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Parashat Mishpatim - Quick Summary

Weekly Torah Reading

Parashat Mishpatim ("Judgments")

Click on the links to display the Scriptures:





Brit Chadashah


Exodus 21:1-24:18

Jer. 34:8-22; 33:25-26
2 Kings 12:1-17 (shekalim)

Matt. 5:38-42;
Matt. 17:1-11

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Torah Reading Snapshot:

Last week's Torah portion (Yitro) explained that exactly seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt (i.e., 49 days after the great Passover), Moses gathered the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai to enter into covenant with the LORD. In a dramatic display of thunder, lightning, billowing smoke and fire, the LORD descended upon the mountain and recited the Ten Commandments to the people. Upon hearing the law's categorical requirements, however, the people shrank back in fear and begged Moses to be their mediator before God. The people then stood far off, while Moses alone drew near to the thick darkness to receive the various laws and rules from the LORD.

Marc Chagall Detail

This week's Torah portion begins with Moses in the midst of the "thick darkness" of Sinai receiving additional instructions regarding civil law for the Israelite people. It begins with the LORD saying to Moses:

Aseret Hadiberot
Exodus 21:1 (BHS)

Now these are the rules that you shall set before them.
(Exodus 21:1)

A well-known Jewish midrash says that the LORD initially offered the Torah to each of the 70 nations, but none accepted it without first asking what it was about. After hearing the various commandments, each nation had some excuse or another for not accepting it (for example, God offered Torah to the Ishmaelites, but they declined the offer because of its prohibition of theft, since their trading practices required it). God finally turned to the nation of Israel, who said kol asher diber Adonai na'aseh ("all that the LORD says we will do").  Note something remarkable here: Unlike the other nations, Israel chose Torah before knowing its contents (Exodus 19:8). In fact, even after Moses had explained the extent of Torah's demands, all Israel said kol asher diber Adonai na'aseh v'nishma ("all that the LORD says we will do and obey") (Exodus 24:7). The heart of the Jew unquestioningly says "Yes" to the LORD like a child who trusts his father... (halevai - may we all so live!).

The word mishpatim means "rules" or "ordinances" and is derived from the Hebrew word shaphat ("to judge"). Parashat Mishpatim is sometimes called Sefer HaBrit ("the Book of the Covenant"), since it contains over 11.5% of all of the mitzvot (commandments) found in the entire Torah (53 of 613). These mishpatim include a wide range of civil laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws (these civil laws are sometimes referred to as bein Adam L'Chavero - "between man and his fellow man."

For instance, slavery was socially tolerated - but it was to be practiced in a humane and orderly manner. If a Jewish male was sold into slavery as restitution for a theft, he must be freed after no more than six years of servitude. If he got married during his servitude, his master was required to support his wife and children. On the other hand, if the master gave the slave a wife during his servitude, she and the children would remain with the master after he was freed (unless the man decided to remain with them, in which case he would make a solemn declaration before a bet din (lawcourt) and have his ear bored with an awl to indicate that he is now part of the master's clan [eved nirtzah]).

If a Jewish girl was sold into slavery by her father, she was not automatically freed after six years of servitude but must be redeemed from her master (the sages state that a man could sell his daughter until she reached 12 years of age, but only if it was for her benefit, i.e., with the intent that she was to be married to her master (or the master's son). If she displeased her master, she could not be resold to a foreigner, but must be redeemed (i.e., purchased back) by her own relatives. If she was married to the master (or his son), then she was to be treated as a freeborn Jewish woman, with all of the same rights attending to that role in Jewish society.

If a master struck and killed his non-Jewish slave, he was to be punished by the bet din.  However, if the slave died several days after the beating, he was not found liable, because it is assumed that he did not intend to actually kill the slave. If the slave was permanently injured by the beating, however, he was to be set free.

Some laws carried the death penalty. These included premeditated murder, cursing one's parents, kidnapping, practicing witchcraft, engaging in bestiality and offering sacrifices to idols. According to various chaza'l (Jewish sages), the famous statement ayin tachat ayin, shen tachat shen ("eye for eye, tooth for tooth") actually refers to the administration of equitable justice in redress of damages, and not corporal punishment (Bava Kama 83b).

Other laws and ordinances concern cases of personal injury, the treatment of strangers (gerim), widows and orphans; laws about loans (which must be interest-free between Jews), and various other matters including the dedication of the firstborn (bechorim) to the LORD, the prohibition of bearing false witness in courts; the restriction against eating treif (the meat of an animal torn by beasts in the field); the law of the Shemittah (7th) year (during which the land was to lie fallow); the complete abstention from work on Shabbat; the three pilgrimage festivals (shelosh regalim): Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot; the prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother's milk (from which all sorts of restrictions were derived in the later rabbinical formulations of kashrut), and so on.

After giving these various mitzvot, the LORD promised Moses that His Angel (malakh Adonai) would guard and protect the Israelites until they arrived in the land of Canaan, but on the condition that the people obey his voice. This Angel would drive out the enemies of Israel and assure their victory in the Promised Land (as Messianic believers we hold that Malakh Adonai was none other than Yeshua the Mashiach in His pre-incarnate state).

As mediator of the covenant, Moses next reported to the Israelites all the words of the LORD and all of the mishpatim, and the people responded in unison, kol hadevarim asher diber Adonai na'eseh: "all the words which the LORD has said we will do." He then wrote down the words of the covenant (sefer habrit), built an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai with twelve pillars (one for each tribe of Israel), and ordered sacrifices to the LORD to be made.  He then took the sacrificial blood from the offerings, threw half upon the altar, and read the covenant to the people. The people ratified the covenant with the words kol asher diber Adonai na'aseh v'nishma ("all that the LORD says we will do and obey"). Upon hearing their ratification, Moses took the other half of the sacrificial blood and threw it on the people saying, "Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words."

Next, Moses, Aaron (and his sons Nadab and Abihu), and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai to eat a "covenant affirmation meal" between klal Yisrael and the LORD.  It was there that the elders beheld the awesome glory of Elohei Yisrael (the God of Israel), under whose feet was "a pavement of sapphires, like the very heaven for clearness."

After returning from the mountain with the elders, the LORD commanded Moses to go back up to receive luchot ha'even (the tablets of stone) inscribed with the Ten Commandments.  Followed by Joshua (who remained down below), Moses re-ascended the mountain, which was still covered by a shining cloud of fire.  On the seventh day there, he heard the Voice of the LORD calling to him from the midst of the cloud of glory, and then entered into the Presence of the LORD. He remained on the mountain for a total of forty days and forty nights while the Israelites waited for him at the camp down below.

A Note about the Oral and Written Torah

In rabbinic Jewish thinking there are actually two Torahs: The written Torah (Torah shebikhtav) and the Oral Torah (Torah sheb'al peh):

  • Written Torah refers to the five books of Moses, usually taking the form of a sefer torah (torah scroll) or Chumash (book form of the first five books of Moses).

    - Torah shebikhtav

  • Oral Torah refers to the word-of-mouth tradition of learning something. The idea is that God first spoke words to Moses, and then Moses responded. That is, before the actual writing down of the words of God (Torah shebikhtav) there was this dialog (Torah sheb'al peh). In Rabbinic tradition, oral Torah is considered more vital than the written Torah.

    Torah sheb'al peh

    - Torah sheb'al Peh


The rabbis claim that oral Torah was also received by Moses from God on Mount Sinai and carries as much authority as the written Torah.  However, this Torah was passed down through the centuries by word of mouth rather than the written word. Eventually this oral material was written down, beginning around the year 200 AD and culminating in the "written oral Torah" called the Talmud (תַּלְמוּד, "learning") which consists of the Mishnah (מִשְׁנָה, "repetition") and its commentary called the Gemarah (גְּמָרָה, "study"). Note that the Oral Torah is 50 times the size of the Written Torah!

