Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

“You shall not ill-treat any widow of orphan.” (Exodus 22:21)

Parashat Yitro provides drama. Parashat Mishpatim provides details. It begins a section of the Torah known as sefer habrit, the Book of the Covenant and presents laws necessary for a just society.

One section of sefer habrit lists punishments for causing bodily harm: “…the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot…” (Ex. 23,24 ) This principle is first expressed in Hammurabi’s Code (~1795-1750 BCE). Although the Torah prescribes identical injury as punishment, the rabbis understood the equivalency to mean financial compensation and restitution instead (Babylonian Talmud Bava Kama 83b).

It is easy to focus on the humane nature of this interpretation; after all, better to lose some money than lose some body parts. That would overlook its significance in the development of a civil society, though. Mishpatim takes the first step by eliminating vigilante justice by granting the community a monopoly on violence (rather than leaving it to the individual’s discretion). This shifts the motivation from personal revenge to moral justice. (This assumes the community acts as the agent of God’s will.) The rabbis take the second step by reducing the instances in which violence is permitted at all. In fact, the rabbis created so many restrictions on violence as a form of punishment (at least in terms of capital punishment) that, “…A sanhedrin (Jewish high court) that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years’.” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10) The message is clear: reverence for life is the foundation of a just society.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom