A ‘BISSEL’ OF TORAH: MISHPATIM (EXODUS 21:1-24:18) By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant

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In last week’s Torah Parsha (YITRO), the Ten Commandments rang out from Mount Sinai in a symphony of sound and vision, thunder and lightning – -and the world was forever changed. Although this week’s Parsha (MISHPATIM) lacks the’ Pyrotechnic  Accompaniment’, its message is, in effect, a qualification and extension of these commandments. The result is a fusing of laws regarding our relationship to God, with remembrance; history; and, laws pertaining to social justice – -thereby, creating an entirely new ‘world view’.

In biblical times, slavery was not uncommon; and, the Israelites experienced the pain and torture of being enslaved to the Egyptians, for centuries. Consequently, it is not a coincidence that Parsha (MISHPATIM) begins with God’s law: “Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years; and, in the seventh year he shall go out in freedom” (1). To ensure that the Israelites maintained their memories and history at the forefront of their actions, they were further commanded: “You shall not mistreat a stranger, or a convert; nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (2).

Furthermore, God issues a strong polemic, relating to widows and orphans. Many Israelite slaves, who were fathers and husbands, died prematurely, as a result of beatings and suffering, imposed by their masters in Egypt. The commandment to protect widows and orphans was stated in forceful terms: “If you oppress a widow or orphan – – beware, for I will surely hear their cries; and, my wrath will be kindled; and, I will slay you with my sword” (3).

Parsha (MISHPATIM) also reveals new and important insights, pertaining to the sixth commandment, which proscribes murder. Specific contours of what constitutes ‘murder’ are addressed. Categories are created: manslaughter; premeditated murder; criminal negligence; crimes of passion; and, more. In a concise and unequivocal manner, different punishments are established, based on the nature and intent of the act.

Many of the laws cited in this Parsha relate to monetary issues: financial compensation for an individual, who is seriously hurt, while working for another; payment to a person, who is confined to his bed, as a result of a quarrel; money returned to a person, if one or more of his animals are hurt, while wandering in a dangerous place on another man’s property; etc.

There are also laws of ethics and ‘chesed’ (charity/kindness): “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person, you shall not behave towards him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him” (4).

Parsha (MISHPATIM) contains numerous other laws, regarding respect, kindness, and compassion. Threaded throughout the lines is an entreaty to create a society of egalitarianism, with a code of ethics and morality, particularly related to our interactions with others: “You shall not accept a false report; do not place your hand with a wicked person” (5)….”If you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden, you shall surely help along with him” (6).

It is within this Parsha, where we are commanded to observe Shabbat, Passover, and the festivals of Succot and Shavuot.

Parsha (MISHPATIM) contains 53 mitzvot; 23 imperative commandments; and, 30 prohibitions.

Judaism’s revolutionary vision is that ritual and social holiness are integrated as one, in the Torah. The Ten Commandments were the first harbingers of this vision, and the verses of Parsha (MISHPATIM) translate that vision into law.



(1) EXODUS (21:2)

(2) EXODUS (22:20)

(3) EXODUS (22: 22-23)

(4) EXODUS (22:24)

(5) EXODUS (23:1)

(6) EXODUS (22:5)

(7) EXODUS (24:12)