Mishpatim - Partners in Torah


Parsha Perspectives

  • Man to Man


    ואלה משפטים אשר תשים לפניהם

    “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” (Shemot 21:1)

    It has been noted that the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1810 – 25 Shevat 1883), the founder of the Mussar (Ethics) movement, traditionally falls during the week of Parshat Mishpatim. I once heard a beautiful insight into this non-coincidental connection based on the first comment of Rashi in our parsha.

    Rashi explains that the seemingly superfluous letter “vav” – (and) – at the beginning of the parsha is there to emphasize a connection between our parsha and the previous one (Yitro). Just as the previous parsha related the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and it was self-evident that the mitzvot contained therein were presented by G-d at Sinai, so too the commandments contained in Parshat Mishpatim were given at Sinai.

    Parshat Yitro contains the 10 Commandments, the fundamentals of the Jewish religion, which people are naturally scrupulous to perform.  By and large, Parshat Mishpatim contains mitzvot pertaining to the conduct between us and our fellow man, laws which are often viewed as trivial and mundane which can cause us to be lax in their observance.  It is for this reason that the Torah emphasizes their Divine origin, equal to that of the “more serious” injunctions of the 10 Commandments.

    Rabbi Salanter toiled endlessly at his life-long mission to convince Jews to recognize that the mitzvot governing our interpersonal interactions are just as important as those pertaining to our relationship with G-d, and we must be equally meticulous in their performance.  Rashi tells us that Rabbi Salanter’s thesis is the message of the very first letter of our parsha, and it is therefore fitting that his yahrtzeit often falls this week, as learning this parsha is indeed a most proper tribute to his legacy.

    This message is illustrated by the following story involving a young newlywed who was careful to perform each mitzvah according to the most stringent opinion. Shortly before the holiday of Sukkot, his wife requested that they spend the holiday with her elderly mother.  Her husband agreed and on the day before Sukkot, they traveled to her mother’s home, arriving just a few hours before the holiday.

    As they began to unpack and get settled, he noticed that the sukkah that his mother-in-law had constructed in her yard didn’t conform to a Rabbinical stringency required by the great Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (1878-1953). Because time was short, he realized that he didn’t have sufficient time to adjust the sukkah in order to meet this opinion, nor did he have time to return to his hometown.

    The husband had no choice but to eat his meals and sleep in the sukkah of one of her neighbors. Meanwhile, his wife and mother-in-law were left to “enjoy” their holiday alone.  A prominent Rabbi who heard about the incident remarked, “He kept the Rabbinical stringency of the Chazon Ish while violating the Torah’s commandment (Mishpatim 22:21) against causing pain to a widow or orphan!”

    As piety is often associated with the mitzvot between man and G-d, it is unfortunately not uncommon for someone to emphasize this kind of mitzvah at the expense of the commandments which govern our interpersonal relationships.  In reality, Rashi and Rabbi Salanter teach us that true piety requires us to recognize that both categories of mitzvot emanate equally from G-d and must be balanced accordingly.

  • Civil Responsibilities Or Religious Practice?


    …ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים

    “And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them” (Shemot 21:1).

    Last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, ended with laws regarding the Altar in the Holy Temple and Tabernacle.  This week’s Torah portion details many of the civil and criminal laws that are an integral part of the Torah.  What is the connection between these two different sets of laws?  The juxtaposition teaches us that the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Jewish Court, should convene in close proximity to the Altar.  The question remains—why?

    The Torah is directing us to a fundamental duality of Jewish life, civic responsibility and service of G-d.  Although it may seem that one is a religious matter and the other is not, Judaism sees both as primary expressions of what it means to be a Jew.  A person who focuses only on service of G-d or only on his civic responsibility will not develop his full Jewish potential.  Being very pious in the house of worship and then committing fraud, tax evasion, or other white collar crimes is not an acceptable form of Judaism.  Neither is being scrupulous in business, paying taxes on time, never stealing a penny from anyone, but then ignoring G-d, or not having any relationship with Him.

    A financial scandal from which we are all still reeling from underscores this point. While the main perpetrator may have given large sums of charity and volunteered his time to sit on the boards of many nonprofits, his professed piety clearly did not translate into his business practices.  He was a person who would have been happy to see the court far from the Temple, so that he could maintain his religious actions without having his conscience assaulted by the paragon of jurisprudence being located next to the Altar.

    Unfortunately, our world also suffers greatly from a lack of appreciation for the other side of this message.  Many people confuse being a good Jew with being a good citizen.  They feel that as long as they are honest in business, pay their taxes, keep their lawn mowed and sidewalks shoveled, they are being all they can be as Jews.  But in truth, that might make them good Americans, but Judaism is a much richer experience, one that includes a relationship with the Divine; one that includes prayer, Torah study, mitzvot, and spirituality.  That’s why right next to the zenith of civic propriety was the Altar—the place where mankind related to G-d.

    The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was meant to be a model that showed Jews the way to make a temple within themselves.  Indeed, the wording for the commandment to make the Tabernacle indicates this: “And they shall make for me a Tabernacle and I will dwell within them” (Shemot 25:8).  Just as the Temple had the civic courts of justice adjacent to the Altar indicating their equal importance, so too we should make our civic justice and our relationship with G-d into equal components of the temples we build within us.

  • Slave Wages


    כי תקנה עבד עברי שש שנים יעבד ובשבעת יצא…חנם

    If you buy a Jewish slave, he shall work for six years; and in the seventh he shall go free…(Shemot: 21:2)

    Mishpatim begins with the laws governing the treatment of Jewish slaves.  Unlike their Egyptian overlords, Jewish slave owners must treat their slaves with mercy and kindness.  So much so, that the Talmud states that a person who acquires a slave actually acquires a master (Tractate Kiddushin 20a).  For example, the slave owner must provide for his slave and his entire family for the duration of his service.  If the master has only one pillow, he must give it to his slave.  Most significantly, he may not keep his slave longer than six years (unless the slave actively chooses to remain with his master), and there are many provisions for ending the term of service much earlier.

