Mishpatim: A Special Unit - An Educational Progression

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

What's better - Chumash or Shulchan Aruch?

The question really isn't fair, but anyone who has studied both books realizes how different they are.

As Parshat Mishpatim contains a set of laws that sounds a bit like Shulchan Aruch [the Jewish Code of Law], this week's shiur will analyze their progression, to show how the Torah delivers its message through the manner of their presentation.


In last week's shiur, we began our discussion of how the laws in Chumash are presented in groups (or 'units').  For example, in Parshat Yitro, we saw how the first 'ten' Commandments were given as part of Ma'amad Har Sinai.  Afterward, we identified the next 'unit' of mitzvot - which we referred to as the 'ko tomar' unit, beginning in 20:19, and continuing until the end of chapter 23 (which comprises most of Parshat Mishpatim).  Later on in Chumash we will find many additional 'units' of mitzvot, embedded within its various narratives.

Because Chumash presents its mitzvot in 'units', we would certainly expect that the first 'unit', i.e. the one that follows the Ten Commandments, to be special.  In our shiur, we undertake an analysis of the internal structure of this "ko tomar" unit, in an attempt to understand why specifically these mitzvot are recorded at this point, and in this manner.

Subdividing the Unit

At first glance, these three chapters appear to contain simply a random set of laws, from all types of categories - as it jumps back and forth from "bein adam lamakom" [laws between man & God] to "bein adam l'chavero" [laws between man and his fellow man (or society)].  On the other hand, there does seem to be some very logical internal structure within certain groups of these laws, such as the civil laws in chapter 21.

To help make sense out of the overall structure of this unit, we begin by noting how the laws that both open and close this unit fall under the category of "bein adam lamakom".

Let's explain.

Recall how this "ko tomar" unit began (at the end of Parshat Yitro) with four psukim that discuss various laws concerning idol worship and building a mizbeiach [altar] (see 20:20-23).  Clearly, this short 'parshia' deals with laws between man & God, and more specifically - how to worship (or not worship) Him.

Similarly, at the end of this unit, we find another set of laws that are "bein adam la'makom" - explaining how we are expected to worship God on the three pilgrimage agricultural holidays (the "shalosh regalim" / see 23:13-19).

[We consider these psukim the last set of laws, for immediately afterward (i.e. from 23:20 till the end of chapter 23) we find several conditional promises that God makes concerning how He will help Bnei Yisrael conquer the land, but the law section of this unit definitely ends with 23:19. ]

In this manner, we find that this lengthy set of laws in Parshat Mishpatim is enveloped by a matching set of laws (20:20-23 & 23:13-19) that discuss how to properly worship God.

Inside this 'sandwich' we will find numerous laws (i.e. from 21:1 thru 23:12), however almost all of them will fall under the category of "bein adam l'chavero" - between man and his fellow man (or society).

The following table summarizes this very basic sub-division of this "ko tomar" unit, which will set the framework for our next discussion:

20:19-20:23 How to worship God via the 'mizbeach'
21:01-23:12 A misc. assortment of civil laws
23:13-23:19 Worshiping God on the 3 pilgrimage holidays
23:20-23:33 --- God's promises re: entering the land

With this in mind, lets examine the internal structure of the "bein adam l'chavero" laws, that begin with the Mishpatim in 23:1 thru 23:12.  As we will now show, this 'middle section' of civil laws will divide very neatly into two basic categories.

  1. Case laws  - that go before the "bet-din" [a Jewish court]
  2. Absolute laws - that guide the behavior of the individual


Parshat Mishpatim begins with the laws of a Hebrew slave (see 21:2-11) and are followed by numerous 'case-type' civil laws dealing primarily with damages ["nezikin'"] that continue thru the middle of chapter 22.  Their presentation develops in an organized, structured manner, progressing as follows:

21:12-27 A person killing or injuring another [assault]
21:28-32 A person's property killing or injuring another person
21:33-36 A person's property damaging property of others
21:37-22:3 A person stealing from another
22:4-5 Property damage to others caused by grazing or fire

Note how these various cases range from capital offense to accidental property damage. 

