Civil Laws from Sinai
Mishpatim: Torts, Damages, and Loans
Mishpatim is a prosaic parasha, filled with what many would call secular law, i.e, torts, theft, damages, loans, even murder. These laws overlap with similar laws in all law-abiding ethical societies past and present, implying, perhaps, that there is nothing “Jewish” about being ethical, and that only ritual is the distinctly Jewish identity marker. However, beginning with the Bible and continuing into rabbinic literature, Jewish tradition has viewed acting in an ethical manner as a religious action.
The Priestly code of Leviticus, for example, enshrined within it the prophetic ideals of the Holiness legislation (Lev. 17-26), which contains laws such as the requirement to leave produce for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10), to pay workers on time (19:13), and to love one’s fellow as oneself (19:18). The most priest-centered of the prophets, Ezekiel, was also exceedingly socially cognizant, berating his fellow Judeans for having oppressed widows and orphans (22:9) and cheating in business (22:11).
It is easier to appreciate the religiosity of ethics in the words of the prophets; Amos’ declaration (5:24): “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” has certainly been used to good effect. It is harder to feel religious, however, about oxen goring other oxen (Exod. 21:35), or payments for lost farming animals (Exod. 22:9). The rabbis were aware of this problem and worked to underline the religious importance of the “secular law,” including its system of courts.
God and Israel Keep the Laws: Exodus Rabbah
Parashat Mishpatim begins with an introductory verse:
שמות כא:א וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם.
Exod 21:1 And these are the [social] laws that you are to set out before them.
Using Psalm 147:9, Midrash Exodus Rabbah 30:9 ties this verse, and with it the following laws of Mishpatim to the Decalogue in Yitro:
ואלה המשפטים – הה”ד מגיד דבריו ליעקב, אלו הדברות. חוקיו ומשפטיו לישראל, אלו המשפטים.
“And these are ‘the laws” – This highlights the lesson [of Psalm 147:9]: “He reveals His words to Jacob” – These are “The Words” (i.e., the Decalogue). “His decrees and His laws to Israel” – These are “the [social] laws.”
Noting that Exodus uses the terms “words” (devarim) and “laws” (mishpatim), without any possessive suffix, whereas the Psalmist utilizes the divine possessive (“His laws”), the midrash adds that they are not only God’s by virtue of God’s having proclaimed them, but are His by virtue of His having observed them as well.
לפי שאין מדותיו של הקב”ה כמדת ב”ו, מדת ב”ו מורה לאחרים לעשות והוא אינו עושה כלום, הקב”ה אינו כן, אלא מה שהוא עושה, הוא אומר לישראל לעשות ולשמור.
For the ways of the Holy One, blessed by He, are not the ways of humanity (lit. flesh and blood). The way of humanity is [for a leader] to tell other people how to behave but not to do so personally. The Holy One, blessed by He is not this way, rather what He does is what he tells Israel to do and uphold.
This midrash fits with the rabbinic theme that God keeps mitzvot. But whereas we may be more familiar with the famous image of God wearing tefillin, this midrash emphasizes that God observes the laws of Mishpatim, in other words, God, unlike other rulers, is ethical in his treatment of his people.
Rashi: A Fourfold Homily
Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki 1040-1105) in his commentary on this verse, much of which he adopted from Midrash, reflects a sustained effort to place the laws of Mishpatim firmly in the realm of the divine and holy. To do so, he quotes four different, even contradictory midrashim.
A – The Laws of Mishpatim Were Given at Sinai
Rashi’s first gloss, taken from Midrash Tanchuma,Mishpatim 3 (ca. 5th cent. C.E.), is a comment about how Mishpatim was given at Sinai:
ואלה המשפטים – כל מקום שנאמר אלה פסל את הראשונים, ואלה מוסיף על הראשונים, מה הראשונים מסיני, אף אלו מסיני.
“And these are the laws:” Wherever a verse says, “these,” [the Torah] is distinguishing from what was stated previously. [Wherever it says,] “And these,” it is adding to what was stated previously. [Thus,] just as what was stated previously (i.e., the Decalogue) is from Sinai, these too (Mishpatim) were from Sinai.
Rashi makes this same observation about the laws of Parashat Behar (Lev. 25:1, based on the Sifra, Behar 1.1; ca. 4th cent. C.E.), which also include laws about ethical treatment of the poor. The point is to emphasize that the laws of Mishpatim are just as significant as those of the Decalogue.
B – The Sanhedrin Must Be Near the Altar
Next, quoting the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (ca. 4th cent. C.E.), Rashi notes the juxtaposition between the opening of Mishpatim (“these are the laws”) and the ending of Yitro (proper building of an altar):
ולמה נסמכה פרשת דינין לפרשת מזבח, לומר לך שתשים סנהדרין אצל המקדש [המזבח].
Now why was the section dealing with civil laws juxtaposed to the section dealing with the altar? To tell you that you shall place the Sanhedrin adjacent to the Temple [other editions: the altar].
The implied point of the court’s location is to teach that judges serving the needs of Israel are divine intermediaries much as the priests serving at the altar.
The Talmud makes a similar point in a midrash on the opening of Parashat Shofetim (b.Sanhedrin 7b):
אמר ריש לקיש: כל המעמיד דיין (על הציבור) שאינו הגון – כאילו נוטע אשירה בישראל, שנאמר שפטים ושטרים תתן לך וסמיך ליה לא תטע לך אשרה כל עץ. אמר רב אשי: ובמקום שיש תלמידי חכמים – כאילו נטעו אצל מזבח, שנאמר אצל מזבח ה’ אלהיך.
Resh Lakish said: “He who appoints an incompetent judge over the Community is as though he had planted an Asherah [=sacred tree] in Israel, for it is written: ‘Judges and officers shalt you appoint,’ and soon after it is said: ‘You shall not plant an Asherah, any kind of tree.’” R. Ashi said: “And if such an appointment be made in a place where scholars are to be found, it is as though the Asherah were planted beside the altar, for the verse concludes with the words: ‘beside the altar of the Lord your God.’”
The appointment of bad judges is an act of idolatry and a direct insult to God.
C – Clarifying the Meaning of the Laws
Laws are generally “told” (ד.ב.ר) or “instructed (י.ר.ה) but the introductory verse here uses the term “place” or “set out” (ש.ו.מ). Thus, Rashi, quoting the Mekhilta (and b. Eruvin 54b), comments:
אשר תשים לפניהם – אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה לא תעלה על דעתך לומר אשנה להם הפרק וההלכה ב’ או ג’ פעמים עד שתהא סדורה בפיהם כמשנתה, ואיני מטריח עצמי להבינם טעמי הדבר ופירושו, לכך נאמר אשר תשים לפניהם, כשלחן הערוך ומוכן לאכול לפני האדם.
“That you shall set out before them” – The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moses: Do not think of saying, “I will teach them each chapter and law two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.” Therefore, it is said: “you shall set before them,” like a table (shulchan arukh), set [with food] and prepared to eat from, [placed] before someone.
Moses was to teach the laws, not as rote learning but setting these out in clear, logical form, which would make their point comprehensible and be eagerly digested by the people of Israel. In other words, laws—even the prosaic laws of Mishpatim—are not exclusively, perhaps not even primarily, about compliance, but about the religious experience of knowing how to behave properly and acting in accordance with the divine law.
D – Requirement to Use Jewish Courts Even When the Laws Are the Same
Up to this point, Rashi had construed the verse to be about teaching God’s social laws to the people. Without any notice, Rashi now reads the verse in reference to legal suits.
לפניהם – ולא לפני גוים, ואפילו ידעת בדין אחד שהם דנין אותו כדיני ישראל, אל תביאהו בערכאות שלהם.
“Before them” – and not before gentiles. And even if you know in one case that the non-Jews will judge it according to the laws of Israel [dinei yisrael] you must not bring it [this case] to their judiciaries.
שהמביא דיני ישראל לפני גוים מחלל את השם ומיקר שם עבודה זרה להחשיבה, שנאמר כי לא כצורנו צורם ואויבינו פלילים, כשאויבינו פלילים זהו עדות לעלוי יראתם.
For the one who brings [a case subject to] the laws of Israel [dinei yisrael] before non-Jews disparages the name of heaven and aggrandizes the name of foreign worship, as it says (Deut. 32:31): “For their rock is not like our Rock; and our enemies judge” – when our enemies judge us this is testimony to our esteem of the god they fear. 
A Jew is prohibited from attending a non-Jewish court even if the laws of Gentiles were in substance the exact same laws, since the very fact that idolaters would adjudicate them would indicate a victory for their gods over the God of Israel. This idea is cited as halakha by the poskim who support the claim that it is blasphemous to honor foreign gods by entering a shared legal space with their deities.
From only the first words of Rashi (“before them and not before gentiles”) a reader might have thought that Rashi means that it is forbidden to teach the laws of the Torah before gentiles. But this reading is quickly undermined by the continuation of the commentary.
The Origin of Rashi’s Derasha
Rashi’s fourth observation builds upon rabbinic sources. The earliest source for this derasha is a baraita quoted in the Babylonian Talmud in the name of R. Tarfon (b. Gittin 88b, Munich 95):
היה ר’ טרפון אומר: כל מקום שאת מוצא ערכאות שלגוים א’ע’פ’ שדיניהם דין כדיני ישראל אי אתה רשאי להזדקק להם שנ’ ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם. לפניהם – ולא לפני גוים. לפניהם – ולא לפני הדיוטות.
Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “Anywhere you find gentile courts, even if their laws are the same as the laws of Israel, you are not allowed to go to them, for it says: ‘And these are the lawsuits (mishpatim) that you shall place before them.’ ‘Before them’ – but not before gentiles. ‘Before them’ – but not before laymen.”
R. Tarfon’s reading of the term mishpatim as law-suits is clearly the origin of Rashi’s gloss. Nevertheless, Rashi adds a moralizing reflection on how this sin is an attack on God, which he imports from Midrash Tanchuma (ad loc.):
לפניהם ולא לפני עכו”ם מנין לבעלי דינין של ישראל שיש להם דין זה עם זה שיודעים שהעכו”ם דנין אותו הדין כדיני ישראל שאסור להזדקק לפניהם, תלמוד לומר אשר תשים לפניהם לפני ישראל ולא לפני כותים שכל מי שמניח דייני ישראל והולך לפני עכו”ם כפר בהקדוש ברוך הוא תחלה ואחרי כן כפר בתורה שנא’ (דברים לב) כי לא כצורנו צורם ואויבינו פלילים.
“Before them” – but not before gentiles. From where do we know that when Jewish litigants go to court against each other and they know that the court of the gentiles adjudicates with the same laws as the Jewish court, that it is forbidden to make use of them? The verse teaches you: “that you shall place before them” – before a Jew and not before gentiles, for whoever passes over Jewish judges and goes to gentile judges has first denied the Holy One, blessed be He, and then denies the Torah, for it says (Deut 32:31): “For their rock is not like our Rock; and our enemies judge.”
Rashi has changed this source in some subtle ways. Midrash Tanchuma claims that going to gentile courts is a kind of heresy, in which the person denies God and Torah. Rashi, however, claims that it is a kind of desecration of God’s name, since it expresses respect for the gentile pagan tradition and implies that the Jew going to that court holds these gods in great esteem.
R. Eliyahu Mizrahi (1455-1525) the Hakham Bashi (“Great Rabbi”) of the Ottoman Empire, and the author of the best-known super-commentary on Rashi, parses this midrash with the following:
והכי קאמר: לו חכמו האומות, היה להם להבין שמה שמשלו בנו לא היה מצד שֶׁיַדם רמה, אלא מצד שצורנו מְסַרַנוּ בידם, שהרי הם עצמם מודים שלא כצורנו צורם ואפילו הכי הם פלילים עלינו.
This is how he reads [the verse]: If the nations were wise, they should understand that the reason they are ruling over us is not due to their power but because our Rock gave us over into their hands, for they themselves admit that their rock is not like our Rock, and even so, they have power/judgment over us.
מכלל שאם היה צורנו כצורם ראוי היה שיהיו פלילים עלינו, אם כן העושה אותם פלילים עליו, הוא משוה צורנו לצורם.
From this we can deduce that if our Rock was [merely] like their rock, it would be fitting for them to have power/judgment over us. And thus, if [a Jew] places [gentiles] in a position of power/judgment over him, he is equating our Rock with their rock.
In other words, the Jewish litigants’ acceptance of a gentile court serves as testimony that there is no difference between their god and ours.
How the Contradictory Readings Cohere
The meaning of mishpatim as “law-suits” is found in the Bible (e.g., 2 Chron. 19:6), but why does Rashi adopt it here, contradicting his earlier peshat interpretation of Exodus 21:1? His point, despite the cost of exegetical elegance in his commentary, is worth the price.
Rashi found it significant that the court, the institution to administer Sinai’s Laws, convened close to the altar. He learned from this that society’s institution for maintaining its well-being, its laws and its judges, has its symbolic home within the sacred Temple and its origin on the sacred mountain where Moses and God met to discuss teaching methods. This society requires the awareness that it is a God-based, Torah-legislated community. Its judges are entrusted with society’s character by ensuring fair dealings among its constituents as they work within the sacred bounds of their divine universe of discourse.
Anchoring Jewish Society in Its Schools and Courts
By adding a new facet to his comments, Rashi anchors this holy society within its historical origin of Israel’s covenant at Sinai, its central location where priests ascend up to God’s altar, its central pillar of educating the young in God’s ways, and perhaps most significantly, in the ability of Israel to show its confidence in this society by trusting its courts of law.
That is why wherever Jews were scattered and whatever their circumstances throughout their history, they established schools and courts. Without this final insight, there could be no kahal haqodesh, no holy community. Rashi, in his opening comments to the parashah has given us the sine qua non of Jewish communal necessities: Institutions for Education and Justice. Hence the leap from the one to the other.
In short, although the readings Rashi offers of the verse do not, in fact, cohere on a semantic level, they meet at a conceptual level. The laws of Mishpatim were given at Sinai, and that the court is to be situated next to the altar, because it is a representative of God on earth no less than the Temple and the priesthood, and keeping these laws properly is a meaningful, religious experience. For this constellation of reasons Rashi concludes, as did Rabbi Tarfon centuries earlier, Jews should only bring their law suits to God’s courts.
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February 22, 2017
May 3, 2020
Prof. Rabbi Herbert Basser is Professor (Emeritus) of Religion and Jewish Studies at Queen’s University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and his B.A. from Yeshiva University. Basser served as Hillel Rabbi in the University of Florida and the University of Manitoba. He is the author/editor of 11 Books, among which are The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-Based Commentary (with Marsha B. Cohen), Studies in Exegesis: Christian Critiques of Jewish Law and Rabbinic Responses 70-300 C.E., and The Mystical Study of Ruth: Midrash HaNe’elam of the Zohar to the Book of Ruth (with Lawrence Englander)
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