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.
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Parashat Mishpatim 5760/2000

Court and Temple

Dr. Pinhas Hayman

Department of Talmud

Parashat Mishpatim begins with the words, "And these are the rules that you shall set before them." Extensive commentaries have been written on the first word, ve-eileh ("And these"), especially on the "and." Rashi notes: "Just as what precedes was given at Sinai, so too what follows was given at Sinai." His remark here serves to connect the Ten Commandments and the laws given along with them in Parashat Yitro with the numerous laws governing relations between people (ben adam la-havero ) which we find in Mishpatim.

Rashi adds another remark: "And why (ve-lama) was the section dealing with civil law-- Mishpatim-- placed immediately after that of the altar? To indicate to you that you should seat the Sanhedrin in the vicinity of the Temple." This last remark of Rashi's refers to the fact that the end of Parashat Yitro deals with construction of the altar, specifying that the priests should not ascend the altar by steps since this might cause them to be immodestly revealed. Immediately after this text on the altar come the rules and ordinances that begin this week's reading. These subjects are juxtaposed in order to teach that the altar (Temple) and the Sanhedrin (court) should be situated side by side.[1]

Rashi's comments are cited from the collection of halakhic interpretations, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael.[2] However, if we look there we see that the remark on the placement of the Sanhedrin comes at the end of Parashat Yitro, before the remark about the laws which also originate from Sinai; Rashi inverted the order. Rashi conveys an additional message in the very order in which he presents things: just as the civil law as well as the Ten Commandments are from Sinai, so too, the sacrificial rites at the altar as well as the legal proceedings in the Sanhedrin, which are to be built in proximity, are from Sinai. Both tradition and progress originate from Sinai, since both derive their authority from G-d.

Religious practice is intrinsically conservative and tries to confine the development of life within the bounds of the traditional and the sanctified. On the other hand, the realities of life which come to the fore in civil actions before the courts are intrinsically dynamic, demanding a fresh, up-to-date and contemporary approach, unhampered by the burden of the past. Some cultures have chosen tradition at the expense of progress, others have sided with progress at the expense of tradition. In the transmission of Israelite/Jewish faith and practice, the balance between tradition and progress has been assiduously safeguarded, giving rise to a unique approach that gives fresh vitality to the old ways and sanctifies the new. Tradition dominates in the Temple; progress, in the court. The priest rules the sanctuary; the sage, the court.

The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai also relates Court and Sanctuary:[3]

How do we know [that the Sanhedrin should be] adjacent to the altar? Because it is taught in Scripture: "You shall take him from My very altar to be put to death" (Ex. 21:14). And whence do we know that putting to death is to be done only in the presence of the Temple? Because it is taught in Scripture: "You shall take him from My very altar to be put to death." Hence, if there is an altar one can have the death penalty, and if not, on cannot have the death penalty.

After the destruction of the Temple the Sanhedrin moved to Jabneh, and the Sages worked hard to preserve and strengthen the status of the Sanhedrin in the people's eyes, especially due to the new circumstances which precluded its being seated adjacent to the altar in the Temple. Perhaps this helps us understand why the Sages at Jabneh put such great emphasis on instituting public prayer according to the time schedule and format of the sacrificial service. In so doing, were they not trying to preserve, at least symbolically, the connection between law and sacred worship?[4]

Let us investigate the essence of the relationship between our institutions of religion and law. What values stand behind the Sages' insistence on binding these things together? What difference does it make whether or not the Sanhedrin is next to the altar?

The Sages taught that maintaining the physical aspects of life does not contradict the spiritual, but rather makes the spiritual possible and promotes it. The human initiative to create, to rule the world and inhabit it, stems from man being the apex of creation, authorized from the very beginning to act as partner with the Creator in continuing and perfecting creation. Worship of the Lord in Jewish tradition is supposed to lead to recognition of man's great moral and ethical responsibility and stature in this world, for in worshipping G-d he becomes cognizant of the image of G-d within himself.

This point is made by the Rabbis from a portion in last week's parasha:

The Lord said to Moses:

Thus you shall say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens: With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold. Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you[5].

