The Sidra of Mishpatim contains 53 consecutive laws. The mystics point out that the number 53 is equal to the numerical value of the Hebrew word GAN, which means ‘garden’. This imparts a message which teaches that when we observe the fundamental laws of our Torah, we can enjoy the world, in the same way as we can enjoy a garden. Thus, without observing these laws, the world becomes like a wild jungle, where human beings devour one another at will. According to our ancient rabbis, all the laws contained in this Sidra were declared at Mount Sinai, at the same time as the 10 Commandments. On the same occasion, the Almighty gave the Israelites the Book of the Covenant, which is mentioned in the end of the Sidra. The Torah tells us that the Book of the Covenant was read out publicly in the presence of the whole nation. This reading was followed by the ceremony in which God made a covenant with Israel. We may assume that the Book of the Covenant contained the laws which have come down to us in this Sidra.
The laws of Mishpatim concentrate, mainly, on social laws and criminal offences. Nachmanides says that they are a natural follow-up to the last law in the 10 Commandments. This commands us not to covet anything that belongs to other people. Coveting is the first step on the road to concentrates on the laws a life of criminality.
The first law In the Sidra concentrates on the regulations regarding the purchase of a Hebrew slave, who has been sold into slavery by the courts. This would have been mandated as a result of the conviction of theft, which could not be repaid.
Slavery was a wide phenomenon in ancient times, and the Torah did not find it necessary or possible to prohibit or, indeed, abolish it completely. The economy was based on this practice. We see that even in the days of the prophets, who flourished during the period of the First Temple, it still existed. The Prophet Jeremiah had very harsh words to say against the upper classes, in Israelite society, who defied the laws of the Torah. He criticised them for not being prepared to allow their slaves to go free in the sixth year. He also criticised them for not treating their slaves properly. In the Talmud it is stated that slave owners had the obligation to provide similar comforts which they themselves enjoyed, for their slaves. Indeed, this obligation led our rabbis to make the ironic remark that “anyone who purchases a Hebrew slave, it is as though he purchases a master for himself”.
The Torah’s law of the Torah that a thief had to be sold as a punishment for his crime, turned out to be practical and favourable for society. Even nowadays, it could be argued that it is a better alternative than being thrown into jail. In this environment, inmates are often and occupied for long periods of time. They are also exposed to other offenders from whom they often learn. The thief was sold in order to compensate for his theft. In this way, his and his family’s survival was provided for by his new owner and not by society at large, as is the case nowadays.
Nachmanides explains that the law of the Hebrew slave is first because of its central message. It corresponds to the first commandment because it reminds us of the Exodus, when we were delivered from Egyptian slavery. Likewise, the Torah legislated that the Hebrew slave should also be freed after six years of slavery. The law that the slave must be given freedom to have his hard-earned rest in the seventh year, reminds us of Shabbat. It also prompts us to remember the creation and the biblical concept that every human being is equal and deserves to be treated fairly and with respect. This applies equally to people who have committed crimes.
The Sefer Hachinuch, which has a running commentary, in order, on each of the 613 Commandments describes the fundamental purpose of this law, which I regard as a strikingly beautiful passage. It says that this law demonstrates, that although the Torah did not abolish slavery, it humanises it. It states that “the Almighty wanted the nation of Israel, whom he had chosen, to be holy and to be crowned with all the best qualities of character, because they are the source of all blessings. Kindness and compassion are the most praiseworthy qualities in the world. Therefore, God charged us to show mercy to everyone who is working for us and to show him the utmost care and consideration”.
The second law in the Sidra speaks about a small girl, under the age of 12, whose father was forced to sell her as a slave, due to poverty. The commandment stipulates that, at the time of purchase, the buyer should have the intention of marrying her or giving her as a wife to his son. The Sefer Hachinuch again emphasises the humanitarian and, indeed, revolutionary nature of these slavery laws. It states that “the Almighty showed compassion towards a little poor girl who was sold into slavery by her father.” She is not old enough to do anything about it. She is powerless. She has nothing to eat. Therefore, the purchaser must give her a chance to grow up in comfort and then make sure that she leads a respectable life, by helping her to extricate herself from the cycle of poverty. He has a duty to transform her social status. This is an only do by marrying her or by persuading his son to do so. The book continues in praise of this law by quoting the verse: “For the Almighty is gracious and compassionate.”
This Sidra continues with a number of criminal cases connected with murder and personal injuries. In chapter 21 verse 24 we come across the Law of Retribution which is usually called, by the Latin phrase, Lex Talionis. The verse deals with a man who injures a pregnant woman by accident. It states that the punishment is: Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for a foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. This law gave rise to a great deal of criticism, because of its harshness The Torah has been accused of being primitive. However, we, as Jews, who accept the authenticity of the Oral Torah, believe the rabbinic tradition that these punishments were never understood to mean physical retribution. Even in the days of the Torah, there were applied in a humanitarian way and meant monetary compensation. Many reasons have been advanced for this interpretation. One of them is that physical punishment always carries the risk of death. Secondly, these physical punishments can never be accurate. For example, no court official, however skilful, can cause a burn to a convicted criminal in exactly the same measure as he had caused to his victim. The Torah demands that its punishments should be absolutely precise. Our rabbis were convinced that the only possible precise and just punishment is a financial compensation to the victim.