Mishpatim: Rabbi Avraham

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Torah Reading: MISHPATIM Exodus 21:1-24:18

Haftara: Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26

As indicated by its name of MISHPATIM, “the Laws”, much of our parshah is made up of laws — the basics of the Mosaic code as they apply equally to all Israelite men and women at all times and in all areas of life. These laws flesh out the details of the code for life implied in the Ten Commandments of which we read in last week’s parshah of YISRO.


One of the principles of rabbinic Torah commentary is that “there is no ‘before’ or ‘after’ in the Torah”. This means that the order in which things are told in the Torah does not always correspond to the order in which they happened — events may appear out of sequence.

Understanding this principle may help unravel some confusion that can easily arise from a casual reading of last week’s parshah and this week’s. On the surface, it appears as if the laws contained in our present parshah of MISHPATIM were given to Moses “after” the “main” event of the Divine revelation and giving of the Ten Commandments in the presence of all the people, as recounted in last week’s parshah of YISRO. Thus, at the end of last week’s parshah we read that “the people stood from afar and Moses approached into the darkness.” (Ex. 20:18). Directly afterwards we read that G-d gave Moses a number of commandments, including those relating to the sacrificial altar in the Temple, with which YISRO concluded. Our parshah of MISHPATIM then follows on immediately with the words: “AND these are the commandments that you shall place before them.” This makes it appear as if the detailed laws in MISHPATIM were given to Moses “after” the divine revelation to all the people at Sinai.

However, at the end of MISHPATIM, after all the laws, we read in Ex. 24:1-18 a narrative portion that recounts for a second time, and in a different way, the event of the Divine revelation at Sinai about which we already read in YISRO Ex.19-20:1-18. This concluding section of our present parshah goes back in time to Moses’ “negotiations” with the people in the days PRIOR to the Giving of the Torah. “And Moses came and told the people all the words of G-d and ALL THE LAWS, and all the people answered with one voice and said, All the words that G-d speaks we will do.” (Ex. 24:3). The Torah then goes on to tell how, on the actual day of the Giving of the Torah, the first-born, acting as priests, offered “converts'” sacrifices on behalf of all the people, who affirmed their acceptance of the Torah in the words, “We shall do and we shall hear” (Ex. 24:7). Moses then sprinkled the blood of the sacrifices on the altar and on the people to signify the striking of the Covenant.

Which WERE “all the laws” that Moses told the people PRIOR to the “Giving of the Torah” — the laws of which they declared their acceptance??? Rashi (on Ex. 24:3) tells us that these are the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah, Shabbos, honoring father and mother, the Red Heiffer and DINIM (laws between man and man) which were given at Marah (BESHALACH, Ex. 15:25).

In fact, these DINIM are none other than the very laws of murder, manslaughter, theft, robbery, damages, court procedure, etc. that take up the major part of our parshah of MISHPATIM. It turns out that these laws too are written in the Torah “out of sequence” — for they were already given at Marah prior to the “Giving of the Torah” at Sinai.

If many of the laws contained in MISHPATIM were actually given at Marah, why are they written here in our parshah out of sequence, “sandwiched”, as it were, between the main account of the giving of the Torah in YISRO and the second account, at the end of MISHPATIM?

Rashi’s opening comment on our parshah comes to draw out the lessons implicit in the placement of these detailed laws directly after the account of the Divine revelation at Sinai, immediately following the commandments relating to the Temple altar. “AND these are the laws” (Ex. 21:1) — Rashi states: “The word AND comes to add these (ensuing) commandments to the first (i.e. the Ten Commandments). Just as the first ones came from Sinai, so do these come from Sinai. And why is the section of DINIM positioned immediately after the section dealing with the altar? To teach you to position the Sanhedrin next to the altar” (Rashi ad loc.).

The Sanhedrin is the assembly of Torah sages whose mission is to teach how the laws of the Torah apply in practice in their generation. The appointed place of the Sanhedrin is on the Temple Mount, in the “Chamber of Hewn Stone” (LISHKAS HAGAZIS) adjacent to the main Temple courtyard, with the sacrificial altar in its center.

The altar is where man offers his KORBAN — his penitence and prayers, through which he comes close (KAROV) to G-d. But good intentions are not enough. Adjacent to the altar of prayer and devotion must be the brain-center of law and organization, through which the teachings of religion and the revelation of the divine are carried into our day-to-day life. This is accomplished through the practice of HALACHOT, “goings” — ways of “going” in accordance with G-d’s law as we go about our daily business in the world.