    Granted, the proper treatment of slaves is an important part of Jewish law.  However, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902 – 1979) asks a fundamental question:  Many other civil laws have much more pressing relevance to daily life.  Business dealings, property damages, cases involving theft, injury, and even death are all part of Jewish society – and they are all covered in this week’s portion.  Why did the Torah begin with the relatively rare laws regarding Jewish slaves?

    Rabbi Shmuelevitz answers that to the Jews who stood at Mount Sinai, slavery was far from a distant memory.  Indeed, less than three months before, they were still enmeshed in the slavery of Egypt.  Therefore, the most opportune time to teach the Jewish people the laws regarding the rights of their own Jewish slaves was right then, while their own experiences were still etched in the forefront of their minds.  Having personally suffered the bitterness of slavery, the Jewish people had a visceral understanding of the vulnerability and helplessness a slave must endure at the hands of his master.

    However, it is a natural human tendency to neglect such moments of inspiration and allow ourselves to become inured to the need to grow, change and act as a result of our personal experiences. Therefore, by commanding these laws first, G-d ensured that the Jews would accept them as eternal truths and incorporate them into the very fabric of Jewish society.

    The following story illustrates the conflict people face when confronted by a powerful personal experience:  Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, the late spiritual advisor of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Israel, was once riding in a taxi when the obviously secular cab driver recognized him and said, “Rabbi have I got a story for you!” He proceeded to relate the following incident:

    “When my friends and I completed our tour of duty in the Israeli Army, we went on a safari in the jungles of Africa.  One afternoon, one of the guys went out by himself. Suddenly, we heard a loud scream from the brush. We ran over and saw that a boa constrictor had wrapped itself around our friend and was crushing him to death. We did everything we could to break  the  snake’s  grip, but nothing helped.  Finally, one of the guys yelled, “Say the Shema!” (The ‘Hear O Israel’ prayer traditionally said before death).  In sheer terror our friend screamed out the Shema.  Miraculously, the snake released its grip and slithered away.”

    Rabbi Levenstein asked, “Where is this fellow today?” “He became much more religious after the incident,” answered the cab driver. “And what about you?” asked Rabbi Levenstein. “Me?” the cabbie said sheepishly, “The snake wasn’t wrapped around me!”

    The cabbie’s response is a classic example of the tendency to neglect even the most powerful experiences, and it raises a question of its own:  Why is it so easy to write off so many events, ideas, stories, or lectures that, at least intellectually, should inspire us to new levels of growth and personal development?   What is the key to avoiding this pitfall so that we can hang on to those moments of inspiration and create lasting changes in our lives?

    The first step is to open up our hearts and minds to the lessons inherent in our personal experiences. Someone who internalizes the lesson of having survived a brush with death, for example, has a much greater appreciation of the value of life than the spectator on the sidelines.   Someone who has personally felt the pain of being mistreated by a boss instinctively knows the importance of treating workers with respect.  Someone who has personally benefited from someone else’s kindness knows how easy it can be to transform another person’s life.  Once we recognize that life itself is speaking to us, we have the power to create new moments of inspiration every day of our lives, and to use that inspiration as the building block for a lifetime of growth and development.

  • More Than Good Behavior


    כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענון. אם ענה תענה אתו כי אם צעק יצעק אלי שמע אשמע צעקתו

    “You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you [dare to] cause him pain – for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry.” (Shemot 22:21-22)

    The Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 3:17) teaches that “without derech eretz (literally “the way of the land,” but traditionally used to refer to proper conduct and behavior as defined by the Torah), there can be no Torah, and without Torah, there cannot be derech eretz.”  This statement seems to present an enigmatic catch- 22 regarding the initial attainment of both Torah and derech eretz.

    In his commentary on this Mishnah, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1180-1263) resolves the apparent contradiction by explaining that the Mishnah is discussing two distinct types of derech eretz.  The first derech eretz refers to what is commonly known as essential good manners and interpersonal skills, which one must possess as a prerequisite to beginning to study Torah.  The second derech eretz refers to an exceptional and heightened sensitivity to others, which can only be acquired through studying Torah.

    One such example of this sensitivity can be gleaned from our verse, which cautions against causing pain to widows and orphans, who are often among the most helpless and tragic members of society.  In doing so, the Torah, which never wastes a word, curiously doubles each of the verbs – 3 times in one verse! What lesson is the Torah coming to teach us?

    An insight into these seemingly superfluous words may be gleaned from a powerful story I once heard. A young father and husband suddenly passed away one spring day.  As his widow struggled to put the family back together and reassure the orphans, she was determined to make the upcoming holiday of Passover as beautiful as ever, even as she herself wondered who would sit at the head of the table and conduct the Seder.

    As part of the traditional preparations, she took her children to get new shoes in honor of the holiday. The owner of the shoe store, familiar with the tragic plight of the family, attempted to cheer up the children by offering each a shiny balloon.  While most of them seemed appreciative and momentarily forgot their troubles, one of the girls walked to the door and released her balloon skyward.

    The mother, embarrassed at her daughter’s apparent lack of appreciation, proceeded to lecture her about the need for respect and gratitude.  The innocent girl looked up at her mother, and through a tear-stained face managed to explain her actions: “Daddy didn’t get one.”

