Parashas Mishpatim – The Table is Set

In last week’s sedra we read the receiving of the Ten Commandments and what naturally flows on from this are laws, which we are given in abundance in this week’s parasha, Mishpatim. The interesting thing when analysing these laws are that they are rather random in the sense that you wouldn’t expect them to be the first laws given over to us after such a monumental event as the given of the Ten Commandments. The sedra starts with the laws of slaves, murder, manslaughter, damages and even talks about responsibility for digging pits and animals amongst many other topics. What we learn from what we might view as mundane laws (unless you’re a lawyer then you are literally in heaven) is that after such a hugely spiritual experience as the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the very unexciting discussions of whether I have to pay if my cow walks through a market and tramples on your stall, this is all Torah. In our relationship with G-d there is no separate ‘realm’ for Judaism where we can think of it as merely a matter of ritual and spirituality. As Jews we must appreciate that all areas of our life are intertwined with Torah and holiness derives from halachically correct business dealings no less than from piety in matters of ritual. From this point of view we can appreciate that these ‘mundane’ laws are of huge importance and in a sense brings us back down to Earth in realising that it’s not just about putting on Teffilin in the morning or making sure you keep Shabbat properly, our responsibility goes far beyond this into all areas of life. In Western society there is very much a separation between ‘Church’ and ‘State’, the Torah knows no such distinction however and the seat of the Sanhedrin (in temple times was the supreme authority on halachic matters) was located on the Temple Mount, near the actual Temple itself, for both the Temple and Sanhedrin court are expressions of holiness and worship of G-d.

The first line of the parasha states… “לפניהם תשים אשר המשפטים ואלה”… which translates as… “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them”. With the help of our good friend Rashi we determine that this was a commandment by Hashem to Moshe on how he should give over the Torah to the Jewish people but why the strange language of ‘placed before them’? Surely ‘taught to them’ or ‘given over to them’ would have been a more effective language to use?... The mefarshim determine that this language means that the laws and statutes should be ‘placed before them’ like a set table, ready to eat. The implication of this language therefore suggests that they would be given over in a palatable way which would make their digestion (no pun intended) an immediate process, unlike walking into a room to a non-set table and having to wait to commence the meal, a set table suggests that the mitzvahs should be started immediately. The code of Jewish laws is called the Shulchan Aruch/The Set Table and it is in this book that majority of Ashkenaz laws and practices from the Torah are found. When comparing the Torah to a ‘Shulchan Aruch’ we can take things a step further… there are two reasons why people eat, the main reason is of course for nutrition and the other reason is for taste, to derive pleasure from the food. This is comparable to Mitzvahs which we are meant to primarily do because we have to (like eating for nutritional purposes) but once we learn the reasons for these mitzvahs we then find ourselves performing them also for the pleasure factor (like the taste of the food). Incidentally the Hebrew word for ‘taste’ is טאם/tam which also happens to be the word for ‘reason’… we see that the reason for doing the mitzvahs provides the taste for wanting to do them because it is through this understanding that we find ourselves falling into the second category of performing them… for pleasure. With this in mind there is an important lesson to be learnt here, we must perform mitzvahs because we have to, it is our spiritual sustenance in this world but combined with Torah study we are able to take more pleasure out of them through their טאם/tam.

So what is the first law given over? Maybe laws of Shabbat or Kashrut? Respecting parents or daily routines like Teffilin, Shema?? Nope… The first laws are regarding a Jewish Slave/עבד… Surely the laws of servitude are a very strange subject to begin with? Ramban explains that the laws regarding slavery are a very necessary point to start on as the first law given is concerning the freedom of a slave which is a reminder to us of our own freedom from Egyptian slavery. In addition to this we are all referred to as slaves of Hashem which gives us a responsibility to undertake his mitzvoth. There is an expression in gemara that a slave works day and night, we learn out from this that we too as slaves of Hashem must keep up our obligations, day… when things are bright and everything is going well… and at night… when we have ordeals, challenges and suffering in our life, a true עבד of Hashem can do both of these.

What follows on from the laws of servitude are those of murder and manslaughter. In 21:15-17 we are told the following laws…

• One who strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death • One who kidnaps a man and sells him… shall surely be put to death • One who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death

As we see from these laws we have to be very careful in the treatment of our parents, so much so, it is unadvisable for a son or daughter to cut his parents hair or give them an injection (if they are a doctor) as this might constitute the striking of a parent if blood is drawn. What does seem strange about these laws however, is the order in which they appear… why is kidnapping inserted between these two parent-related laws? Ramban explains that majority of kidnappings are of children and the insertion of this law between the two parent-related laws is a warning to those that had been kidnapped at a young age and grow up without knowledge of who their parents are, that they might curse or strike someone in their life… who could turn out to be mum or dad! Another reason for this order is to warn anyone who had been through the trauma of being kidnapped to not turn their anger towards their parents who they might blame for having not guarded them properly which in turn could cause them to curse them whilst being in captivity. From this we must learn that no matter what our relationship with our parents holds, whether we are distant, don’t see eye to eye or even don’t know who they are, we must always remember to respect them and under no circumstances curse or hit them. I personally find that cursing and hitting my friends is a lot more fun anyway.

Next up after murder and manslaughter comes the subject of damages and in particular the penalties for bodily injuries which include the famous phrase ‘an eye for an eye’. Perhaps the most misunderstood concept in the whole Torah, the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ has been the cause of so many ignorant attacks on Judaism. It is clear from the Talmud (Bava Kamma 83b-84a) and the Mechilta that this term was always known to mean, as the Oral Law explains it, that the responsible party must pay the monetary value for an eye, in restitution for the eye that he had blinded. Never was there a Jewish court that blinded or otherwise inflicted a physical injury in revenge or retribution. The Vilna Goan points out that the real meaning of this phrase is hidden in the word עין/ eye… if you take the next letters in the alphabet from the word for eye… so…

ע…next letter in the alphabet is… פ י…next letter in the alphabet is… כ ן… next letter in the alphabet is… ס

then you are left with the letters כ,פ and ס… which re-arrange to the word כסף… which of course translates as money! Was there all along! So why doesn’t the Torah spell out for us ‘monetary compensation for an eye’… why leave room for misinterpretation? The first key point here is that the Torah cannot be learnt without the oral tradition as this is a shining example of the types of problems that such a method can lead to. The written Torah is merely the bullet points for us with which we need the passed down oral tradition to unpick and understand. According to Rabbi Kaplan, a main reason why it is written in this way is to show the precision with which the compensation should be measured, by stating ‘an eye for an eye’ the Torah is leaving no room for error. With the type of law suits which take place in America today where people can basically sue someone for extremely over-inflated amounts, we see the importance of such precision. Rambam and many of the other mefarshim explain that in truth the perpetrator deserves to lose his own eye for such an action and for this reason merely paying the monetary compensation should not be seen as atonement for the action alone, he must also beg his victim for forgiveness. By stating ‘an eye for an eye’ rather than ‘monetary compensation for an eye’ we see that we can not merely pay up and be free of responsibility from the action, this is merely the way the court has to act. The Chazzan Ish brings down a mussar lessons from the phrase by stating that ‘no money can compensate’ the loss of an eye; we therefore see how much trouble we would be in upstairs if we intentionally inflicted someone with such pain, advisable therefore to avoid the gouging out of eyes.

So the table is set and it is all laid out ready for us as Hashem’s עבדים! Have a great Shabbat and successful week ahead.

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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