The 'Key' Word

As you most probably noticed, the 'key word' in this section is 'ki' [pun intended], which implies if or when.  Note how most of the parshiot from 21:1‑22:18 begin with the word 'ki' [or 'im' / if/ when] and even when it is not written, it is implicit.  In other words, each of these 'mishpatim' begins with a certain case [if...] and is followed by the ruling [then...].  For example:

If a man hits his servant then... (see 21:20); If an ox gores a man... then the ox must be stoned (21:28).

Basically, this section contains numerous examples of 'case-law,' upon which the Jewish court (bet din) arrives at its rulings.  This is the basic meaning of a "mishpat" - a case where two people come to court - one person claiming damages from another - and the shofet (judge) must render a decision.

In fact, these cases can only be judged by a court, and not by a private individual.

[As you review these cases, note how most of them fall under the category of "choshen mishpat" in the shulchan aruch.]

As our above table shows, this section of 'case-laws' (beginning with the word "ki") continues all the way until 22:16; after which we find an interesting transition.  Note, that beginning with 22:17, we find three laws, written in a more imperative form, that do not begin with a specific 'case':

"A sorceress shall not be left alive.  Anyone lying with an animal shall be killed, and one who sacrifices to [other] gods shall be excommunicated..."  (see 22:17-19).

These laws don't begin with the word 'ki' for a very simple reason - there is no plaintiff coming to court to press charges!  In all the cases until this point, the process of 'mishpat' is usually initiated because the plaintiff comes before the court.  In these three cases, it is the court's responsibility to initiate the process (see Rashi & Rashbam & Ramban on 22:17!), i.e. to find the sorceress, or the person 'lying with the animal', etc.  Therefore, even though these laws are presented in the 'imperative' format, they remain the responsibility of "bet-din".

These three cases are also quite different from the case-laws above, for they also fall under the category of "bein adam lamakom" [between God & man].

Most significant is the third instruction - "zoveyach la'elokim yo'cho'ram - bilti l'Hashem l'vado" - one who sacrifices to [other] gods shall be excommunicated..." - where once again we find a law concerning 'how to (or not to) worship God' - just as we find in the opening and closing sections that envelope these civil laws.

In this sense, these three laws will serve as a 'buffer' that leads us to the next category, where the laws will continue in the 'imperative' format, however, they will leave the realm of "bet-din" and enter the realm of ethical behavior.  Let's explain:

The Ethical Laws

Note the abrupt change of format that takes place in the next law:

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt" (22:20).

Not only is this law written in the imperative format, it contains no punishment by "bet-din".  Instead, it includes an incentive for why every Jew should keep this law - for we ourselves were also once strangers in the land of Egypt!

Note as well how this imperative format continues all the way until 23:10.  In contrast to what we have found thus far, we now find a collection of imperative-style laws [i.e. do... or don't...], which appear to be beyond the realm of enforcement by bet-din.  This section focuses on laws of individual behavior that serve as guidelines that will shape the type of society which God hopes to create within His special nation.

Towards the conclusion of this 'ethical' unit, we find a pasuk that seems to simply repeat the same verse that opened this unit:

"You shall not oppress a stranger, whereas you know the feelings of a stranger, for you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt" (see 23:9).

[and compare it to the opening statement of this unit: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (see 22:20).

As your review the numerous laws that are 'enveloped' by these two 'matching' pesukim, note how they are all written in the imperative form, and share a common theme of living by a higher ethical standard.

To prove this assertion, let's study the progression of topic from 22:20 thru 23:9:

  • "You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan.  If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry...."
  • "When you lend money... if you take his garment as a pledge, you must return it by sunset... for if you don't, when he calls out to me, surely, I will hear his cry..." (see 22:20-26).

In contrast to the previous section (see 20:12 thru 22:16), where the court enforced the punishment - this section begins with a set of laws where God Himself threatens to enact punishment!  As the court system cannot 'force' every member of society to treat the poor and needy with kindness, God Himself promises to 'intervene' should the 'less privileged' be mistreated.

Furthermore, it is specifically the stranger, the orphan, and widow who would least likely know how to take their case to court.  As it is so easy to take advantage of these lower social classes, God Himself will punish those who take advantage.