    Although any humane person would naturally feel compassion at the plight of a poor widow or orphan, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859) explains that the Torah is coming to open our eyes to a finer sensitivity which we are expected to internalize and strive to reach.  Our verse uses three double expressions to alert us that the pain of widows and orphans is twofold.  The Kotzker Rebbe explains that in addition to the natural hurt of the slight or insult which would be felt by any person, the cruel treatment reawakens deep wounds by causing them to think that if only their beloved father or husband was still alive, he could come to their defense.  The intense cries which result will immediately arouse G-d’s compassion, and it is for this reason that the Torah stresses the need to treat them with mercy.

    Such empathy and consideration couldn’t come from the most sensitive human being, but only from the study of G-d’s Torah.  This, then, is the Torah’s derech eretz!

Table Talk

For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table

Q: Parshat Mishpatim begins by discussing the laws of a Jewish slave (Shemot 21:2-6).  What are some of these laws, and what lesson can we derive from them?

A: Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian notes that the Torah requires his master to care for the slave’s needs just as he cares for his very own (Kiddushin 20a).  Further, if the master only has one bed or one pillow, he is required to give it to his servant and do without, as our Sages teach that a person who acquires a Jewish servant actually acquires a master for himself.  If a person would walk into a house and see two people sleeping, one on a bed and one on the hard floor, he would automatically assume that the person sleeping on the bed is the master and the one on the floor is his slave, but according to the Torah it is just the opposite.

Specifically in regards to this dejected individual, who was caught stealing or forced to sell himself into slavery due to extreme financial hardship, the Torah requires his owner to give him the comfortable bed and treat him with respect.  Such empathy and consideration doesn’t come naturally to even the most sensitive human being, but only through the study of G-d’s Torah. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)


Q: The Torah gives the master of a female Jewish slave a moral obligation to arrange for her marriage, either to himself or to his son (Shemot 21:8-9).  Who is this maidservant? She is the daughter of a man so stricken by poverty that he was forced to sell his own young daughter into slavery, hardly a girl that people will be jumping to marry.  Why would the Torah suggest that her wealthy owner would want her as a wife or daughter-in-law?

A: In his work Darkei HaShleimus, Rabbi Shlomo Margolis suggests that this mitzvah teaches us that when it comes to seeking a prospective match, money shouldn’t be the determining factor.  Nobody could possibly be as destitute as this maidservant, yet the Torah commands her owner not to see a financially downtrodden girl but a potential wife for himself or for his son. Money – or the lack thereof – doesn’t reflect on the essence of a person and his/her suitability as a good husband or wife.

Rabbi Margolis recounts that there was once a student in the Radin yeshiva in Poland who returned after a trip to meet a prospective match.  The saintly Chofetz Chaim asked him how the encounter had gone, and the boy proceeded to describe at length the tremendous poverty in which the family lived. The sagacious Chofetz Chaim turned to the boy and asked with a smile, “And what other ma’alos (positive traits) did she have?” (Rabbi Ozer Alport)


Rashi writes (Shemot 22:24) that although the Torah usually uses the word אם – “if” – in conjunction with something that is optional, there are 3 places where this word is used even though the activity is obligatory, including the mitzvah to lend money to the poor. Why would the Torah use a word which could be misconstrued instead of clearly commanding a person to do so? (Taima D’Kra by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, Darash Moshe by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)


One Shabbos afternoon, more boys than usual arrived at the neighborhood group for reciting Psalms, and when the time came to distribute sweets to all who had attended, there weren’t enough to go around.  Those in charge asked for volunteers to forego their candy for that week in exchange for a guarantee that they would receive two in its place the following week.  Some of the boys came to the Rav to question whether such an arrangement violates the prohibition in this week’s parsha (Shemot 22:24) against taking interest.  Does it?


Rashi writes (Shemot 22:30) that as a reward to the dogs for not howling at the Jews on the night of the Exodus (Shemot11:7), the Torah declared that non-kosher meat should be given to them as an expression of gratitude.  What benefit could there be in rewarding an animal who couldn’t possibly appreciate such a gift?


Why would the Torah command us (Shemot 23:7) to distance ourselves from falsehood instead of simply commanding us not to lie? (Ayeles HaShachar by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman)


The Torah portion this week is comprised of a large number of commandments.  One of these laws concerns taking a bribe: “You shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the clear-sighted and corrupt the words of the righteous” (Shemot 23:8).

  1. The Torah forbids a judge from receiving any form of bribe from either of the litigants. Bribery is an action which requires two parties, the giver and the recipient. There is a different monetary law in the Torah which also involves two parties, that of loaning money with interest (Devarim 23:20).  There, the sages understand that the prohibition applies both to the lender and the borrower.  Why, then, does the prohibition for bribery fall only on the judge?
  2. Unlike most other prohibitions, the Torah provides an explanation that accepting a bribe will distort a judge’s thinking and cause him to render incorrect judgments.  Yet of all people a judge is supposed to have superior wisdom and objectivity.  Why, then, might the reason for the prohibition against accepting a bribe be spelled out in the Torah?


The Torah forbids a judge to receive any form of bribe from either of the litigants, explaining that doing so will distort his thinking and cause him to render incorrect judgments (Shemot 23:8-9).  Why does the Torah give the reason behind this mitzvah, something which it doesn’t characteristically do, which could potentially mislead a judge who, knowing the rationale behind the mitzvah, thinks he may accept a bribe and simply be careful not to allow his objectivity to be impaired? (Ayeles HaShachar by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman)


The Torah forbids (Shemot 23:8) a judge to receive any form of bribe from either of the litigants.  If G-d wanted to ensure the fair and unbiased pursuit of justice, why wouldn’t the Torah similarly prohibit the litigants from trying to give a bribe to the judge (just as the Torah forbids not only a lender to lend money with interest but also forbids the borrower from accepting such a loan)?


