Parshat Mishpatim


An Abundance of Tools for Creating a Fair and Orderly Society

“But Daddy,” exclaimed Sammy, “there’s only one steak left in the restaurant, so why are you giving it to Jacob the servant? Why don’t you eat it yourself? I even remember when we were at the hotel and there weren’t enough pillows, you gave your own pillow to Jacob. Why? After all, isn’t he just the servant?”

“Indeed, Sammy,” replied his father. “But Jacob is our brother and must be treated as such. If he got himself in trouble and was forced to become an indentured servant, we still must be sensitive to his feelings. And that’s a lesson for how to treat all of mankind!”

After the Revelation at Sinai, the first thing the Torah teaches are “Mishpatim” – the laws between one person and another. Without an exact structure of law, “Love your neighbor” is just an empty slogan. How do you define charity, fairness, justice? Without a comprehensive system of law, it’s not even always clear who is the victim and who is the villain.


The Parsha begins by discussing the laws of an indentured servant.

Question: Why introduce a legal system using such a complex case?

Answer: The method of instruction the Torah uses, is to present an extreme case from which we can extrapolate key principles to apply to our daily lives.

A written copy of the Torah was not received by the Jewish people until the end of their 40 years in the desert, just before the death of Moses (see Deut. 31:24). The entire 40 years, they studied Torah orally and already knew all its concepts. The written form is basically an outline of this information.

The Jewish Servant: A Jew stole money and cannot repay it. Instead of a debtor’s prison where there is no option to repay, the court may sell him as an indentured servant and the money is used to pay his debt. He works for 6 years and then goes free.

If he desires to remain beyond the 6 years, the court pierces his ear against a doorpost, implying that he didn’t listen at Sinai when God proclaimed that we are His servants and no longer slaves to any human. (The doorpost symbolizes the blood of the Passover offering put on the doorpost.) When he was first sold, he had no choice – but now he can have freedom and yet chooses to be a slave! He now remains a servant “forever,” which means until the Jubilee year (see Leviticus 25:41).

This servitude, however, is not like anything we’re familiar with. In Judaism, the master must treat his servant as an equal or better. If the master eats steak, so does the servant. If the master has a soft mattress and pillow, so does the servant. But – if there is only one steak (or one pillow, etc.) available, then the servant gets it!!

Furthermore, the master must take pains not to embarrass the servant in any way, and must also support the servant’s wife and children. These rules are so much in favor of the servant that the Talmud declares: “Whoever acquires a servant, is as if he has acquired a master!”

The Lesson: If you have to treat your servant as an equal (or better), how much more so should you honor your friends, neighbors, spouse and children who are not your servants!

In discussing the Jewish maidservant, the Torah teaches how a husband must treat his wife in order that she never lack any needs. As stipulated in the Torah, a Jewish husband is obligated to provide for his wife’s: (1) food, (2) clothing and (3) emotional needs – e.g. giving adequate time and attention. In Judaism, marital relations are the obligation of the husband, and he may not forgo it without her permission!


For injuring another person, you must pay monetary compensation:

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a wound for a wound, a burn for a burn.” (Exodus 21:24)

Contrary to popular conception, this does not endorse taking revenge (which is expressly prohibited in Leviticus 19:18), nor does it mean that the courts remove the assailant’s eye. The Talmud says it means “the value of an eye for an eye.” We estimate his value with an eye, and without an eye (who would want to be eyeless?!) – and the difference is the value of the damage.

Question: Why doesn’t the Torah simply say, “the value of an eye for an eye?”

Answer: The Torah speaks in absolute terms. Even though in practical terms we take the value of the eye, the Torah wants us to know that the assailant really deserves an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!

That covers the actual damage to the eye. But in Jewish law, one who physically injures another must pay 4 additional reparations:

  1. Pain: Even if you paid the value of his eye, what right did you have to remove it without anesthetic? We estimate how much money one would accept to have his eye removed without anesthetic (if it had to be removed anyway).
  2. Embarrassment: For the rest of his life, he has to wear a glass eye, and you must compensate him for that as well.
  3. Unemployment: Although included in the basic damages is a loss of occupation (the value of a brain surgeon who loses his eye is much more!), at least he can still make a minimum wage as a guard. But wages lost during his infirmary (following the loss of his eye) must also be compensated for.
  4. Medical Expenses: From here we learn one may go to a doctor.

Question: Why would one think not to see a doctor?

Answer: Some religions believe we have no right to tamper with God’s will. “If He wants me to live or die it’s all up to Him.” The Torah says that God made illness, but He also created medicines and gave us the knowledge to use them.

(Another possibility: Since medical science is always changing and improving, and often what doctors believe today will change tomorrow, why go to a doctor today? In spite of this, you should go see a contemporary doctor.)


The Torah illustrates the concept of property damage with the example of an ox who gores. If your ox (your property, which you are responsible to guard from doing damage) kills a person, then you must pay “ransom” (Exodus 21:25). In absolute terms, a person deserves to die for the negligence that caused the death of another – but the Torah provides for an atonement process.

The animal who killed the person is stoned to death.

Question: Why kill the poor beast?

Answer: We find a similar concept in that an animal which was sexually abused by a person is killed, as was “Bilaam’s talking donkey” (see Numbers 24) after winning the debate with his master. This illustrates the great esteem the Torah has for human dignity. If a human being (no matter how low he is – even the wicked Bilaam) was degenerated by this animal, the Torah instructs us to kill the animal, to prevent it from serving as a perpetual reminder of this person’s humiliation.

