Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Mishpatim 5764/ February 21, 2004


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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,





Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

Hebrew and Jewish Studies,

University College, London.


A number of parallels have been drawn between the Code of Laws in Mishpatim and those of Hammurapi ("the kinsman who heals") but in one particular instance, which we shall come to, there is a more helpful parallel in the Code of Laws from Eshnunna.


The great interest in the Code of Hammurapi, dating from about 1,750 BCE, is based on the fact that most of the 282 laws listed are well preserved, clearly drafted and comprehensible to the modern mind. The same does not apply to other ancient codes of law, such as the one from Eshnunna, a city near Baghdad, and those of Nuzi, a Hurrian town east of the Tigris. They only exist in shorter pieces and speak more about individual cases than general ones, and so are less comparable to Mishpatim. But some are quite close. For instance, in the laws of Eshnunna (59 are known in all) law no. 53 states that if one ox gores another to death, the owners shall divide between themselves the price of the live ox and the dead one. This is exactly like Exodus 22:35. The other laws are less similar, except for the one that we shall see below.


Let us look first at some other cases. Hammurapi (see J. B. Pritchard, 1955, Ancient Near Eastern Text[ANET], 163 -177) is similar to Mishpatim in that it deals with slaves, property rights, manslaughter and murder, injuries to men, slaves and pregnant women, borrowing and lending rights, kidnapping and stealing. In many ways, Hammurapi is harsher than Mishpatim, particularly in some cases of stealing, which are punishable by death. On the other hand, local slaves only serve for three years (not six) and go free in the fourth year (law 117). However, if a male slave runs away and denies his master, then his ear is cut off (law 282), while our Hebrew slave who wants to stay with his master, has his ear pierced (Exodus 21.6). Slaves and ears seem to go together.


For his declaration to stay with his master and the piercing of his ear, the Hebrew slave is taken by his master to appear before haElohim (literally "the gods") and the Rabbis take that to mean he is brought before the judges (Rashi ad loc.), who would be sitting at the gate of the city (e.g. Deut. 21:19). The question could be raised that, if it means "judges", why does it not says so? For we see that in another case, in Exodus 21:22, it actually uses the word for judges ( pelilim). However, Hammurapi uses a similar terminology in connection with a borrower who disputes the money that he owes (law 106). In that case the lender has to appear "in the presence of the god" and prove that he lent the money, before he can recover it. Similarly with the borrower and lender of articles (law 107). Again, in Mishpatim, if a safekeeper has someone else's article stolen from his house, and the thief is not found, the safekeeper has to come "near to the god(s)" to confirm that the article was indeed stolen, and not taken by him (Exodus 22:7). It is curious that both Hammurapi and Mishpatim use the sacred name for what we presume to mean "the judges". What is the reason?


The reason is to be found in the code of Eshnunna, which dates to about 2,000 BCE (ANET, 161 - 163). Law no. 37 is similar to the case above. If a householder has accepted someone else's property for safekeeping into his house, and it is then stolen, together with his own property, in order not to be liable to the original owner he has to go and swear an oath "in the gate of Tishpak" that he himself did not take the object. Tishpak was the name of the chief god of Eshnunna (ANET, 163), and so it is that the householder had to go to the gate of the city, named after its god, where clearly the judges sat in public to dispense the law, and swear his oath in front of them, in front of the "the gate of (the god) Tishpak". To Hammurapi, in civil cases like this, to appear "in the presence of the god" would mean going in front of the judges at the gate, exactly what the Rabbis say it means in Mishpatim.