Because it derives from the discussions of the Mishnah, the Talmud is also traditionally called Shas (ש"ס), an acronym for shisha sedarim, the "six orders" of the Mishnah. There exist two versions of Talmud: the Jerusalem Talmud (or "Yerushalmi"), which was compiled by c. 350 AD, and the Babylonian Talmud, or "Bavli" (the most frequently used version), which was compiled by c. 500 AD.

Within the Mishnah are two different types of literature. The first is known as halachah, or legal literature. Halachic literature interprets written Torah and seeks evidence to establish judicial laws, both civil and religious, that consist of codes of behavior and religious practice and procedures (for instance, the laws of marriage and divorce, the ethics of giving charity, etc.). The second type of literature is know as Aggadah and is all material contained in the Talmud that is not halachah. It consists of the "wise sayings or tellings" of the sages. Aggadah includes stories, parables, theological or ethical statements, and homilies. Note that within the Talmud itself, both aggadah and halachah may be found mixed together, often with aggadah used to teach a principle based upon a halachic text.

Note: When Parashat Mishpatim coincides with Shabbat Shekalim, a different Haftarah portion is read (i.e., instead of Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26, we read 2 Kings 12:1-7).

Haftarah Reading Snapshot

The Haftarah from the prophet Jeremiah (יִרְמְיָהוּ הַנָּבִיא) provides a stark contrast with this week's parashah. Mishpatim opens with commandments about releasing slaves, but the reading from Jeremiah reports how the people of Judah betrayed the Hebrew slaves of their day.

King Zedekiah (הַמֶּלֶךְ צִדְקִיָּהוּ) had earlier made a covenant with the people to free all Hebrew slaves (according to the seven year cycle of permissible slavery mentioned in Exodus 21:2-6), hoping that by doing so, God would be merciful and spare Judah from a Babylonian invasion. After awhile it appeared that the Babylonians were not going to attack Jerusalem, and the crisis seemed to pass. Treacherously, however, the former slave owners reneged on their covenant and took back their slaves. The word of the LORD (דְּבַר־יְהוָה) then came to Jeremiah. God rebuked the people for their perfidy and pronounced judgment upon them. Instead of withdrawing from Judah, the LORD will now bring the Babylonians back and they will raze Jerusalem and all the cities of Judah entirely:

    Therefore, thus says the LORD: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the LORD. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.... And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me... will I give into the hand of their enemies... Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. And Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials I will give into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives, into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon which has withdrawn from you. Behold, I will command, declares the LORD, and will bring them back to this city. And they will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire. I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.

Note that the last two verses of the Haftarah (Jer. 33:25-26) were added by the sages to soften the message and to provide hope. Ki yesh tikvah (for there is hope), always, for Israel, since God's sovereign purposes are fixed according to counsel of His own good pleasure.

Brit Chadashah Reading Snapshot

In Matthew 5:38-42, Yeshua transcends the sages interpretation of an "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן) by teaching that we are to overcome evil by means of love. Yeshua's ethic of love trumps the exact demands required by the canons of justice. Note that Yeshua not only teaches as if He had authority such as Moses, but abrogates Moses' teachings themselves, therefore implying His full authority and deity.

The passage from Matthew 17:1-11 further indicates how Yeshua was greater than Moses (who, incidentally, finally did make it into the Promised Land). Moses gave the Torah from Mount Sinai as a mediator between the people and the LORD; but Yeshua stood upon the Mount of Transfiguration with both Moses and the Elijah the prophet (אֵלִיָּהוּ הַנָּבִיא) at his side. When Peter wanted to show honor to all three, the Voice of the Father was heard from the Cloud, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When Peter and the other two disciples heard the voice, they fell down terrified. Yeshua then came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear." And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Yeshua only.


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Exodus 21

Exodus 22

Exodus 23

Exodus 24



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