Before Moses ascended Mt. Sinai, G-d told him that after his descent from there, He would send a malach (angel) as a messenger to lead the Jews through the wilderness and help them conquer the Canaanite nations (Shemot 23:20).  During his stay on Mt. Sinai, the Jews committed the sin of the Golden Calf.  Furious, G-d told Moses that He would not lead the nation Himself to Canaan, but rather He would send an angel (Shemot 33:2).  Moses protested vehemently, pleading for G-d Himself to lead the nation (Shemot 33:15-16).

  1. If sending an angel in G-d’s stead was considered a punishment, then it would seem that Moses should have protested when he first heard the plan.  Why might he have objected only later, after the sin of the Golden Calf?
  2. G-d told Moses that when His emissary would conquer the Land, he would do so in increments so that the empty cities wouldn’t be overrun by wild animals (Shemot 23:29-30).  Since G-d was helping the Jews in a miraculous way with his special emissary, He obviously could have arranged for them to conquer the land quickly and simply keep the animals away!  Why might G-d have preferred to have His emissary conquer the Land in increments when the same outcome could have been accomplished more rapidly?


Q: G-d promises (Shemot 23:26) that He will fill the number of the days of the truly righteous people who observe all of His commandments.  How is this blessing to be interpreted?

A: The Gemora in Kiddushin (38a) derives from this verse that G-d completes the days of the righteous, which is traditionally understood to mean that He allows them to live complete years and die on the date on which they were born. However, at the funeral of Rav Chaim Volozhiner, one of the eulogizers, Rav Dovid of Novhardok, suggested that a more accurate understanding would be that the righteous die on the day of their brit milah(circumcision).  Although the Gemora’s source for this teaching is Moshe, who died on 7 Adar, the day of his birth, this can be explained by the fact that he was born already circumcised! Rav Dovid concluded that with this new understanding, it wasn’t surprising to note that Rav Chaim Volozhiner died one week after his birthday, precisely on the day of his brit milah! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)


Mishpatim focuses on the laws governing our relationship with mankind.  Many commentators question why the Torah chose to discuss these laws immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments. In his explanation, Nachmonides refers to a Medrash which states, “All of the Torah is dependent on justice.”  Yet, in his commentary on the Book of Mitzvot, Nachmanides states that belief in G-d is the foundation on which all other commandments are built.  This appears to indicate that the Torah is dependent on belief in G-d, and not justice.

1) Given the primacy of the need to believe in G-d, in what way could the laws governing our relationship with G-d be considered “dependent” on the laws that govern our relationship with mankind?

2) What idea is being conveyed by the Medrash, when it states that the entire Torah is dependent on the laws found in Mishpatim?

3) How can the apparent contradiction in Nachmanides’ commentaries be reconciled?


“He (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that G-d has said, we will do and we will learn!’” (Shemot 24:7)  What was it that Moses read to the People of Israel?

Rashi tells us that Moses read the entire narrative “from Bereishit (the beginning of Creation) until the giving of the Torah, as well as the commandments (see Talmud, Sanhedrin, 56b) that were given at Marah (a system of civil law, Shabbat, and honoring one’s parents).”

1) Why would reading these specific portions of the Torah inspire them to obediently accept upon themselves the rest of Torah?

2) How can the Jewish People agree to “do” before “learning”? How can you do before knowing what to do?

3) What common thread is there, if any, in the seemingly odd collection of mitzvot: a system of civil law, Shabbat, and honoring one’s parents?


Q: If a Jew steals and has no money to pay back his theft, he is sold into slavery by the Bait Din, the Jewish Court of Law.  His term lasts six years, at which point he is a free man.  If he doesn’t wish to go free, he must go through a procedure that involves getting his ear pierced.  Following the procedure, he is a slave until the Yovel, the Jubilee Year.  Rashi explains that specifically the ear is pierced as a punishment for having heard at Mount Sinai G-d’s prohibition against stealing, and nevertheless proceeded to steal.  Why is his ear punished for a theft which was performed by his hands and in which it played no role?

A: The Sfas Emes and Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank answer that had he properly “heard” the prohibition against stealing, he would have internalized the lesson and been unable to subsequently transgress. The fact that he was able to violate this commandment reveals that at the time that he heard it, it went in one ear and out the other, and for this disrespect toward G-d’s mitzvot the ear indeed deserves to be punished! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)

Parsha Tidbits

Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study



    “And these are the statutes that you shall place before them.” Shemot 21:1

    That you shall place before them – “G-d said to Moses, ‘Don’t think that you can simply teach the law to them three or four times until they’re familiar with it, without being bothered to teach them how to understand it.’  Therefore it says, ‘that you shall place before them,’ like a table that is set and prepared for a person to partake of.” – Rashi

    This was the first time the people would be hearing these Halachot (Laws), some of which would be logical and some of which would defy human reason.  G-d did not want Moses to merely instruct us how to act, but also to explain to us how this code of law would benefit us to the utmost.  Although comprehension of the rationale for mitzvot at the deepest levels often eludes us, and must not be prerequisite for their observance, there is much that we are given to understand and this was taught to us in tandem with the law itself.  By insisting that Moses include their explanations in the teaching of the laws, G-d ensured that no Jew would ever be able to claim that he accepted the Torah unwittingly


    “And when a man plots against his fellow to kill him intentionally, from My Altar you shall take him to die.” Shemot 21:14

    Plots against his fellow – This teaches that only one who intended to kill his fellow is subject to this punishment, as opposed to a doctor who unintentionally harmed his patient or a parent or teacher who unintentionally struck a child too forcefully. – Rashi

    Intentionally – The word used by the Torah is “b’mirmah,” which literally means “with deceptiveness.”  This is because one who intentionally kills another person draws his strength from the primordial serpent who also utilized deception to cause Adam and Eve to sin, which resulted in death being introduced to the world. – Rabbeinu Bachya

    From My Altar you shall take him to die – The Altar served a similar function as the Cities of Refuge did, in that an inadvertent murderer could not be killed by an avenger if he stood upon the Altar.  In this instance in which the murder was intentional, he was to be forcibly removed even from the Altar which could offer him no protection.

    Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer) explains that the Altar upon which Temple Offerings were brought endowed us with great merit and increased our life span.  Thus, it was an excellent refuge for one who sought to escape death at the hands of an avenging relative.  When one plots to kill another, however, he diminishes life on earth, and therefore it is inappropriate for him to take hold of the Altar whose role is to increase life.  Therefore, he must be physically removed from the Altar, for it is considered an abomination that he has taken hold of it.


    “And one who strikes his father or mother shall surely die.” Shemot 21:15

    Strikes – Only a blow that causes blood to flow is subject to capital punishment. – Rashi

    Much discussion can be found in Halachic tomes (Jewish law books) about whether the prohibition against striking a parent extends even to a situation where no malice is intended?  An example of this is a doctor or dentist who wishes to treat a parent and would need to perform a procedure that will cause bleeding. See Shu”t Minchas Yitzchak 1:27, Shu”t Yachel Yisroel Siman 41

    In an age when respect for authority has eroded, and gratitude toward parents is often not as prevalent as it should be, the Torah’s admonishment against striking a parent is especially salient.  Our parents deserve nothing less than our utmost respect and appreciation. We must feel this so strongly that the thought of striking a parent must be as distant from our minds as death itself.


    “When men quarrel and one man hits his fellow with a stone or his fist; and he does not die but becomes bedridden.  If he gets up and is able to walk outside on his own power, the one who struck him shall be acquitted.  Still he must pay him for his loss of work, and for his medical treatments. ” Shemot 21:18, 19

    Shall be acquitted – Would it enter your mind that this person, who has not killed would be killed? But here you are taught that he is imprisoned until it becomes clear whether the victim will recover. And this is the meaning of, “When the victim rises and walks with his cane” then the one who struck the blow is acquitted.  But so long as the other has not risen, then the one who struck the blow is not acquitted – Rashi

    His medical treatments – The Hebrew for this is, “V’rapoh Yerapeh” and the letter Peh is pronounced with a dagesh which means it’s a hard Peh, not a soft Feh.  This is true for every instance in which the Torah refers to healing at the hands of a human being.  This stands in stark contrast to instances where the Torah speaks of healing at the hands of the Almighty in which case only a soft Feh is used.  This is because human healing usually generates enormous pain before the cure can be achieved.  Bitter medicines and harsh side effects are common. Painful surgeries and follow-up treatments are routine.  Healing by the hands of the Almighty, however, is soft and gentle and entails zero discomfort. – Rabbeinu Bachya

    Rabbi Yonasan Eibshutz zt”l pointed out that when one enters into an argument with his fellow, he is liable to strike out against him.  Sometimes he’ll use his fist and other times he’ll secretly badmouth him to others.  Here the Torah hints to the fact that in some ways it is actually preferable to use ones fists rather than his tongue, for physical blows can be absolved by reimbursing him for effective medical treatments. The effects of slander, on the other hand, are virtually impossible to undo.


    “An eye in place of an eye, a tooth in place of a tooth, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot.” Shemot 21:24

    An eye in place of an eye – One who causes the loss of an eye must compensate him for the worth of his eye.  For instance, if he were sold as a servant he would be worth less with only one eye than with two eyes.  The one who inflicted the wound must compensate him the difference.  This is true of all of the cases mentioned in the pasuk; the intent is not the severance of the actual limb, as our sages have explained in Masechteh Bava Kama 84b. – Rashi

    He must compensate him the monetary value of the eye… -Rashbam

    The reason the Torah expresses the punishment as if it expected the literal removal of the eye, is because that would be his fitting punishment measure for measure.  Our tradition however, teaches us that in reality one must only pay the value of the eye… – Sforno

    This verse, though widely quoted, is frequently misunderstood.  The Oral Law makes it abundantly clear that the punishment is not for the criminal to lose his own limb, but rather, to replace the missing limb through monetary compensation.  The various commentaries must be studied to appreciate why this understanding is not a departure from the literal meaning of the verse in order to appreciate the interconnections of the Written and Oral Law.  An excellent elucidation of this point is offered by the classic commentator Rabbi Yaakov Meklenberg, in Ksav V’kabblah.


    “When a man shall steal an ox or a sheep and then slaughters or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four for the sheep.” Shemot 21:37

    Five and Four – Why is he fined such an exorbitant amount?  He has become entrenched in this sin and must pay dearly if he is to successfully uproot it. – Tosefta

    Five and Four – Why does he pay five times the value for an ox and only four times that of a sheep? Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai explains that the Almighty took into consideration the loss of dignity suffered by the thief in each instance and fined him correspondingly.  An ox which can be prodded to walk and need not be placed on the shoulders of the thief, entails less loss of dignity.  Absent the atonement of the shame of carrying an animal on his shoulders, he must pay five times its value, which is the full fine for a sin of this nature.  A sheep, on the other hand, must be carried long distances, entailing a certain degree of embarrassment for its bearer.  Correspondingly, he must pay a slightly lesser amount since he already earned a degree of atonement through his shame. – Rashi

    If the Torah accorded such respect to a lowly thief, how much more so does one who exerts himself to fulfill a mitzvah deserve to be respected. – Rabbi Simchah Zissel of Kelm

    Strangely, although describing a thief, the Torah utilizes the dignified term, “ish,” rather than a lesser term such as “adam.”  What redeeming qualities does one engaged in thievery have to earn this designation?  Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Peshischah explained that there are three worthy lessons that every person can learn from a thief:

    1. He is not dissuaded when he encounters hardships;

    2. If at first he fails, he always tries again;

    3. He will forgo his dignity to attain his goal.

    Though he uses these traits for an immoral purpose, we can learn from him and apply them to a more worthwhile purpose.  In this sense, he is a teacher of virtuous qualities and therefore worthy of the more distinguished title.


