A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: MISHPATIM (EXODUS 21:1-24:18)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant


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).

Many of the laws cited in this parsha relate to monetary issues. For example, financial compensation for an individual who is seriously hurt while working for another and payment to another who is confined to his bed, as a result of quarrel related to business.

There are also laws of ethics and ‘chesed’ (charity/lovingkindness): “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 Sukkot 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)