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, email@example.com
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:
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):
Still further we read (loc. sit., par. 19):
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:
Rabbi Samuel Eliezer Edels (Maharsha) offers the following interpretation of Rav Ashi's words in his insights on aggadot:
He adds a remark which was germane in his time (approximately four hundred years ago), and is all the more so today:
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:
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.
We present one more interpretation, cited by Rashi from the Mekhilta:
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:
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.