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The Laws Behind the Laws

  • The Laws Behind the Laws

    Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1−24:18
D'var Torah By: 

Ask your average Jew-on-the street (well educated or not) for the five most important or famous texts of the Torah, and she will certainly include the Ten Commandments. But if you thumb through the average siddur, you will find that the Ten Commandments are missing from the body of the prayer book. Other famous or important Torah passages are included, like the Shema and the Song of the Sea. Why then, aren't the Ten Commandments included? Surely we could use a daily or weekly reminder of their message.

As it turns out, the Ten Commandments were once included in the early Temple service as remembered by the rabbis (see Mishnah Tamid 5:1). But even in the Talmud we have indications that the Ten Commandments were being left out of the service. Listen to the voice in Berachot 12a: "They recited the Ten Commandments, the Shema and its blessings,the Avodah, and the priestly blessing.Outside the Temple people wanted to do the same [recite the Ten Commandments], but they were stopped on account of the insinuations of the Minim." They were stopped on account of the insinuations of the Minim? What does this mean and why were they stopped?

The Minim were the sectarians, those Jews who were already on the periphery of the Jewish community, about to become Christians. Their "insinuations" were that the legal, legislative part of Torah was no longer necessary; it was enough to believe in and follow the Ten Commandments. In order to distinguish the Jewish community from the sectarians, the rabbis removed the Ten Commandments from the service, lest the average Jew-on-the-street was to walk in during the rabbinic service, hear the Ten Commandments, and conclude: "Yes, indeed, the Ten Commandments are sufficient, I don't need anything else."

And indeed, the weekly parashah that follows directly on the heels of the Ten Commandments is Mishpatim, a portion of law after law after law. It reflects the fundamental Jewish view that principles are grand and magnificent, but they are not enough to live by. "You shall not murder" is OK, but what if someone is tunneling through your home at night? What if a murder is accidental? What if the death of a human being is committed by an animal? What if? Judaism acknowledges that if life were simple, its problems could be addressed by the grand gesture of great principles. But because life is complex, it requires an intricate and subtle system of laws that address its multi-layered complexity.

Many of the laws of Mishpatim have come under serious criticism, both recently and through the centuries. Some remain enigmatic: "He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death." (Exod. 21:15) Some were revolutionary (e.g., the attempts to humanize the institution of slavery). Some have made their way into our home customs: "And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them." (Exod. 20:22) This last example became transformed through the genius of the rabbinic tradition. When the Temple was destroyed, it was replaced not by other temples but by the home, later named a mikdash me'at, a "sanctuary in miniature." The rabbis established an extraordinary equivalency:

Temple = home
altar = table
priests = us around the table
sacrifice = bread

And because the altar could not be built from hewn stones (it would take a tool of violence to shape them), so, too, a tool of violence is not used to cut the bread on the Shabbat table. How many of you tear the challah with your hands at the Friday night dinner?

Just as the Temple had to be a place of peace and wholeness, it is our hope that our home will also be a place of peace, not a place of hurt, competition, or violence. We reinforce these wonderful principles not only through grand gestures and statements but also through the regular practice of law and ritual.


For further reading: The Jewish Expression, Moshe Greenberg, ed., Judah Goldin (UMI, 1976).

Shira Milgrom is rabbi at Kol Ami of White Plains, New York.

Slaves' Rules of Slavery
Davar Acher By: 
Isaac Serotta

Days after the Israelites themselves had been freed from slavery in Egypt, we find a host of laws about how the Israelites are to treat their slaves. It is a section of the Torah we would, perhaps, like to disown. How can it be that after all the cruel years of Egyptian bondage, our ancestors almost immediately begin plans for having slaves of their own?

As with other troubling texts, it may help to see the rules of slavery in their historical context. In ancient societies, slaves were not a luxury but an economic necessity. Therefore, our ancestors did not outlaw the practice but regulated the process. In this way they hoped to keep the slaves free from abuse.

Among the regulations, we find that slaves are to serve for six years and be freed in the seventh. At the end of that time, the slave may choose not to go free but instead remain a slave until the jubilee. After six years of service, could a slave really say "I love my master and do not want my freedom?" That pronouncement was required for the slave to remain in servitude.

The explanation of the laws of slavery in the Mechilta, one of the oldest works of the Midrash, makes it possible for us to understand how a slave might choose to remain with a master rather than go free. For example, the Mechilta tells us, "A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master, nor put his shoes on him, nor carry his things before him when going to the bathhouse." (Tractate Nezikin) It goes on to say that even those things a student or a son might do for the master should not be done by the slave. Slaves were to be used for economic purposes, not for creature comfort.

Then the Mechilta tells us, "Just as a hired man cannot be forced to do anything other than his trade, so also a slave cannot be forced to do anything other than his trade." If the slave came into service as a barber, tailor, butcher, or baker he works at that trade for his master, and the master cannot compel him to change his occupation.

The slave also had regular hours. "Just as a hired hand works only during the day and does not work during the night," so it is with the slave. In fact, the Midrash goes so far as to suggest that if the master has only one good loaf of bread or one cup of good wine, he must give it to his slave. One can see that in Jewish tradition, the rules pertaining to slaves were a big step forward in comparison to the harsh lawlessness of the Egyptians. Could it be that the experience of Egyptian slavery led to the formulation of more humane laws of servitude?

And yet, what are we to do with this text today? Surely it does not call for a reinstitution of slavery. Nor does it matter much to us today whether our ancestors were more humane than their Egyptian masters had been. Is it possible, however, to read between the lines and find a metaphor for our own lives?

The text says, "Six years shall [the slave]serve" (Exod. 21:2), teaching us that each human being has a limited productive life. "In the seventh year he shall go out free" (21:2), reminds us that we are mortal. "If he came in by himself" (21:3) tells us we can live on our own or we can search for spirituality, a life of Torah. "He shall go out by himself" (21:3) tells us that if we do not live with spirit, then we die without it.

"If he is married=85" (21:3): One might think of the kabbalistic view of the marriage between God and Israel and realize that we can have an intimate bond with God, and if we do, "then his wife shall go out with him." (21:3) Through our lives and perhaps beyond, God is with us if we are with God.

"If his master has given him a wife and she has borne him children" (21:4) Children are our legacy. Here it can be read metaphorically. We will leave the work of our hands behind in the form of students who learned from us or in the products we created. The text asks us if we do this of our own volition or only because of the taskmaster that stands over our shoulder. If only because of the taskmaster, then "the wife and the children shall belong to his master, and he shall go out by himself." (21:4)

But if he says, "I will not go out free" (21:5) he acknowledges the importance of spirituality, of faith, and of Torah in his life. Then he shall ever remain close to God and serve God, not for six years, not necessarily only in this lifetime, but forever.

The haggadah tells us to remember that we were slaves. Perhaps Parashat Mishpatim can help us envision that as well. When we live our lives devoid of holiness, we are slaves to the void. When we live in God, we are not void but avadim, "servants," to the Holy One. Then we are able to say, "I love my master and wish to continue in Your service."

2/08/1997
Reference Materials: 

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566–592; Revised Edition, pp. 511–538;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 427–450

When do we read Mishpatim

2019, February 2
27 Shevat, 5779
2020, February 22
27 Shevat, 5780
2022, January 29
27 Shevat, 5782
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