Being a 'Good Citizen'

The next four pesukim (22:27-30) form a 'parshia', and at first glance appear to fall under the category of 'bein adam lamakom".  However, in their context, it is also possible to understand them as laws dealing with the behavior of the individual within society, or stated more simply - being a good citizen.  Let's explain how.

"Do not curse Elokim [either God or a judge / see 22:7]:, nor curse a leader of your people"  (see 22:27).

This instruction 'not to curse your leaders' can be understood as a nice way of saying - respect your leadership.  It would be difficult to develop a just society, should the people consistently curse and show no respect for their judges and political leaders.

The next law - "Do not delay to bring of the fullness of thy harvest, and the outflow of thy presses"  (see 22:28) - could also fall under this category, as it refers to the obligation of every individual to tithe his produce.  As this tithe is used to cover the salaries of civil servants (for example see Bamidbar 18:21 re: the salary of the Levi'im), this law could be paraphrased as a demand that everyone must 'pay their taxes' - and on time; yet another example of 'good citizenship'.

Similarly, the next law:

"Your shall give Me your first-born sons.  Likewise, [the firstborn] of your oxen and sheep..." (see 22:28-29) - was first given when Bnei Yisrael left Egypt (see Shmot 13:1-2,11-14).

Obviously, this commandment does not imply that we actually sacrifice our first born children; but rather it relates to the obligation of each family to dedicate their first-born son to the service of God.  The purpose of this law was to assure that there would be an 'educator' (or 'civil servant') in each family - to teach the laws of the Torah.

Even though this 'family responsibility' was later transferred to the entire tribe of Levi (after chet ha-egel / see Devarim 10:8-9); at the time when the laws of Parshat Mishpatim were given - this was supposed to be the job of the first-born son.  Similarly, the value of the 'first born' animals would also be dedicated to the Temple treasury (or to feed the workers).

If this understanding is correct, then this command serves as a reminder to each family to fulfill its responsibility to provide its share of 'civil servants' to officiate in the Mishkan and to serve as judges and educators (see Devarim 33:10).

[Re: viewing the first-born animals as a tax to compensate those civil servants  - see Bamidbar 18:15-20!]

Acting Like a 'Mensch'

In the final pasuk of this 'parshia' we find a very general commandment to be not only a good citizen, but also to act like a 'mensch':

"And you shall be holy men unto Me; [an example] should you find the flesh that is torn of beasts in the field - do not eat it -feed it instead to the dogs" (22:30).

Even though the opening statement - to be holy men- is quite vague; the fuller meaning of this commandment is detailed in Parshat Kedoshim (see Vayikra chapter 19).  A quick glance of that chapter immediately points once again to the need to act in an ethical manner in all walks of life.  [Note the numerous parallels between Vayikra chapter 19 and Shemot 22:20-33:10!]

The commandment 'not to eat the flesh of a torn animal' can be understood as an application of how to 'be holy', implying to act like a 'mensch', and not like gluten who would devour (like a dog) the meat of animal found dead in field.

In summary, we claim that this short section focuses on the need to be a 'good citizen', consonant with the general theme of ethical behavior - and incumbent upon a member of a society who claims to be representing God.

A Higher Ethic

In chapter 23, this unit 'progresses' one step further, with several mitzvot that emphasize an even higher level of moral and ethical behavior.

The first three pesukim discuss laws to ensure that the judicial system will not be misused - For example, not to plot false witness; to follow majority rule; and not to 'play favorites' in judgment (see 23:1-3).

[These laws could also be viewed as guidelines for the 'judges' who decide the laws in the first section, i.e. the civil 'case-laws' in 21:12-22:16.]

Next, we find two interesting laws that reflect the highest level of ethical behavior, which worded in a special manner.

  • Returning a lost animal, even that of your enemy, to its owner ('hashavat aveida') (see 23:4);
  • Helping your neighbor's animal (again, even your enemy) with its load ('azov ta'azov imo') (see 23:5);

The Torah does not simply command us to return a lost item, it describes an extreme case, where one must go out of his way to be 'extra nice' to a person whom he despises.  What may be considered 'exemplary behavior' in a regular society - becomes required behavior for a nation who represents God.

