Naomi Graetz

Parshat Mishpatim: An Embarrassment of Riches


Parshat Mishpatim brings with it an embarrassment of riches for someone like me (or anyone else for that matter) on which to comment. I will focus on two sets of verses.


The first set of verses are related to two current events: the earthquake catastrophe in Turkey and Syria, and the protests against our new government which is attempting to overhaul the judicial system.


I was delighted to see that Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi told Israeli rescue teams that they should continue their rescue work in quake-hit regions of Turkey on Shabbat. He said: “A dreadful tragedy occurred this week in Turkey. A severe earthquake hit many cities and a large number of buildings collapsed upon their residents. Rescue operations have been ongoing for several days…. Wherever there is any chance of saving lives and finding survivors, the rescue teams must continue its activities.” In fact, he is echoing the words of the Talmud.

The Rabbis taught: If a person is buried under a collapsed building, until what point does one check to clarify whether the victim is still alive? Until what point is he allowed to continue clearing the debris? They said: One clears until the victim’s nose. If there is no sign of life, i.e., if he is not breathing, he is certainly dead. And some say: One clears until the victim’s heart to check for a heartbeat. If several people are buried and one checked and found the upper ones under the debris dead, he should not say: The lower ones are likely also already dead, and there is no point in continuing to search. There was an incident where they found the upper ones dead and the lower ones alive (BT Yoma 85a with Steinsaltz in bold).

Given today’s climate, this was a brave rule, since just eleven years ago, in May 2012, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardi chief rabbi, ruled that the laws are different regarding Jews and gentiles in terms of violating the Sabbath to save a life. He said then that the saving of a life takes precedence over all of the laws in the Torah, but only when the life is that of a Jew. He said that the Torah does not permit the desecration of the Sabbath to save the life of a gentile. His ruling was based on some Talmudic texts which permit Shabbat desecration only to save Jews. However, most texts disagree with this and say because of darkei shalom or mipnei eivah (preventing enmity), we must save the lives of both Jews and non-Jews.  The Hatam Sofer (R. Moses Schreiber, 1762–1839), pragmatically pointed out that not only would refusing to save non-Jewish lives be responsible for hostility against Jews, but could also result in non-Jews not saving Jewish lives.

On the other hand, the headline which made a real splash was “Top national religious rabbi says deadly quake in Turkey, Syria is divine justice.” This was followed by the lead’s description of who he was: “Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who is close to Itamar Ben Gvir and the father of a far-right minister, says disaster ‘cleanses the world, makes it better’; some rabbis aghast at comments.” BTW: the final sentence of the article was “Ben Gvir has said in the past he believes Eliyahu should be Israel’s chief rabbi.”  (See

What do we make of these two contradictory opinions? I would love to see what, if any, will be Rabbi Lau’s reaction to R. Eliyahu. In the TOI’s article only the centrist Orthodox and Reform rabbis are “aghast at comments” and have disavowed R. Eliyahu’s statement. When I read in this week’s parsha the following passage, I immediately thought of all these rabbis as well as our new government:

You shall not bear a false rumor. You shall not put your hand with the guilty to be a harmful witness. You shall not follow the many for evil, and you shall not bear witness in a dispute to go askew, to skew it in support of the many. …You shall not skew the case of your indigent in his dispute. From a lying word stay far away, and the guiltless and innocent do not kill, for I will not acquit the guilty. No bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the sighted and perverts the words of the innocent (Exodus 30:1-8).

The false rumors are what we are hearing every day, and they do great harm, especially when they are in league with an attempt to overthrow the judicial system. It results in outright lying, in order to protect those who are corrupt and take bribes.


The next group of verses have to do with the rape (seduction) of the young virgin. The Hebrew word for seduction is יפתה, but since the man lies with her (that is, has intercourse with her), possibly without her consent, and certainly without her father’s consent, one can refer to this as rape. Note the context of the passage:

Should a man give to his fellow man a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast for safekeeping … If it indeed be stolen from him, he shall pay its owner. ….And should a man borrow it from his fellow man and it be hurt or die, its owner not being with it, he shall surely pay. If its owner is with it, he shall not pay…. (Exodus 22:9-14).

And should a man seduce a virgin who has not been betrothed and lie with her, he shall surely pay a bride-price for her as his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall weigh out silver according to the bride-price for virgins (Exodus 22:15-16).

Clearly the virgin is the father’s property just like the donkey, ox, or sheep and if her virginity is stolen, the perpetrator has to pay the father. Usually the “bride price” is paid to the wife, but it would seem that this is given to the father whose property she is. This passage is often compared with another one in Deuteronomy:

Should a man find a virgin young woman who is not betrothed and take hold of her and lie with her, and they be found, the man lying with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty weights of silver, and she shall be his wife inasmuch as he abused her. He shall not be able to send her away all his days (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

In contrast to the law pertaining to the seduction of the unbetrothed virgin in Exodus, whose object is “to protect the financial interests of the father,” according to the bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld, in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (1972), the author of Deuteronomy is “concerned with rectifying the moral and personal wrong committed against the maiden.” The rapist pays the father the money as a huge fine (fifty weights of silver) for violating the virgin, not as compensation to the father. Since the man has “ruined” the young virgin, she is no longer marriage material. And this of course means her market value has diminished. The punishment of the rapist is that he has to marry his victim and can never divorce her. I’m not sure if this rectifies the wrong committed against her, since to me at least, this is a worse punishment to the victim. It is she who will have to live with and have children with her rapist, for the rest of her life.


And Dinah, Leah’s daughter, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land. And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivvite, prince of the land, saw her and took her and lay with her and abused her. And his very self clung to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman, and he spoke to the young woman’s heart. And Shechem said to Hamor his father, saying, “Take me this girl as wife” (Genesis 34:1-4).

Shechem was willing to obey the law of the land as decreed by Mesopotamian legal sources. He behaved according to the norms in his willingness to marry Dinah. Not only was he willing to marry her, but all his townsmen circumcised themselves so that he could marry Dinah. But as the story goes, her brothers destroyed the town in vengeance. According to Deuteronomy, the brothers interfered with Shechem’s obligation to marry her and were wrong to cut off her only chance of marriage. Accordingly, she remained ““shut up, living as widows” צרורה באלמנות חיות , because she was defiled (Nachmanides on Exodus 34:12). The law of Deuteronomy can also be considered an internal commentary on the story of Dinah. This also accords with the last words of Jacob in this chapter:

And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have stirred up trouble for me, making me stink among the land’s inhabitants, among Canaanite and Perizzite, when I am a handful of men. If they gather against me and strike me, I shall be destroyed, I and my household” (Genesis 34:30).

Well not, exactly the last word, because the brothers answered, “Like a whore should our sister be treated?” (vs 31). Thus, in this chapter at least, extreme violence and retributive justice won out.

To conclude, we can see two sets of verses in the embarrassment of riches I referred to above, one having to do with the international and national problems of the day and the second with personal issues and human rights. The first also has ramifications for human rights, because if the national authorities vote for judicial reform, many of our human rights are at risk and will possibly be trodden upon and even lost.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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