Animals (i.e. property) that damage another’s property, fall into 3 categories of damagers:

  1. “Horns” – the ox who gores. Since most oxen do not gore (except in bull fights), the owner was not expected to take major precautions to guard against this, and thus pays only half the damage.
    If however, the ox gored 3 consecutive times, it reveals a violent nature and the owner who did not take precautions must now pay full compensation. This applies to all animals who damage others in a manner that is not a regular animal activity (e.g. your dog bites or attacks another dog).
  2. “Teeth” – the ox eats the grain or fruits of another. This applies to any damage done for physical gratification (e.g. the animal scratching its back on a wall until it falls down). It only applies if the animal entered the property of his neighbor. If the food was left on public property and then consumed, the owner of the animal is not responsible.
  3. “Feet” – the ox tramples things as it walks. This applies to all damage done unintentionally while your animal is taking a stroll. It applies only in your neighbor’s property, but not in the public domain.

The Torah delineates 3 more legal categories of damagers:

  • Damage caused by a public obstacle: If you dig a ditch (or drop a banana peel on the ground), and someone falls and hurts himself, you must pay the damage. Even uncovering a manhole that was already there, the Torah now considers it as “yours” and you are responsible for any damage.
  • Damage caused by fire: If you light a fire in your own domain and it spreads (via a normal wind) and damages your neighbor’s property, you are responsible to pay.
  • Damage caused by a person himself: Human beings are always responsible for their actions. This applies even if you did damage unintentionally, or even in your sleep (assuming that the broken object was nearby when you lay down, and not placed there after you were already sleeping).


The Torah delineates 4 degrees of responsibility in guarding an object which is not yours.

  1. “Please watch this for me a few minutes!” This is an example of an “unpaid guard.” Since all the benefit goes to the owner, the guard is only responsible for damages to the object that occurred through negligence.
  2. “If you watch it, I will pay you.” This is an example of the “paid guard.” Since both sides derive benefit, the guard is responsible for any theft and loss (as well as negligence).
  3. The “renter.” Both parties benefit, so it has the same laws as #2.
  4. “Would you please lend it to me?” This is an example of the “borrower.” Since only the borrower gets the benefit, he is responsible for theft, loss, negligence, and even for a pure accident beyond his control. (Hurricane Agnes blew it away!) If the item broke during the course of the precise act for which it was borrowed, the item is deemed as having been incapable of that act, and the borrower is not responsible.


The Torah warns: “Do not take bribes.” The root of the word shochad (bribe) is echad (one). If you take a bribe from someone, you become “one” with him and cannot be objective.

The Sages were very self-critical in this respect. A woman’s tears, a helpful hand extended to cross a bridge, or the bringing of rental payment one day early, were all considered as slight bribes that caused the judge to disqualify himself.

“Bribery blinds the wise.” (Exodus 23:8)

Today, psychiatrists speak about “cognitive dissonance.” If one does not want to accept a certain view, he can talk himself out of it. (“If there is a God, then I have to be moral. If there is no God then it’s all a free-for-all!”) This is the modern form of bribery that can affect our decision-making. The only way to overcome it is to be aware that it exists.


Toward the end of the Parsha are laws that apply to the relationship between humanity and God.

Three times a year, Jews would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. (During Passover and Sukkot for one week, and on Shavuot for one day.) These are the busiest times of the year for an agricultural economy (the planting, harvesting, and ingathering of the crops took place exactly at these times), yet all healthy adult males left their families and farms to be seen in the Temple.

The spiritual growth they experienced can only be imagined, but the danger of enemy invasion was very tangible. Surrounded by enemies since we first arrived, what was to stop them from coming in the now-unprotected borders? (Remember the Yom Kippur War?)

Yet God promises that no one will covet our land. Throughout the thousand-year period of the Temple, the Jewish people trusted in God and came to Jerusalem. No Bible committee would ever have come up with this one!


The Torah says: “Do not cook a kid in his mother’s milk.” These words are found 3 times in the Torah, representing 3 separate prohibitions.

  1. Do not cook meat with milk.
  2. Do not eat meat cooked with milk. (Yes, including cheeseburgers – oh no!)
  3. Do not derive any benefit from meat cooked with milk – even unintentionally!

The reason the Torah uses the words “kid in its mothers milk,” is to teach us that even though the main sustenance of the kid is its mothers milk, it is still considered a foreign substance and forbidden to be mixed. Certainly all other milk is forbidden to be cooked with meat.
The Torah’s specific wording also limits the prohibition to kosher milk (mother’s milk), kosher meat (goat, sheep, cow) and only animals (as opposed to birds). Rabbinic law, however, prohibits all types of meat, and even meat mixed (but not cooked) with milk – since these could easily be confused with the forbidden stuff.

Question: Since the main thrust of the Parsha is laws between people, why does the Torah end with laws between humanity and God?

Answer: Every society throughout human history that has been immoral to God, but has tried to enforce social justice between people, has failed. The only way to be a just society and regard fellow humans as equal, is if we are all the “children of the same Creator.” If we are just “random products” or “survivors of the fittest,” then every other person is a competition to be eliminated, and social justice will not endure. Many sociological experiments have confirmed this to be true.

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