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Between Yitro and Mishpatim

Rashi comments on the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot 21:1), and explains why the verse says, “And these are the laws.” Based on a midrash, he writes that just as the former commandments (from Parashat Yitro) were given at Sinai, so too, were these commandments (in Parashat Mishpatim) given at Sinai.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his commentary on the verse, expands this idea:

The Torah recognizes no strong line of demarcation between the Decalogue and the civil laws in the chapters that follow it. All alike disclose the will of God. His Torah treats every phase of human and national life – civil as well as religious, physical as well as spiritual.

R. Hertz’s message resonates well, for throughout the Torah we see many different kinds of laws interwoven with each other. And yet, there is a difficulty in his premise. If there is indeed no “line of demarcation,” why did the Sages choose to begin Parashat Mishpatim here, instead of earlier? Doesn’t their break act as a line of demarcation?

To answer this, we need to look at the few verses between the Ten Commandments and the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim. They deal with the laws of the altar:

The LORD said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens: With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold. Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it. (Shemot 20:19-23)

The altar was central to the sacrificial service, and so we would expect that these laws would be immediately followed by the laws of constructing the Mishkan. And yet, we don’t begin reading them until after Parashat Mishpatim, in Parashat Terumah. Why?

I believe that the civil laws in Parashat Mishpatim were placed here to teach us that as important as the ritual laws of the Sanctuary are, they must be built on a just society. By placing them right in the middle of two sections dealing with the Sanctuary service, God is emphasizing their centrality.

However, we can see repeatedly in the prophets that the people did not understand that message. They focused exclusively on the sacrifices they brought, ignoring the corruption and oppression around them. This is how Yeshayahu begins his prophecy:

“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says the LORD. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. […] Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil; Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:11-17)

The Sages, having seen this misplaced focus, ensured that the civil laws of Mishpatim would not be viewed as an afterthought. They would receive their own parasha, and only after its completion would we resume learning about the Mishkan.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website balashon.com since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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