This Shavuot, study our ‘constitution’

Shavuot is upon us. On Sunday evening, Jews the world over will gather together to study Torah — all night long for the hearty ones among us.

On Monday, we will read Exodus 19 and 20 — the chapters that begin with God appointing Israel to be His “kingdom of priests and holy nation” and end with God beginning to set forth the laws we must follow in order to fulfill that role.

Because the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, is the main part of the Torah reading, most people assume that is all God had to say that day. In fact, God said a great deal more — all of which is found in the three chapters that follow Monday’s reading. These chapters make clear what God’s Torah is truly about: It is a moral and ethical code detailing how God wants everyone to live. Israel’s assignment was — and still is — to follow that code in order to demonstrate by example its benefits to the rest of the world.

In Exodus 24, the Torah refers to these chapters as the “Sefer Ha-b’rit,” the “Book of the Covenant.” It represents the constitution of the Jewish people and lays the groundwork for all the laws in the Torah that follow. The Decalogue serves as this constitution’s preamble.

These three chapters begin on a discordant note for the modern mind: by discussing the treatment of the Israelite slave. This code is designed to create a just, equitable, caring world, but slavery is neither moral nor ethical, and certainly neither just nor equitable. Yet the Torah not only acknowledges the institution, it sets rules for it.

Those rules, though, are not what they seem. Those laws, and others later in the Torah, actually are designed to make slave-owning too onerous to maintain. We need look no further than a few verses later in Exodus 21 (verses 20-21 and 26-27) to realize this. Kill a slave, these verses state, and that is murder. Physically injure a slave and he or she is freed automatically. If a slave is the owner’s “property,” as is the common belief, why cannot that owner harm, much less kill, a slave?

Here is how the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once explained it:

“If history tells us anything it is that God has patience….He wanted slavery abolished, but He wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does….[God] had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.” (See

Exodus 21:12-13 tells us that cold-blooded murder is punishable by death, but unintentional homicide is not. While this seems obvious, included here is a provision for cities of refuge, safe havens where those who did not intend to kill anyone can flee, there to be tried to determine whether the killing was in fact accidental. These cities were necessary to protect the unintentional murderer from being murdered in turn by the victim’s blood relatives — a much too ingrained “right” in ancient societies (and in some places even today) for the Torah to abolish it outright. Instead, these cities make blood vengeance virtually impossible.

Exodus 21:14 declares that there is no sanctuary for a wanton murderer—not even by clinging to the altar itself. Not even the high priest can claim sanctuary (and, as Deuteronomy 17:14-20 will make clear, not even the king).

According to 21:18-19, if one person injures another in a fight, that person is responsible for caring for the injured party, including paying to heal the injuries sustained. Who started the fight is irrelevant. The phrase in these verses, “he must pay for his cure,” was seen by our Sages of Blessed Memory as the Torah’s “granting permission to physicians to heal.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot 60a.)

What if a pregnant woman who was walking by the fight was injured and then miscarries? Verse 21:22-25 says the person causing the miscarriage must pay damages (a clear indication that the Torah does not view a fetus as a “life”). This verse has broad implications for a woman’s right to choose. Our Sages saw here the dictum “gufah he,” “it is her body,” and it remains “her body” until the very moment the newborn’s head begins to emerge. (See BT Arachin 7a.)

The verse also states that if the woman is injured, or if she dies, it is “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” This law is repeated twice more in the Torah. Because Torah law requires complete equity, however, taking an “eye for an eye,” for example, requires an eye that is exactly the same in vision and weight; the blood loss must be exactly the same; and so on. Since this is virtually impossible, wherever the law of retaliation is called for, it must mean monetary compensation, and nothing more. (See BT Bava Kama 83b-84a.)

Verses 21:28-36 and 22:3-5 deal with instances of carelessness that lead to harm. The “ox that gores” in these verses represents anything we own that we merely suspect may cause injury to people or property. The “open pit” represents any public hazard we create — including, say, stopping a car in a crosswalk, thereby endangering people who have to get around the obstruction in order to cross the street. Deuteronomy 22:8 brings this law into the home itself. The Sages took that law, for example, to include forbidding people from keeping a broken ladder in the home. (BT Bava Kamma 15b.)

In Exodus 22:1-2, we are told that self-defense has its limits. If a thief breaks into someone’s home in the dead of night, and is killed by someone in the darkened house, the killer is free of guilt because he or she had no way of knowing whether the intruder had a murderous intent. If the lights were on, however, and it was clear the thief was unarmed, then his or her killer is guilty of murder. Putting it in its broader sense, if it is obvious that someone confronting you intends to kill you, it is permissible to kill that person. If murderous intent is not obvious, killing that person is flat-out murder. Consider how that may apply to police shootings of unarmed people today.

Verses 22:20-26 deal with society’s disadvantaged and disenfranchised—such as the stranger, widow, orphan, or someone who is in dire financial shape. Not only must they be protected and cared for by everyone else, but great care must be taken not to take advantage of the situation (for example, by returning a pledged garment each night, no matter how inconvenient that might be).

Spreading rumors about other people or ganging up on them to their detriment are the subjects of verses 23:1-3, 6-8. Prohibited here, as well, are taking or giving bribes, and committing perjury. Included here, too, is the requirement to establish and maintain a justice system that is fair, equitable, and honorable. Everyone is equal under the law, even the king, according to Deuteronomy 17:14-20.

Verses 23:4-5 require that if an animal is in trouble, we must do what is needed to help — even if its owner is an enemy of ours. It does not matter to whom it belongs, animals have rights, too.

Verses 23:10-11 requires that the land gets its own Shabbat, in this case for a year, and with a moral twist—that “the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat.”

Finally, verse 23:12 restates the Shabbat commandment of the Decalogue, but with a very pointed explanation that confirms what this commandment is really about — ”in order that your ox and your jackass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.” At its very core, the Shabbat commandment is probably the most socially conscious mitzvah in the Torah, as I have argued in previous columns.

This, then, is the essence of the Constitution of the Jewish People, the Book of the Covenant. These are the words God used on Shavuot to define what we are about, and how we are to proceed in the world. From the preamble, the Decalogue, on, the focus is not on ritual, but on creating a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” who will create a just and righteous society, and by doing so help bring the world to do the same. That is carried through in all the laws of the Torah that follow these chapters.

The rituals the Torah prescribes are important and must not be ignored, but they must be seen for what the Torah says they are — devices to keep us focused on the task we were assigned on Shavuot.

Chag sameach to all.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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