In regard to the above description of the altar at the end of Parashat Yitro, the Sages asked, "Why was the altar to be made of earth?" In aggadic commentaries this is explained as follows:[6]

"Of earth." R. Berakhya and R. Halbo said in the name of R. Samuel the Elder: He was created from the place of his atonement. Just as it says, "Make for Me an altar of earth," so the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "Behold, I shall create him from the place of his atonement, and I hope he will stand up."

Man was created from the earth that was destined for the future altar, and therefore human beings and the altar have similar characteristics and powers! Due to this special closeness the altar atones for man when he sins. However, a different aggadic commentary points to the converse: man was not created of the material destined in the future for the altar, rather the altar was made of the material from which man, before it, had been created:[7]

Why of earth? Since man was created from the earth, ... and sacrifices and offerings are made on an altar of earth in order to atone for the body which is taken from the earth.

Of course these two midrashim are parallel to each other. We suggest that both formulations express different attitudes towards the relationship between man and the altar, between the physical and the spiritual. In the first midrash the source of meaning and values is the Divine, symbolized by the altar. Man was created from the earth of the altar, that is, the significance of his life stems purely from worshipping the Lord. The second midrash takes the opposite approach, that the origin of holiness itself is in man, who gives special status to that which concerns the divine spirit. What we see here is the dialectic between theology and humanism, between sanctuary and court, between tradition and progress. In the final analysis both midrashim agree that precisely the tension and balance between these two focal points sustains them both. The institution of justice is situated next to the altar so that the judges will remember that their actions are sanctified by G-d, "For judgment is G-d's (Deut.1:17)," and so that the priests serving at the altar will remember that the sacred rite exists to serve the needs of man, and not the needs of the rite itself. Both priest and judge are bound together to the service of the society and the individual according to sacred values, to sanctify and make new, to preserve and modernize alike. Only in this way can one build the best possible context for the status of man in partnership with his Creator.

In the realm of practice and halakhah, the Sages found a way of comparing actions at the altar and actions of the court with each other. In each system they incorporatelements from the other system. It was commanded that the Sanhedrin include priests, in accordance with the verse, "You shall appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time" (Deut. 17:9).[8] On the other hand, the Sages instructed the High Priest not to deviate from the procedure of worship in the Temple as determined by the Sages in the Sanhedrin.[9]

Thus we see that the altar and the court were like twin institutions that emerged from and were nurtured by the same underlying idea: the sanctity of man stems from the sanctity of G-d, but just how to sanctify the Lord stems from the sanctity of man. Through the actions of man in the institutions of justice the sanctity of the Lord in the Sanctuary is illumined: "And the Lord of Hosts is exalted by judgment" (Is. 5:16).

[1] In the same spirit, the Sages interpreted the proscription against ascending the altar by steps as an indication that judges should act with restraint in passing judgment.

[2]. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Jethro, Tractate de-be-Hodesh, Jethro ch. 11.

[3] Ch. 21. For a parallel source on this midrash, cf. Midrash ha-Gadol.

[4] Likewise, they said that a person's table is like an altar, etc.

[5] Exodus 20:19-21. Immediately following is the proscription against ascending the altar by steps and then the subject of civil laws.

[6] Genesis Rabbah (Theodor- Albeck ed.), ch. 14, s.v. "Min ha-adamah," and parallel variants, cf. below.

[7] Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw ed.), Parshat Tzav, § 14.

[8] Maimonides, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2.2: "It is a commandment for the Great Sanhedrin to include priests and levites, as it says, "You shall appear before the levitical priests," but if there are none to be had, even if the court is comprised entirely of Israelites [neither priests nor levites], that is permissible."

[9] For example, cf. Mishnah Yoma 1.5: "The elders of the court handed him over to the elders of the priesthood; and they took him to the House of Avtinas where they swore him in, repeated, and went and said to him: 'Sir, the High Priest, we have been sent by the court, and you are delegated by us as the emissary of the court. We swear you in, by the name of Him whose name is on this House, that you not change a thing from all that we have told you.' He would retreat and cry, and they would retreat and cry."