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Shabbat Mishpatim

Law and Words - Exodus 21:1-25:1

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

After the so-called Ten Commandments (which are principles) we come to a section called Mishpatim. Translated in different versions as rules, ordinances, statutes, institutes, or laws.

The Bible uses the word Torah, which literally means teachings. A general term that applies to the Mosaic laws but also, all Biblical texts and has come to apply to Judaism in general.

Another word is Mishpat from the Hebrew word for justice. Sometimes translated as civil law.

The term Mitzvah means any commandment. Whether it is civil or ritual. There is a word Chock which comes from the word engrave that has come to apply to those laws that have no obvious explanation. But often in the Torah all such words are followed by the statement “I Am your God” as if to say, do them because God says so. “ Love your neighbor as yourself, I am your God.” Most laws of the Torah have no obvious rational explanation.

Do we need religious-based laws? Can’t human beings work morality out for themselves? Civil laws can be explained as being laws necessary for the control and well-being of any society. But how often are they ignored? Many of the laws in the Torah, were very similar to the much earlier code of Hammurabi (which dates to roughly the time we think Abraham lived in Babylonia). For example, the famous statement “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” They seem to have taken it literally although how it worked in practice is difficult to understand. Egypt too had a legal system called Ma’at which is best understood as a commonsense way of getting humans to live together. But the notion of what we call civil law goes back to Roman times.

But there is no clear distinction in the Torah between civil law and any other kind of law and what we might call the religious obligations that also trace their roots back to much earlier societies with systems of priesthood, temple worship, and sacrifice. The Torah added a monotheistic dimension to earlier systems and implied that natural human law is a myth (given how frequently humans ignore or disobey it).

The late polymath professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) was well known, apart from his stand against occupation, for objecting to divide the laws of the Torah into different categories. He argued there was only one category, the Divine Torah which one had an obligation to adhere to absolutely and without reservation. As an act of faith in Divine authority. And trying to find reasons or categories was a waste of time. I first heard him expound this as a student at a student conference in Holland in 1964. I was initially shocked because I was brought up to believe that there was a distinction between different laws in the Torah as evidenced by different levels of punishment.

In the Torah itself there is only one case where a reason is given for a law, and that is in the case of the king in Deuteronomy (17:17) where a king is forbidden to have lots of wives for fear that they would lead him off the right path. This, according to the Bible, is what happened to King Solomon, the wisest of kings, He had 700 royal wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), and in his old age, they did indeed influence him badly. He thought he was so wise he didn't need to be told what to do. This is why the rabbis say that we shouldn't look for reasons to obey the law. Too often we think we are above the law.

Nevertheless, we did tend to try to find reasons. Particularly when we felt the need to explain ourselves to the non-Jewish world. The laws of kashrut were to avoid eating certain foods that were more susceptible to disease. But many animals that were allowed to eat also had diseases whether sheep fluke or mad cow disease. Were the laws of purity because of cleanliness or simply creating different states of holiness? Certain laws seem to have a therapeutic effect but is that why we adhere to them? I agree with Leibowitz in that it is commitment that counts, rather than reasons.

But still, as you would expect generations of commentators and interpreters have wrestled with this issue and there is no unanimous opinion. What a law is, can be determined even when there are disagreements. But how they are to be understood, cannot. Besides one does not need to agree.

And perhaps this is why the text we read this week starts “ These are the rules that you (Moses) should place before them.” A strange way of communicating, “to place before them.”

But it conveys to me that the laws are to be offered as they are, placed before us. We should obey them, but as for explanations, it is all left up to us.”

Shabbat Shalom


February 2024


Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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