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Parashat Mishpatim and Its Relationship to the Preceding Chapters by Yaakov Bieler

February 16, 2012 by  
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To what is the first verse in Mishpatim adjoined?

The first verse of Parashat Mishpatim, Shemot 21:1, that follows practically immediately[1] after the listing of the Ten Commandments appearing in Parashat Yitro (20:2-14), is linked to the verses preceding it by the letter “Vav” at the beginning of the first word “Eileh” (these).[2] A “Vav” used in this fashion is known as a “Vav HaChibur” (a connecting ‘Vav’), and corresponds in Hebrew to the English conjunction “And”. However, determining the precise manner in which Parashat Mishpatim is to be understood as a continuation of what comes before rather than a section unto itself is less than obvious.

Connecting Mishpatim to the last of the Ten Commandments.

                The most elegant explanation for the connection between Mishpatim and Yitro is suggested by Sephorno. The commentator contends that the linchpin between the two Parashiot is the last of the Ten Commandments, (20:14) “Do not COVET your friend’s house, your friend’s spouse, his male and female servants, his ox and his donkey, and anything else that he possesses.” According to this view, Mishpatim defines many of the categories of law pertinent to the phrase at the end of the Tenth Commandment adjuring against coveting another’s possessions: “VeChol Asher LeRei’echa” (and anything that s/he owns). When one reflects upon the scope of human existence and activity that can be adversely affected by feelings of jealousy and covetousness, caution can hopefully be exercised so that one does not easily become caught up in such thoughts and behaviors. Kav HaYashar, Chapt. 16, points out the “slippery slope” aspects of not being on guard against violating “Lo Tachmod”:

…If an individual desires the wealth or property of another, one sin leads to another, and he will come to take that money or implement and thereby transgress the prohibition of “Lo Tignov” [do not steal]…

Following through with such a line of reasoning would establish “Lo Tachmod” as the root of potentially testifying falsely against another (in order to obtain his possessions), committing adultery if no other way is found to satisfy one’s lusts and desires, and even the ultimate of anti-social behaviors, murder, in order to obtain what one desperately wants.  

Lo Tachmod can be understood to be the cause of sins associated with earlier elements in the Ten Commandments as well.

                A parallel approach of how “Lo Tachmod” serves as a jumping-off point for other Commandments that ostensibly have nothing to do with coveting and lusting, appears in Tana D’Vai Eliyahu #26. During the course of explaining how the Commandment to honor parents is intertwined with other Mitzvot in the Decalogue, the Midrash states, “How is ‘Kabed…’ (Honor…) connected to “Lo Tachmod”? But it is to teach you that if a person has food in his home, and yet he does not honor and feed and support his parents, even during their younger years, and it goes without saying when they are older, it is considered as if he is lusting after money belonging to others for his entire life.” R. Elimelech Bar Shaul[3] explains the connection between these two important Commandments:

An individual who does not feed and support his parents with his resources, when he has and they do not, and he does not understand that the money that  he can and should set aside to help his parents is not really his, but rather theirs, to such a person, his money is more important to him than his parents.  He also does not realize that even were he to give to his parents everything that he owns, he still could not repay what they have done for him in terms of expenditures, sacrifice, suffering and love that they invested during the course of raising and educating him. Such a person covets the money that belongs to others in the depth of his emotional makeup, by virtue that he wishes to retain funds that ought to be dedicated to others, particularly to his parents.

Using Sephorno’s frame of reference to consider the contents of Mishpatim.

 One can identify at least some portions of Parashat Mishpatim as dealing with various forms of property that one may possess and therefore demonstrate the validity of Sephorno’s contention:

                a.   20:2-11 Laws concerning male and female Jewish servants.[4]   

                b.   21:32 A law  concerning  non-Jewish servants.

                c.   21:33-37 Laws concerning animals that one may own.

                d.   22:1-3; 6-12 Laws concerning thievery and defending one’s property.

                e.   22:4-5 Laws concerning fields.

                f.   22:13-14 Laws concerning borrowed property.

g.   22:20-23 Oppression (including not only verbal, but also monetary acts of insensitivity) of converts, widows and orphans.

                h.   22:24-26 Laws concerning loans, interest and collateral.

                i. . 23:4-5 Proper treatment of animals belonging to another.

What about the subject areas in Mishpatim that do not appear to be connected to Lo Tachmod?