After the heights of G-dly revelation as recounted in last week’s parshah, MISHPATIM plunges us into the intricate depths of the Torah code of law. The laws revealed at Marah prior to the “Giving of the Torah, together with those set forth in MISHPATIM and all the other laws hose written elsewhere in the Torah are all integral parts of the single unified code that was revealed at Sinai (see Rashi on Leviticus 25:1). Since G-d is perfect unity, the entire code was implied in a single flash with the first DIBUR (“word”) “I am HaShem your G-d” (Ex. 20:2). Corresponding to the Ten Sefiros that underlie all creation, the Ten Words (ASERES HADIBROS, the “Ten Commandments”) constitute the underlying fundamentals of the entire Mosaic code. In a sense, “All the rest is commentary” — the six hundred and thirteen separate commandments that make up the code are all details implicit in the essential unity of G-d. All are necessary in order to reveal that unity to the world.

Many in the world pay lip-service to the Ten Commandments, but we do not have to look very far to see that practically all of them are violated in one way or another every day by people all over the world. Societies everywhere are rife with crime and violence, sexual immorality, slander, envy and jealousy. Hardly anyone in the world knows about Shabbos, one day a week of complete rest from technology and business, a day to be with G-d.

The many laws in MISHPATIM constitute the core of the Mosaic code, teaching us how to BE WITH G-D in ALL our involvements and activities in this world.

It is appropriate for the nation that came to Sinai from slavery in Egypt that the code of MISHPATIM opens with the laws of slavery. The law of MITZRAIM, Egypt, the place of METZAR, constriction, was that no slave could ever go free. But the first of the detailed laws of n the Torah code tells us that the opposite is the case. The Hebrew slave must work for his master for six years, but in the seventh year he goes free. If he chooses to stay on with his master after six years, he may do so, but only until the fiftieth year, the YOVEL (“jubilee”). Time goes in cycles. A person may fall low, but eventually the cycle swings around, and he comes up. The cyclical nature of time implicit in the fourth commandment (six days of work followed by Shabbos) is revealed in the laws of slavery in MISHPATIM to be a redemptive quality. The Sabbath day, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee (after 7 x 7 = 49 years) all have the power to free man from the various kinds of slavery into which he falls.

Slavery in the literal sense is still widespread in many parts of the world. In addition, many who are supposedly “free” are also “slaves” in one sense or another, whether to their circumstances, to those around them, to deep-seated inner blocks, to urges and desires, to the dictates of the media, fashion, advertisers, etc. etc.

The Holy Zohar, whose commentary on MISHPATIM is exceptionally lengthy, reveals in detail how the laws of slavery in our parshah contain the laws and principles by which souls are re-incarnated in this world. Souls are obliged to “serve” in different incarnations order to pay off debts incurred through sins and failures in previous incarnations. All of the other detailed commandments in the Torah also contain mystical allusions. For the revealed code of Torah law, which applies to our lives and everyday business and other affairs, is one and the same as the code through which G-d governs the entire universe on all its different levels. All is unity.

Besides slavery, the code of laws contained in MISHPATIM includes the basic laws of marriage, murder, manslaughter, kidnap, willful injury, willful and unwitting damages of person and property, theft, negligence, loans, law court procedure, ritual and other laws. The code concludes with the laws of the Sabbatical year, the Sabbath and annual festivals, all of which bring redemption into the cycle of time.

At the end of the parshah we read: “And HaShem said to Moses, go up to Me to the mountain and be there, and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, the Torah, the Mitzvah that I have written to teach them” (Ex. 24:12).

The Talmud explains: “THE TABLETS are the Ten Commandments. THE TORAH means the written Torah (“MIKRA”); THE MITZVAH means the Mishneh (=Oral Law); THAT I HAVE WRITTEN — these are the prophets and the holy writings (NEVI’IM and KESUVIM). TO TEACH THEM — this is the Gemara, (the deductive principles of the Torah). Teaching that they were all given to Moses from Sinai.” (Berachos 5a).

The written Torah, as we read it in the weekly parshah, is an integral unity with the oral Torah. Thus our parshah of MISHPATIM contains the foundations of the laws expounded at length in four out of the six orders of the Mishneh — the Oral Law. Thus in MISHPATIM we encounter some of the main laws of the order of ZERA’IM (“Seeds” – agriculture), including Terumah, the tithe for the priest, and the Sabbatical year. We also encounter the fundamental laws of the order of MO’ED (the seasons and festivals), of NASHIM (marriage) and of NEZIKIN (damages, property, loans, legal procedure).

At the end of MISHPATIM we read “And Moses came into the cloud and he went up to the mountain, and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Ex. 24:18). Immediately afterward, in next week’s parshah of TERUMAH, the Torah begins to explain the form of the Sanctuary, the prototype Temple, and how it was constructed and inaugurated in the wilderness. This will take up the remainder of Exodus, after which we enter Leviticus and the world of sacrifices and ritual purity. Sacrifices and ritual purity are the subjects of KODOSHIM (holy items) and TAHAROS (purity), the last two orders of the Mishneh.

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