The weekly portion of Mishpatim, Exodus 21-1-24:1, begins with laws concerning an eved ivri, translated “Hebrew Slave.” But the term is not explained. It continues with laws when a man sells his daughter as a slave, a death sentence to a person who kills another, the law of an accidental killing, the rule that holding on the altar does not protect a murderer, injuries are punished “an eye for an eye,” and striking a father or mother and kidnapping result in the death penalty. There are many more laws. The rabbis changed all of these listed laws. This is not unusual. As I will explain, the rabbis saw multiple hints in the Torah that the Torah wanted the change.
The importance of the entire Torah
- The first set of laws given to the former Israelite slaves was the Decalogue, a brief listing of basic teachings. In the early history of Judaism, the Decalogue was so esteemed by Jews that it was placed in mezuzot and recited daily with the Shema. Rabbis abandoned this practice in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds Berakhot 12a and Berakhot 1:5. Scholars, such as Aharon Oppenheimer (in “Removing the Decalogue from the ‘Shema’ and Phylacteries: The Historical Implications,” in The Decalogue in Jewish and Christian Tradition, ed. Henning Graf Reventlow and Yair Hoffman) explain that they did so because Christians extolled the Decalogue as the only legal authority of the Torah.
Why were the laws changed?
- Remarkably, the first laws in the biblical portion Mishpatim deal with an Israelite enslaving a fellow Israelite and the law of an Israelite father selling his daughter to another Israelite. These are terrible acts. What does this tell us about these former slaves? Shouldn’t we have expected them to declare, “Free at last, free at last, thank God we are free at last,” and then speak about freedom and creating a society where all people are free? This example shows that it is hard, even impossible, for people to give up ideas they have had for years.
- We can see this problem of reluctance, inability to understand, or difficulty to change in the rabbis giving specific laws the title They defined chok as a law with no known reasonable basis? They gave the law of the Red Heifer as an example. Yet, Maimonides said all the biblical laws make sense and explained the Red Heifer rule. The rabbis were trying to make the general public comfortable with the regulations they called chok, which the general public could not understand by saying God has a good reason for the law that we do not know.
- Other examples. Rashi states that V’eleh mishpatim begins with the Hebrew letter vav, which he translates as “and,” and contends that the letter informs us that just as the Decalogue was given at Mount Sinai, so were the laws in the weekly portion mishpatim. Rashi and the rabbis recognized that while what they were saying was not true, they felt the people needed to think these commands were so important they were given to the people at Mount Sinai. It is like saying that God becomes angry when we misbehave, even though God has no emotions. We tell the general population that God becomes angry to frighten them into behaving.
- Rashi said the same thing about the Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses, called Targum Onkelos. Because the rabbis wanted Jews to read Targum Onkelos, Rashi said it was given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, even though he knew this was not true, to encourage them to read Targum Onkelos weekly as the rabbis suggested.
- Plato called these false teachings “noble lies” and Maimonides “essential truths.” The rabbis felt the general public needed to be told in various ways that the laws were given to us by God, who loves people and wants to help them.
- The rabbis changed all the laws listed above because these laws were appropriate for the generation of freed slaves who were unable to change but were no longer appropriate.
- While the Torah allows the continuation of misguided behaviors such as slavery because of the mindset of the ancient people when the laws were promulgated, the rabbis understood that the Torah wanted better behavior. Therefore, the Torah allowed what the people considered proper but hinted that the rules must be changed.
- The rabbis saw multiple hints of this. For example, if a Jewish slave wanted to remain in slavery beyond six years, the time limit in the Torah, this was permitted but frowned upon. The slave had to appear before a court that would try to persuade him to give up his idea. If he refused, his ear was pierced at the door post so that whenever he entered the house, he would be reminded by seeing the mark on the door that God wants people serving Him, not fellow humans. The rabbis found other anti-slavery rules later in the Torah.
- Examples of the Torah’s attitude toward slavery is the law that no Israelite slave, even one sold by the court to repay what he stole when he lacks the money to do so, can serve for more than six years. Exodus 21:1-2 states he goes free without paying more, even if the court could not acquire the full restitution. In 21:26, if a master harms a male or female slave’s eye or tooth, the slave is freed. This was because the Torah considered enslaved people human beings, not property.
Other laws in this weekly portion
- Among the “marital rights” for wives in 21:10 is the husband’s obligation to have intercourse with her. This ensured that even in polygamous families, no wife would be neglected.
- In many societies, the altar was not only a place of worship but also a place of asylum. This dual function is captured in the double meaning of “sanctuary.” But reflecting the Torah’s desire to minimize the significance of the temple, 21:14 disallows the altar to give criminals refuge.
- The rabbis interpreted that the selling by a father of a daughter involves a father giving his underage daughter in marriage to another man. However, it restricted the practice in many ways. He may not do so to a daughter who has begun a menstrual cycle. The money is, in essence, a dowry. If the purchaser decides not to take her as a wife after the purchase, she goes free when she has menstrual cycles, after six years with the man, or the jubilee year, whichever comes first. The purchaser may not give her to another man because she is not like cattle or return her to her father because he mistreated her by selling her. The purchaser may give her to his son as his wife, and she must be treated as any other wife.
- The rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud Baba Kama 84 state that despite the Torah penalizing a man who strikes another, “an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” the penalty is not inflicting on the attacker with the same physical damage. Instead, different kinds of monetary payments are paid equitably, for the actual injury, the loss of time, the cost of the cure, the pain, and disfigurement. Some commentators insist that the money payments are implied in the Torah itself or that the monetary payments are part of the oral law that was given at Mount Sinai. Both views contend that God made it clear that only money payments were demanded. Others say it was the rabbis who changed the ancient harsh treatment.
- Hezekiah ben Manoah (1260-1310), in his biblical commentary, Hezekuni, notes that the prohibition against mistreating widows and orphans in Exodus 22:21-23 and the punishment for disobedience are written in the plural. In his explanation of the law, he shows the rabbinic teaching that people must love others as they love themselves and are punished for failure to do so. Even if people do not mistreat a widow or orphan but remain silent when others do, they are punished.
- Why do those who insist that it was God, not the rabbis, who interpreted the words, and this was what they called the “Oral Torah” that was also given at Mount Sinai? They feel it is essential to say that they need to believe in the divinity of the Oral Law for it to be mandatory.
A few other ways the rabbis interpreted the Torah
- The biblical practice is to say something briefly the first time it is mentioned and elaborate upon it later. Examples include the Bible instructing Noah to take a pair of all land and air animals into his ark but later adding that certain animals were to be seven in number. Another oft-misunderstood example is that God created a man and woman in Genesis chapter one, while chapter two relates that the two were created separately. Many scholars and rabbis do not know the biblical practice and think there are two versions of the story.
- In the Garden of Eden parable, Adam is told not to eat from a particular tree. Later, Eve states she was also told not to touch the tree. Again, many who do not know the biblical style of later elaboration think Eve has a different version of the divine command. The Torah tells us that the initial order included not touching the tree.
- Why was the second command not to touch the tree given? This, too, is part of the biblical practice. It is called placing a fence around the Torah so that Jews do not even come close to violating the law. The rabbis even extended this practice. An example is the rule of On Shabbat, Jews are told, as the first humans in the parable, that they should not even touch an object forbidden to use on Shabbat. This “fence” protects the Jew from violating the Shabbat.
- In the parable, Eve misunderstood why she could not touch the tree. She thought she would be punished for touching the tree or eating its fruit. She did not know that the prohibition of not touching the tree was meant to help her not eat the fruit. When she touched the tree and was not punished, she thought she would not be penalized for also eating the fruit, and she ate it.
Some verses have ambiguous or obscure words subject to various interpretations
- An example is eved ivri in the beginning of the portion mishpatim, which different rabbis gave different interpretations. Another is Exodus 35:3, which states, Lo theva’aru esh bechol moshvothechem beyom hashabat. It means you must not theva’aru fire in all your homes on the day of Shabbat. But theva’aru could mean “burn,” and the verse would be saying, no fire may burn in your homes on Shabbat. This is how the Sadducees understood the verse before 70 CE. They sat in the dark on Shabbat and in the cold during winter. But it could mean “light a fire.” This would allow a fire if it were lit before the Shabbat. This is how the Pharisees at that time understood it. The rabbis accepted the Pharisaic interpretation and instituted the practice of lighting candles before Shabbat to remind Jews that Shabbat is a day of light and warmth.