Finally, this special section concludes with the famous dictum "mi-dvar sheker tirchak" - keeping one's distance from any form of dishonesty (see 23:7), followed by a warning not to take bribes - 've-shochad lo tikach' - (see 23:8).

As mentioned earlier, this section, describing the mitzvot of a higher ethical standard, closes with the verse "ve-ger lo tilchatz..." (see 23:9) - almost identical to its opening statement  (see 22:20).

Despite the difficulty of their slavery in Egypt, Bnei Yisrael are expected to learn from that experience and create a society that shows extra sensitivity to the needs of the less fortunate.  Specifically the Jewish nation - because we were once slaves - are commanded to learn from that experience, in order to become even more sensitive to the needs of others!

Shabbat & the Holidays

As we explained earlier, this 'ethical' section is followed by yet another set of mitzvot (see 23:10-19), which appears to focus on 'mitzvot bein adam la-Makom'.  It includes the following mitzvot:

  • 'Shmitta' - leaving the fields fallow every seven years;
  • 'Shabbat' - resting one day out of every seven days;
  • 'Shalosh Regalim' - the three agricultural holidays:
  • 'Chag HaMatzot' - seven days eating matza
  • 'Chag HaKatzir' - wheat harvest (seven weeks later)
  • 'Chag HaAsif' - produce harvest (seven days). (23:10-19)

Nonetheless, it should be noted how the laws of shmita and shabbat are actually presented from the perspective of 'bein adam le-chavero'.  The 'shmita' cycle provides extra food for the poor and needy (see 23:11), while 'shabbat' provides a day of rest for the 'bondsman and stranger' (see 23:12).  In this sense, these two laws form a beautiful transition from "bein adam l'chavero" section to the concluding "bein adam lamakom" section that 'closes' this entire unit.

At this point, we find a short summary pasuk that introduces the last section describing the pilgrimage 'holidays' (see 23:13-19).  These 'shalosh regalim' are described as three times during the year when the entire nation gathers together 'in front of God' (i.e. at the Bet Ha-Mikdash) to thank Him for their harvest.

[One could suggest that this mitzvah of 'aliya la-regel' also influences the social development of the nation, for it provides the poor and needy with an opportunity to celebrate together with the more fortunate (see Devarim 16:11,14-16.)]

A 'Double' Sandwich - Tzedakah & Mishpat

Let's return now to note the beautiful structure of this entire unit by studying the following table, where a * denotes laws "bein adam lamakom" and a # denotes laws "bein adam l'chaveiro".

To clarify this layered nature of this internal structure, in the following table we compare it to a 'sandwich' with two layers of 'meat', enveloped by 'bread',

* TOP Laws re: idol worship and the 'mizbeach' (20:19-20:23) [i.e. how to worship God]
LAYER 1 # The civil laws - 'case' laws for "bet-din" (21:1-22:16) i.e.  laws that relate to MISHPAT - judgement
* BUFFER short set of laws "bein adam lamakom" (22:17-19)
LAYER 2 # The ethical laws -individual behavior (22:20-23:12) i.e. laws that relate to TZEDAKAH - righteousness
* BOTTOM Laws of the three pilgrimage holidays (23:13-19) [again, how to properly worship God]

In other words, the few mitzvot that relate to how we are supposed to worship God (*) 'envelope' the numerous mitzvot that explain how God expects that we act (#).  However, those mitzvot that govern our behavior also divide into two distinct groups.  The first group (or layer) focuses on laws of justice that must be enforced by the court system - i.e. MISHPAT; while the second group focuses on ethical behavior - i.e. TZEDAKAH or righteous behavior.

Back to Avraham Avinu!

If your remember our shiurim on Sefer Breishit, this double layered structure - highlighting elements of both TZEDAKA & MISHPAT - should not surprise us.  After all, God had chosen Avraham Avinu for this very purpose:

"For Avraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and a blessing for all the nations of the earth.  For I have known him IN ORDER that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of God to do TZEDAKAH & MISHPAT [righteousness and justice]..." (see Breishit 18:18-19, compare Breishit 12:1-3)

Now that Avraham Avinu's offspring have finally become a nation, and now prepare to enter the land - they enter a covenant at Har Sinai.  Therefore, the very first set of detailed laws received at Sinai focus on how the nation of Israel is expected to keep and apply the values of "tzedaka & mishpat" - in order that this nation can accomplish its divine destiny.