    “You must not mistreat any widow or orphan.” Shemot 22:21

    Widow Or Orphan – The same applies to any person, but the Torah speaks of a typical case, for widows and orphans are defenseless and often victimized. – Rashi

    Mistreat – If your intent is to cause an orphan pain, you may not treat him harshly.  If your goal is to assist him in his personal growth, it is permitted. – Sforno –Rabbi Ovadiah ben Jacob 1475-1550

    Nevertheless, the term “any” indicates that even where authorized, one must be especially careful not to overdo it with an orphan or widow. – Haemek Davar (by Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, also known as the Neziv)

    You Must Not – One who witnesses the maltreatment of a widow or orphan and does nothing to protest, is guilty of this crime as well.– Ibn Ezra ( Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, 1089-1167)

    One who mistreats a defenseless person is not only a cruel and uncaring person, but he is also making a grave mistake in assuming that these people are truly defenseless and therefore easy targets.  This is because G-d assumes responsibility for their welfare, and He makes it clear [Devarim 10:18] that He will not accept their exploitation at the hands of others.  One who targets them for abuse demonstrates doubt in G-d’s ability to protect them – a sin on par with, or possibly greater than, the mistreatment of the unfortunates.


    “Do not curse judges. Do not curse a leader of your people.” Shemot 22:27

    Do not curse judges – [The use of the term, Elo-him] is the source for prohibition against cursing G-d as well as the prohibition against cursing judges. – Rashi

    Do not curse judges – Even if you believe that the judge turned the judgment against you unfairly, do not curse him for a person is blind to his own faults. – Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno)

    Do not curse judges – The verse speaks of situations which frequently occur because kings and judges often judge monetary and capital cases and are likely targets for abuse. – Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160)

    A leader of your people – Only when he behaves as a member of the people [i.e. he follows the Torah’s strictures and commands.] – Talmud, Tractate Yevamos 22a

    The Kotzker Rebbe zt”l explained that this Talmudic limitation can be explained in another manner as well.  Kings are only human and prone to making mistakes.  So long, however, as the king acts in what he perceives to be the best interests of the people, one may not curse him even if the result is not to his liking.  Only if they act in self-interest can they be targets for severe criticism.


    “And a holy people shall you be to Me; you shall not consume flesh of an animal that was torn in the field; to the dogs shall you throw it.” Shemot 22:30

    A holy people – [This is meant as a promise] If you distance yourselves and refrain from consuming neveilot [unslaughtered animals] and treifot [animals with a wound to a vital organ], you will be Mine.  If not, you will not be Mine. – Rashi

    Although the laws of Kashrut may provide certain health benefits, nowhere are they mentioned in the Torah as the underlying basis for this mitzvah.  Rather, the Torah emphasizes that for reasons unknown to us, the consumption of certain foods create a distance between man and G-d.  Neither our lack of understanding of the mechanisms of this, nor modern advances in food preparation, eliminates the need to adhere to this mitzvah fastidiously.  The very essence of the Jewish people, our sanctity and intimate bond with G-d, depend on it.


    “Keep away from anything false. Do not kill a person who has not been proven guilty or one who has been acquitted.  I will not let a guilty person escape punishment.” Shemot 23:7

    Do not kill a person who has not been proven guilty – From where do we derive that in a case where one has left the court after having been convicted and a person says: ‘I have evidence to prove his innocence!’ that we bring him back?  Because the Torah states: ‘Do not kill an innocent man.’  And though he may not be a righteous man for he has not yet been acquitted in court, nevertheless he is innocent from a death verdict for you must try to vindicate him – Rashi

    Keep away from anything false – Distance yourself from those who speak falsehood and spread slander, and this will lead to, “Do not kill a person who has not been proven guilty,” for falsifiers and slanderers cause many innocent people to be killed. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor

    Keep away from anything false – Why did the verse not use the more standard admonition, “Do not speak falsehood?”  This is because speaking falsehood is so common and unremarkable that a simple admonition would not suffice.  Instead the Torah phrased it this way, to add an extra layer of emphasis to the need to distance oneself entirely from falsehood. – Ksav V’kabbalah

    The story is told that Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm and his brother-in-law, both disciples of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter zt”l, pledged to distance themselves from all manners of falsehood.  They once spent the evening in the home of a friend and his brother-in-law took ill and began to groan and cry out in pain.  The groans grew so loud that it threatened to rouse the entire household.  Rabbi Simcha Zissel entered his room to calm him, emerged a few minutes later and peace once again reigned in the home. When asked what secret healing process he had employed, Rabbi Simcha Zissel laughed and explained, “I did nothing to heal him. All I did was remind him of our pledge to distance ourselves from falsehood.  If one is not careful, even his cries, if in excess of his true pain, contain a measure of falsehood.”


    “Three festivals you shall celebrate for Me each year.” Shemot 23:14

    Three festivals – These three festivals are Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, and one must ascend to Jerusalem to celebrate these festivals in the presence of the Holy Temple.