Yet, not all the verses in Parashat Mishpatim appear to be a “perfect fit” for Sephorno’s hypothesis. In order to include within the commentator’s rubric those verses that deal with personal injury and death, (21:12-20, 22-25, 28-31) one would have to resort to the somewhat homiletical position that a person’s life and health are also to be viewed as his “possessions”.[5]    By extension, there is a possible injury dimension to a case of seduction (22:15-16); however it would appear that the Tora’s opposition to such behavior is primarily moral and ethical. Although tithing produce (22:28-29) and bringing first fruits to the Temple (23:19) would appear to be essentially ritualistic in nature, if the theological premise upon which the obligation to tithe is based is underscored, i.e., all things on earth, including ourselves, belong to God and we are only given permission to use these things when we acknowledge God’s ultimate Ownership,[6] issues involving possessions are raised once again

When has one gone “too far” in terms of trying to fit some of the contents in Mishpatim into Sephorno’s rubric?

But are these interpretations of laws that do not readily lend themselves to be understood as manifestations of “Chemda” (jealousy, covetousness) constitute inordinately “stretching things”? And while various adjurations concerning the conduct of trials (23:1-9) may have to do in part with disputes over property, these rules clearly apply to all trials, including criminal prosecutions having absolutely nothing to do with property and possessions. Finally, if one has to provide “creative” interpretations in order to account for the additional laws mentioned above, other commandments regarding witchcraft (22:17), perverse sexual practices (22:18), idolatry (22:19; 23:13, 24, 32, 33), blasphemy and cursing human authority figures (22:27), consuming meat that has not been properly ritually slaughtered (22:30), the Sabbatical year (23:10-11), Shabbat (23:12), laws regarding the three Pilgrimage Festivals (23:14-18), laws regarding first fruits and not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk (23:19) all appear to simply not be relevant to the Commandment “Lo Tachmod” (do not covet). [7] 

An alternate rationale for understanding how Mishpatim is  a continuation of Yitro.

                A less elegant, but more comprehensive hypothesis that allows for accounting for all of the laws that do not fit comfortably within Sephorno’s hypothesis, is offered by RaMBaN. He suggests that rather than being only an expansion of the last of the Ten Commandments, in fact the laws contained in Mishpatim clarify EACH of the extremely general directives of the Decalogue. Such a conception would result in the following outline:

                a) (20:2) I am the Lord your God… [8]

                b) (20:3-6) You shall not have other gods before Me…



                                Cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.[9]   

                c) (20:7) Do not take God’s Name in vain…


                d) (20:8-11) Remember the day of Shabbat…

                                The Sabbatical year.

                                Laws regarding the Pilgrimage Festivals.

                e) (20:12) Honor your father and mother…

                                Do not injure parents.

                                Do not curse parents.

                f) (20:13) Do not murder.

                                Personal injury and death.

                g) (Ibid.) Do not engage in adultery.

                                Perverse sexual practices.

                h) (Ibid.) Tithing produce.

                                First fruits.

                i) (Ibid.) Do not testify falsely…

                                Conduct of trials.

                j) (20:14) Do not covet…

                                (See the list appearing above in connection to Sephorno.)

                It would appear that Parashat Mishpatim from RaMBaN’s perspective is not necessarily exhaustive in terms of listing the only Mitzvot that are implied by each of the Ten Commandments, but rather just as these laws can be viewed as more precise and detailed iterations of the Decalogue, the other Mitzvot that appear in subsequent Parashiot and Books of the Tora can similarly be classified and categorized. Consequently, the Ten Commandments should not be viewed as exhaustive and ends in themselves, but rather representative of the totality of Divine Directives detailed in the Written and Oral Traditions.

A third approach for defining the relationship between the two Parashiot.

The least apparently philosophical and consequently the seemingly narrowest approach to accounting for the link between Mishpatim and Yitro is offered by RaShI. Rather than connecting the “Vav” at the beginning of 21:1 to either “Lo Tachmod” (Sephorno) or to the CONTENT of the corpus of the Decalogue (RaMBaN), RaShI prefers to understand the connection between the Parashiot of Yitro and Mishpatim as emphasizing a commonality of the LOCATION in which they were revealed, and the importance of the connotations of such a specific location for civil law and the courts that enforce them.

…Just like the earlier ones are from Sinai, so too these are from Sinai.

And why is the Parasha of “Dinim” (laws) juxtaposed next to the discussion of the altar (20:21-23)? To tell you that the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) should be situated next to the altar (within the precincts of the Tabernacle or the Temple.)