An Educational Progression

Before we conclude, we should note yet another sequence that takes place within these various subsections of laws.  As you review these various sections, note how they follow a very meaningful educational progression:

1) The Fear of Man

The first section (21:1‑22:19) contains civil laws regarding compensatory obligations, common to any civilized society (not unique to Am Yisrael).  These case-type laws are enforced by bet-din.  The fear of punishment by the courts ensures the compliance of the citizenry.

2) The Fear of God

The next section (22:20‑26) contains imperatives related to ethical behavior, emphasizing specifically consideration for the less fortunate members of society.  Given the difficulty of enforcing this standard by the bet-din, God Himself assumes the responsibility of punishing violators in this regard.

3) Love for one's Fellow Man

The final section of imperative civil laws (23:1‑9) contains mitzvot relating to an even higher moral and ethical standard.  In this section, the Torah does not mention any punishment.  These mitzvot are preceded by the pasuk "ve-anshei kodesh tihiyun li" (22:30) and reflect the behavior of a "mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh" (see 19:5-6).  When the civil behavior of God's special nation is motivated not only by the fear of punishment, but also by a high ethical standard and a sense of subservience to God, the nation truly becomes a 'goy kadosh' - the purpose of Matan Torah (see 19:5-6!).

4) The Love of God

After creating an ethical society, the nation is worthy of a special relationship with God, as reflected in the laws of shabbat, shmita, and 'aliya la-regel' - 'being seen by God' on the three pilgrimage holidays (see 23:10-17).

This progression highlights the fact that a high standard of ethical behavior (II & III) alone does not suffice.  A society must first anchor itself by assuring justice by establishing a court system that will enforce these most basic civil laws (I).  Once this standard has been established, society can then strive to achieve a higher ethical level (II & III).  Then, man is worthy to encounter and 'visit' God (IV).

One Last Promise

Even though the 'mishpatim' and mitzvot end in 23:19, this lengthy section (that began back with 'ko tomar...' in 20:19) contains one last section - 23:20->33 - which appears as more of a promise than a set of laws.  God tells Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael that:

"Behold, I am sending a mal'ach before you, to guide you and bring you to ... (the Promised Land).  ... for if you obey him [God's 'mal'ach'] and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.  For My mal'ach will lead you and bring you to [the land of] the Amorites, Hittites, etc."  (23:20-23).  [See also 23:27-31!]

This conclusion points to the purpose of the entire unit.  By accepting these laws, Bnei Yisrael will shape their character as God's special nation.  Hence, if they obey these rules, then God will assist them in the conquest of the Land.

Considering that Bnei Yisrael are on their way to conquer and inherit the Land, this section (23:20-33) forms an appropriate conclusion for this entire unit.  Should they follow these laws, He will help them conquer that land, where these laws will help facilitate their becoming God's special nation.

Back to Brit Sinai

This interpretation can provide us with a beautiful explanation for why Bnei Yisrael receive specifically this set of mitzvot immediately after the Ten Commandments.

Recall God's original proposal to Bnei Yisrael before Ma'amad Har Sinai - "should they obey Me and keep My covenant... then they will become a - mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh"   (see Shmot 19:5-6).  After the people accept this proposal (see 19:8), they receive the Ten Commandments, followed by the laws of the "ko tomar" unit.

This can explain why Bnei Yisrael receive specifically these laws (of the "ko tomar unit") at this time.  As these laws will govern the ethical behavior of every individual in Am Yisrael and build the moral fabric of its society, they become the 'recipe' that will transform this nation into a "mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh".

Furthermore, they emphasize how laws that focus on our special relationship with God, especially in relation to how we worship him - such as the laws of the holidays, are only meaningful when rooted in a society that acts in an exemplary fashion.

Because these guidelines for individual behavior are 'enveloped' by details of how to properly worship God, we can essentially conclude that this entire unit discusses how the nation of Israel is expected to worship God - for the manner by which we treat our fellow man stands at the center of our relationship with God.