    Three festivals – The word actually used in the verse is “regalim,” which typically means “feet,” as opposed to festivals or occasions.  Why was the less conventional term chosen in this case?  To teach us that one should not ascend to Jerusalem on horseback or in a wagon.  Rather, it is a special  mitzvah to ascend using his feet and walking.  For this reason, one who lacks two feet is not obligated in the mitzvah– Rabbeinu Bachya

    Midrash Tehillim [41] writes, “When we used to ascend to the festival in our covered wagons, we did so with our wives, children, and in great numbers.” This implies that they did not walk the entire distance. Rather, they rode animals and wagons until Jerusalem and only went on foot from the walls of Jerusalem to the Temple courtyard. – Ksav V’kabbalah

    Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor points out that these three time periods are usually joyous periods even without the addition of a formal holiday, for Passover is a time when we commemorate our freedom, Shavuot heralds the beginning of the crop harvest, and Succot marks the time when we gather in the harvested crop. All of these are inherently joyous occasions. A Jew however, understands that as a loyal and devoted servant of the Almighty, he must utilize intrinsically joyous occasions to intensify and deepen his relationship with G-d by including Him in his joy. Therefore, we ascend to the Holy Temple to celebrate with G-d just as one invites his closes friends and relatives to celebrate the most joyous occasions of his life.


    “And G-d said to Moses, ‘Ascend the mountain toward Me and remain there and I will present you with the tablets of stone, the Torah, and the mitzvot, which I have written for you to teach them.’” Shemot 24:12

    Tablets Of Stone, The Torah, And The Mitzvot – All 613 mitzvot are included in the Ten Commandments. – Rashi

    Tablets of Stone – They were made of stone to symbolize the great strength needed to assume the yoke of Torah, and to humble oneself in order to study Torah by asking questions that are elementary to all, but the questioner. – Baalei HaTosafos

    Just as the substance of the tablets represented the strength needed to assume the yoke of Torah, the ascent up the mountain symbolizes the need to scale a figurative mountain in order to acquire Torah. This challenge repeats itself every time a Jew decides to study Torah; a challenging endeavor that demands strength and determination to overcome the many obstacles that present themselves along the way.  It is comforting, however, to know that it has never been an easy task.  Throughout the generations, Torah study and observance has required great strength and fortitude. Of course, the myriad benefits make it all worthwhile and one will be rewarded for all the effort expended.

Hey, I Never Knew That


The Torah portion begins with the words, “And these are the laws that you shall place before them” (Shemot 21:1).  Rashi explains that the idea of placing the laws before the Jewish people is to explain them clearly so that they are easily understood and ready for “consumption” like a “set table,” or “shulchan aruch.”  One reason that Rabbi Yosef Karo named his commentary on the Tur (the predecessor of the Code of Jewish Law) the “Beit Yosef,” or “House of Joseph,” is that it was Joseph who supplied food and sustenance to all of Egypt.  So too, Rabbi Yosef Karo is providing the “sustenance and food” of Torah to all who read it (introduction of Rav Karo to Beit Yosef).  He continued his food metaphor by naming his Code of Jewish Law the Shulchan Aruch, the Set Table, based on Rashi’s explanation at the beginning of the Torah portion.


The Torah tells us to “follow the majority” when the court votes (Shemot 23:2).  The principle of following the majority, however, is not restricted to the vote of the Sanhedrin; it is an underlying feature in much of Jewish law.  We rely on the fact that the majority of animals are healthy, and thus are not required to do a complete autopsy on every animal that has been slaughtered to determine if it has a fatal injury or disease that renders it non-kosher (RashiChullin 12a).  In family law, we assume that the children are indeed children of the husband, based on a majority rule (Chullin 11b).  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch relates this idea to the fact that all human knowledge is limited and that G-d does not expect us to know everything and to achieve perfection.  Therefore, He allows us to rely on the majority rule, on human approximation.  Rabbi Hirsch further explains that our natural observations rely on the majority principal. When we call something a particular color, we usually mean that it is mostly that color. When we call something straight, sweet, sour, or smooth, we refer to the dominant, or majority character of what we are describing.  Jewish law does not expect of us superhuman abilities and is in harmony with our natural observations (Horeb, par. 475).

Word of the Week


  • אסון

    “If there is an אסון—asson he shall pay for a life…” (Shemot 21:23).  The Aramaic translations of Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uziel both translate asson as death as is explicit in the Mechilta.  Similarly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (The Living Torah) translates it as fatal injury.  Rabbi Hirsch understands the word to mean misfortune or tragedy and that is how it used today in Modern Hebrew.  Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg (Haketav Vehakabbalah 21:23) maintains that asson refers to any bodily injury or harm.

  • תחת

    The word תחת — tachat appears numerous times in the Torah portion this week.  Onkelos translates it in different ways each time into Aramaic, depending on the context.  Sometimes it is translated as חלף — chalef — “instead of,” and sometimes it is translated as תחות — tachot — “underneath.”  When the Torah states that one who injures another must pay “an eye תחת an eye” (Shemot 21:24), it is translated as “instead of” since Jewish law obligates the guilty party to give the victim the financial value of an eye “instead of” the eye that was damaged.  Similarly, the Torah describes a king who succeeds the throne of another king as ruling תחתיו — “instead of” the previous king (Bereshit 36:33).   When the Torah obligates us to help a donkey crushed תחת its burden, the word clearly means “underneath” (Shemot 23:5).   Radak understands the word to always mean “in place of” and thus both translations are true, since being “underneath” is being “in place of” or in the place where something else stands, and also means “replace” or “instead of” (Sefer Hashorashim).

Dear Rabbi

“Do not eat flesh torn off in the field by a predator.  Cast it to the dogs” (Shemot 22:30).  This is understood by the sages as a prohibition against eating the flesh of an unhealthy or fatally diseased animal, and as permission to derive benefit from that flesh by either selling it to a gentile or feeding it to a dog (Mechilta ad loc.).  Is there a preference to actually feed stray dogs (assuming they are not dangerous)?  The Mishnah Berurah (OC 324:31) maintains that it is “somewhat of a mitzvah” to feed a stray dog because the sages say that dogs tend to always be hungry.  The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 324:2) cites the verse, “His mercy is upon all His creations” (Psalms 145:9) as evidence that it is appropriate to feed any animal that is suffering from hunger even if does not belong to anyone.


The Torah portion this week contains the first mention of the commandment to ascend to Jerusalem and the Temple on the three festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.  They are called the Shalosh Regalim, meaning the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, because of this mitzvah (Shemot 23:14-17).  The former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, was asked if this mitzvah is obligatory nowadays in the absence of the Temple.  He responded that although there are some later authorities who maintain that the obligation to go to Jerusalem on these festivals is not dependent on the existence of the Temple, nevertheless, the majority of authorities maintain that there is no obligation nowadays. However, he notes that it has been the practice of Jews from around the world to celebrate the festivals in Jerusalem, and that this dates back to the time of the Talmud when it was a common practice (Responsa Tashbetz 3:201).  One of the great sages of the 10th Century, Rabbi Hai Gaon, was also known to have observed this custom, and he and the Jews of Jerusalem would walk around the Mount of Olives seven times on the seventh day of Sukkot (Responsa Yachel Yisrael 29).

Wives and Slaves?

Dear Rabbi,

I am studying with a young woman through Partners in Torah and we have come up against a couple of issues that I have trouble explaining. Is there a good explanation for why multiple wives were once permitted in Judaism but now are not?  If this is not permitted now, why was it ever allowed?  Additionally, the whole issue of slaves at the beginning of [the portion of] Mishpatim was upsetting to her. Can you help?

Shayna L.
Flatbush, NY

Dear Shayna,

Whenever you are dealing with “global” issues like the ones your study partner is bringing up, it is very important to get down to core principles.  In my opinion, your student is bothered by the following question: If G-d is good and merciful, how can He allow these seemingly bad and unmerciful laws and customs be part of the Torah?

This discussion needs to begin with an understanding that G-d is the epitome of mercy.  In order to properly understand any law of the Torah, it must first be viewed through this lens.   Now, the question becomes: Is there any way to understand how allowing multiple wives or keeping slaves is an expression of G-d’s mercy?

Let’s start with the issue of multiple wives.  Among other things, allowing men to have more than one wife ensured that the most vulnerable people in ancient society – i.e., women – could find protection in a caring and secure relationship.  It should be noted that, although this was allowed, the Rabbis did not encourage it.   The Hebrew term for co-wife used in the Mishna, “tzora”, is directly related to the word “tzoras,” or “troubles,” in Yiddish.

Ancient society did not promote the idea of women delaying marriage in order to pursue a career that would provide them with the means of supporting themselves.  Of course there were women who did not marry or who got divorced.  However, in ancient society if a woman found herself alone, it generally meant she was a widow or an orphan with little means of support.  Therefore, allowing a man to take responsibility for more than one wife provided for the protection of women, as opposed to their exploitation.

Among Ashkenazi Jewry, the practice was discontinued in the 11th Century by Rabbi Gershom ben Yehuda, the leading Torah scholar of the time.  Over time, it had become clear that men were no longer able to properly provide for the financial, emotional and physical needs of more than one wife. Rather than being protected, women in marriages with more than one wife would find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.  Since allowing the practice to continue would have produced the exact opposite of its intended purpose, it was more merciful to prohibit it.

The same is true for  having “slaves.” Slavery as discussed in the Torah portion you mentioned is more properly understood as “indentured servitude.” The most common case involved an impoverished man who steals and is unable to pay off his debt.  The Jewish court places this man in the custody of a wealthy landowner for a maximum of six years.  The goal is that the time spent under the guiding influence of a more stable member of society will help rehabilitate this man so that he can re-enter society with a clean slate.

Additionally, if a young girl was “sold” by her father to serve as a maidservant, it meant that he could not provide for her.  The goal of this transaction was not to abandon her to an evil master. Rather, the intention was that the master, or his son, would marry the girl, thus providing her with a secure future.

What I’ve outlined here is certainly not an exhaustive treatment of these issues. Instead, it is an approach that I hope will help open up the topic for more meaningful and in-depth study.

Rabbi David Ordan

Parsha at a Glance

Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot touching almost every aspect of Jewish life.  Included in this parsha are the basis for laws concerning Jewish servants, relations between parents and children, civil fines, monetary obligations of borrowers, renters, owners of animals or utensils which damage persons or their property, and the responsibility citizens owe to the public welfare.  There are prohibitions against witchcraft, against shaming or defrauding the true convert, the widow, the orphan, and the poor.  There are requirements to lend money to Jews in need.  We are commanded not to blaspheme against G-d, and not to curse the judges of the Bait Din.  Many kashrut (kosher) laws are included, as are procedural matters in courts of law insure that all who stand before the court will be treated fairly.  Circumstantial evidence may not decide the law.  Only direct and incontrovertible testimony of witnesses is admissible.  We must assist a fellow Jew to unload an animal struggling under its load.  Agricultural requirements of the Shmittah (Sabbatical) year are included.  Shabbat and Yom Tov laws are here.  Strict prohibitions are enacted against making a treaty with the 7 Canaanite nations and against introducing any form of idol-worship.  G-d reminds the nation that their well-being in Eretz Yisroel will depend directly on their loyalty to His Torah.  After the Giving of the Aseret Hadibrot, Moses is called back to Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights.