books of law but renders a decision on haste. Thus it turns out that he who does not judge with moderation ascends steps of pride and haughtiness.

In other words, personal modesty is an essential characteristic for sober moderation in judgment.

We present one more interpretation, cited by Rashi from the Mekhilta:

Why are matters of law juxtaposed to matters of the altar? To indicate that the Sanhedrin should be placed near the altar.

The most straightforward understanding of this remark is that the physical location of the highest court, the Great Sanhedrin, in the Second Temple Period was in the Chamber of Hewn Stone near the altar on the Temple Mount. Other interpretations, however, can be offered. Kli Yakar, for example, says, "Place the Sanhedrin near the altar so that they learn from the altar, that whatever is not allowed at the altar also is not allowed in the Sanhedrin." He gives several examples: people with physical defects cannot serve at the altar nor in the court; a single judge cannot adjudicate, just as an altar of a single stone (called a mazevah) is not allowed.

I would like to offer another explanation, based on an idea presented by R. Moshe Alsheikh (in Torat Moshe). He explains the need for a divinely given system of justice:

That no one raise the following idea: what is the ultimate benefit in laws governing relations between men, if not to make peace between one person and another?... If so, were one to find any system of law with reasonable rules regarding civil affairs, composed by wise men... and issues could be resolved thereby peacefully, even if not by the Lord's Teaching in the Torah, why should the Almighty preclude me from following them?...

R. Moshe Alsheikh rejects the notion that an agreed "social contract" can replace the laws of the Torah; therefore the Torah teaches us divine laws for human affairs as well.

Perhaps the significance of placing the Sanhedrin close to the altar means that equal spiritual weight be given the "altar," i.e., the religious laws (mitzvot) of the Torah between man and G-d, and the "Sanhedrin," i.e., the system of civil law between one person and another, which is also divine.