According to RaShI, either the LOCATION and ATMOSPHERE of the Ten Commandments, i.e., the power and drama associated with Sinai, must be understood to apply equally to the laws found in Mishpatim and thereby confer upon them similar authority and importance, AND/OR the common LOCATION of the altar (discussed at the very end of the previous Parasha) and the high court mandated to have the final say regarding disputes over laws some of which can be found in Parashat Mishpatim, are being alluded to by means of the “Vav” of the word “VeEleh”. On the one hand, quoting Mechilta, RaShI wishes to emphasize that not only were the Ten Commandments given at Sinai, but so were the rules appearing in Mishpatim, most of which have to do with social and interpersonal law. Despite the fairly straightforward statement at the end of Parashat BeChukotai (VaYikra 27:34) “These are the Commandments that HaShem Commanded Moshe to the Children of Israel ON MT. SINAI”, a contrary implication is suggested in Shemot 15:25 where tradition maintains that at Mara, examples of the Tora Commandments were delivered to the Jews significantly before the Revelation at Sinai. The phrase “…Sham Sam Lo Chok U’MISHPAT” (there He gave him [the Jewish people] a statute and LAW), is interpreted in the Talmud and Midrash, e.g., Sanhedrin 56a,  to the effect that “Dinim” (civil interpersonal law) was one of the elements  introduced prior to Sinai in order to give the people an idea of what the rest of the laws of the Tora would be like, and therefore enable them to make a relatively informed decision as to whether to agree to being bound by God’s Commandments. The question of the distinctiveness of the “Dinim” articulated in Parashat Mishpatim first given at Sinai,  as opposed to “Dinim” presented to the people at some earlier period in Jewish history, becomes an issue  when it is noted that “Dinim” is assumed by Rabbinic tradition to have been one of the Seven Noachide Commandments that Sanhedrin 56b states were already implicit in Beraishit 2:16, in the Garden of Eden. Consequently, RaShI’s comment could be understood as stressing that the Dinim of Eden as well as Mara were NOT identical with those of Sinai, recorded in Parashat Mishpatim. Based upon RaShI’s comment, one would then be led to insist that the Noachide presentation of “Dinim” was far more general than what appears in Mishpatim, i.e., every civilization would be expected to develop civil law, but the specifics of each culture’s social contract was left to that society to develop. And as for Mara, while certain parts of Jewish laws affecting relationships between man and man were presented, large portions of these laws were not as yet revealed. Sanhedrin 56b suggests that some of these areas that were first presented at Sinai included the laws regarding the manner in which witnesses were to warn someone before s/he committed a transgression and various fines for violations of Jewish law.

The religious significance of where the Sanhedrin is located.

With regard to the issue of the location of the Sanhedrin, a fundamental principle emerges from this particular hermeneutic interpretation of “Semichut HaParshiot” (the deliberate arrangement of seemingly different topics next to one another, considered designed to teach something about a commonality that these topics share). There is a natural tendency, particularly in a society that prides itself in its adherence to the “separation of church and state”, to compartmentalize religious, ritual law from secular or civil law. It is thought that Commandments that regulate the relationship between man and God are completely different from those affecting the interactions of man and man and consequently should be decided by diverse types of authorities, resorting to distinctive law systems, potentially in conflict with one another’s assumptions and dictates. By locating the Jewish Supreme Court at the heart of Jewish religious rite and practice, a symbolic statement is made that religion involves not only one’s spiritual dimension, but also how one interacts with his/her fellow human being, and the same God Who Cares deeply about how people reach out to Him, also Holds us accountable for how we treat the rest of His Creation.


While Sephorno and RaMBaN pose the challenge to categorize Commandments and consider how they are manifestations of similar themes and metaprinciples, it appears that RaShI is concerned about the origin and authority of all Commandments, both those Revealed in Yitro as well as the contents of Mishpatim. A commentary that appeared originally to be less theological and philosophical, in fact may reflect much more profound ideas than those who focused upon categorization and hierarchies of importance.

[1] For a discussion regarding the last verses in Shemot 22 see the essay for Yitro

[2] שמות כא:א

וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם:

[3] Mitzva VaLev, Avraham Tzioni, Tel Aviv, 1967, pp. 30-31.

[4] Although the Jewish servants mentioned in the Tora are more like indentured servants than individual who are owned bodily by others (the latter definition applies to non-Jewish servants), nevertheless, even if these individuals are working to pay back debts that their “owners” have paid for them, a monetary dimension in the relationship is apparent.

[5] RaMBaM defines a doctor’s obligation to heal a patient as an extension of the responsibility to return one’s lost object. See his commentary on Mishna Nedarim 4:4.

[6] See Berachot 35a.

[7] See Aldous Huxley’s essay, “Wordsworth in the Tropics” (Collected Essays by Aldous Huxley, Bantam Books, New York, 1966) for a discussion concerning how human beings try to make phenomena fit into their theoretical constructs.

[8] There are some who do not see 20:2 as a Commandment, but rather a postulate upon which all other Commandments are based. Consequently, it would not be necessary to associate other Mitzvot with this verse.

[9] Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed, suggests that this restriction might be designed to counter particular idolatrous practices.

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