The next time we read this Torah portion is February 22, 2020

Parshat Mishpatim

Moses reads out some of God's many laws. Some of these laws include ethics, idol worship, animal treatment, kashrut (kosher food). God also outlines some laws relating to the major Jewish holidays: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

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Female Servitude...Wait, What?

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A self-study guide for: Mishpatim - Does Our History Become Our Laws?

Parshat Mishpatim Summary

Mishpatim Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1–Exodus 24:18

The children of Israel are standing at the base of Mount Sinai, and God has just spoken to them, revealing the Ten Commandments for all to hear. What comes next? Parshat Mishpatim — and, as the name implies (“Mishpatim” means “laws” or “judgements”), it’s a whole lot of laws. In fact, until the final chapter of the parsha (and with the possible tiny exception of Ex. 23:20–23), there is no narrative whatsoever: it is one long list of laws. Do do this, don’t do that, and if you disobey, thus will be your punishment. The laws cover a range of topics: slaves, loans, charging interest, personal injury, property damage, and more. But they are far from comprehensive. It is not as if this is a complete list of the 613 mitzvot, of everything that God asks of the children of Israel over the course of the remaining five books of the Torah. That has prompted many commentators to ask the question: Why are these laws singled out in Parshat Mishpatim? And when you ask that question, you can’t help but notice that there were another set of laws that were singled out only a chapter ago, indeed a shorter list than the one which is found here, a list of ten laws: the Ten Commandments. How do the Ten Commandments relate to the laws of Parshat Mishpatim? Or rather, do they? Imu Shalev thinks that they do. (To hear more about that, see Imu’s video here — and once you’ve watched that, we recommend that you check out our podcast on Parshat Mishpatim which is something of a sequel to Imu’s video.)

Now, what are some of these laws? 

Well, the list starts with a discussion of how to treat avadim, which is generally translated as “slaves” (although “servant” or “worker” may be more appropriate in this context) — and that probably raises a red flag for you right away. Slavery? Isn’t this barbaric, oppressive? Aren’t we, in the enlightened 21st century, way past this kind of backwards thinking?

Those are great questions. Really, they are — and it’s the kind of thing that we, at Aleph Beta, don’t want to shy away from. We want to lean into it. So… what does that look like?

For starters, Rabbi Fohrman has a video where he tackles the case of the female slave, head-on — and it leads him to some really interesting and deeply relevant conclusions. Click here to see it.

Beyond slavery, here’s a sampling of some of the more interesting laws that come up in Parshat Mishpatim:

  • A male Hebrew slave can work for you for six years but in the seventh year, he has to go free — and if he resists and wants to stay, you have to do this troubling, violent ritual where you make a hole in his ear against the doorpost

  • If a man chooses to marry his female Hebrew slave and then marries a second wife, he still has to take care to meet the needs of the first wife (food, clothing, intimacy)

  • You can’t strike your slave

  • A person who kills another (with forethought, with malice, and of course with the necessary witnesses present, etc.) is deserving of the death penalty. But if, without malice or forethought, you cause another person to die, then you will be granted sanctuary.

  • Kidnapping isn’t allowed

  • You can’t strike your parents, or even curse them

  • There are consequences if you accidentally hit a pregnant woman and cause her to miscarry

  • An ox who fatally gores a person will be put to death

  • A person is liable for injuries that result from his having an open pit

  • A person must pay if he leads his animals into someone else’s field and the animals eat from that person’s crops

  • A person who lights a fire is liable if it causes certain kinds of damage

  • Bestiality is punishable by death

  • Idolatry is forbidden

  • Don’t mistreat the stranger, window, or orphan

  • Don’t charge interest when you lend money

  • Allow a calf or lamb to stay with its mother for seven days before offering it as a sacrifice

  • Do not eat animals which were violently slaughtered in the field (not according to permissible practices of kosher slaughter)

  • Take care to return lost objects to their owners

  • Help to relieve the burden of your enemy’s donkey

  • Ensure that poor and rich men alike receive justice

  • Distance yourself from falsehood

  • It is forbidden to accept a bribe

  • Do not work the land in the seventh year

  • Do not work (you or your extended household) on Shabbat, the seventh day

  • Come to the Temple to observe God’s holidays three times a year

Look for a moment at the law of the man who kills another without malice or forethought. Rabbi Fohrman notices something fascinating about this law: that it seems to be based on an actual story, earlier in the Torah, of a person who harms another person — without malice, without forethought. Not only are the two — the law and the story — conceptually similar, but upon further inspection, it turns out that they employ very similar words and phrases. It’s wild — but it actually seems that this law was somehow born out of that earlier story. That our history as a people becomes our laws. It’s a revolutionary idea, one which gives you a new lens through which to see all of our laws — and perhaps all of our stories, too. We highly recommend that you get started with Rabbi Fohrman’s video on this: “Does Our History Become Torah Law?

And then, at the end of the parsha, are a few verses that detail Moses' ascent partway up Mount Sinai with Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and 70 elders, a curious description of their ability to glimpse something of God (a verse which demands interpretation, since of course God has no physical form!), and what is perhaps the first communal sacrifice to God.

Now, having described all of that: we think that there’s an elephant-in-the-room question which you’ve got to ask about this parsha. What is so spiritual about laws? If you’re very familiar with Judaism, then this may seem like an odd question to ask. Of course Judaism is all about laws. That’s how the religion works. But we want to invite you to take a step back and probe that for a second. We’re supposed to take a lamb that is 9-days-old and bring it as a sacrifice to God, but God forbid (so to speak) we bring a lamb that is seven days old as a sacrifice — woe to us!! That’s against the law! Why?? What kind of a religion is this? What is so spiritual about that? That’s exactly the kind of question that we like to ask at Aleph Beta – and we’ve got something for you: Imu Shalev gets into it in his aforementioned video, click here to see it.