OzTorah: Torah reading – Mishpatim



The sidra opens with an “and”: “And these are the judgments you shall place before them”.

The “and” clearly links this sidra with last week’s, which describes the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, when, hushed into silence, the whole of creation waited for the Divine voice that proclaimed, “I am the Lord your God…” and enunciated the Ten Commandments. And all the people answered as one, “All that the Lord has said we will obey.”

This week we have the means whereby that magnificent moment could become permanent. Yes, compared with the drama and majesty of the Ten Commandments, the rules of law placed before us this week seem like a mass of detail. But they are all part of one Revelation.

To be told not to kill, steal or commit adultery is breathtaking in its boldness, but it needs a structure and framework of civil and criminal law to translate it into a practical code able to govern a people’s daily life.

The great moments in life are all exhilarating, but they tend to evaporate. As they say in London, “After the Lord Mayor’s Show comes the dustman.” The day after a great event can be an anti-climax. We need little reminders that recall the emotion, the inspiration, the impact as long as we live.

And that is why the laws of Mishpatim bring Sinai into everyday life. The Jew who keeps the commandments is there at Sinai again, standing with Moses and the Children of Israel who are alive once more.


Israeli lawmakers have recently been grappling with the idea of legislation specifying that Israel is Jewish and democratic. One aspect which has not received much attention is whether Israeli law is visibly Jewish.

From this week’s sidra we derive a number of legal principles which my teacher, Rabbi Kopel Kahana of blessed memory, who was a scholar in both Jewish and civil law, strongly advocated as the basis of the legal system of a Jewish state.

In some respects Jewish law was not fully developed in the Diaspora, but in most areas it was and is highly sophisticated. Rabbi Kahana’s book on the subject covers both theory – jurisprudence, justice and ethics – and details, covering not only personal status but crime, torts, commerce, property, evidence, trusteeship, and so much else.

Some people object to Jewish civil law as the basis of a legal system: the religious wonder how a secular state can gear itself to God-given law, whilst the non-religious fear religious coercion.

In the end no-one can look at the Jewishness of the state without asking whether the law of the state has a Jewish flavour.


Legislative drafting is an art. The words must be clear. The laws must be precise. There must be an order of priorities ­ first things first. So when we read the sidra Mishpatim, centrepiece of the civil law of the Torah, we are both impressed at the quality of the formulation of the laws and puzzled at why it begins, “Ki tikneh eved ivri” – “when you acquire a Hebrew servant…” (Ex. 21:2). Why start with servants? How about the higher ranks of society?

It could be that this law establishes a basic principle of the Jewish legal system ­ that the law is not merely, or first and foremost, for the “important” people in society ­ the rich, powerful, aristocratic and famous. The touchstone of a legal system is how it deals with the poor and disadvantaged, with servants, for example, and not just their masters.

In a Jewish court, an “important” person must not be treated with more deference than a humbler member of society. As last week’s sidra told us, “You (all of you!) shall be to Me a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).

Unfortunately it often happens that people insist on their importance being acclaimed, applauded and acknowledged (“I have to sit at the top table!”… “I have to be mentioned first!”… “My name has to be in golden letters!”).

The Jewish principle is quite different. Though not formulated in the Talmud, it is so well known that everyone thinks it is Talmudic, and indeed it does express Talmudic ethics. It is, “Whoever chases after ‘kavod’ (honour), ‘kavod’ runs away from him: but whoever runs away from ‘kavod’, ‘kavod’ pursues him”.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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