Parashas Mishpatim vs. Cultural Mores

Ve’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem (21:1)

Parashas Mishpatim begins by stating, “And these are the statutes that you shall place before them.” Rashi explains that the purpose of the seemingly superfluous letter vav (and) at the beginning of the parashah is to emphasize a connection between Parashas Mishpatim and the previous one, Yisro. Parashas Yisro records the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and just as it was self-evident that the mitzvos contained in it were presented by Hashem at Sinai, so, too, were the commandments contained in Parashas Mishpatim also given at Mount Sinai.

Harav Simcha Sheps points out that Rashi’s comment seems difficult to understand. The entire Torah, and all 613 of the mitzvos contained therein, were given at Mount Sinai. Why was it necessary to specifically emphasize that the commandments discussed in Parashas Mishpatim were given at Mount Sinai more than any of the other mitzvos, and why did Rashi need to derive this point from a linguistic anomaly?

Rav Sheps answers based on an explanation given by Harav Ovadiah Bartenura in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, which begins by teaching that Moshe received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Commenting on this Mishnah, the Bartenura explains that in contrast to other tractates of the Mishnah that discuss legal issues, Pirkei Avos is unique in that it focuses on issues of proper ethics and character traits.

In light of the fact that other nations and cultures have their own tomes on morality and proper treatment of others authored by their respective wise men, there is a danger that one might mistakenly assume that Pirkei Avos is simply a collection of pithy statements and advice given by Jewish sages. In order to prevent the reader from making this egregious error, it therefore begins by teaching that Moshe received the Torah at Mount Sinai and records its chain of transmission throughout the generations, in order to teach us that all of the wisdom contained in Pirkei Avos is part of the Oral Torah that was given by Hashem at Mount Sinai and is Divine in origin.

With this introduction, Rav Sheps points out that much of Parashas Mishpatim revolves around the seemingly common-sense mitzvos governing our interactions with others, such as the laws of damages and borrowing, sensitivity to the less fortunate, and the integrity of the judicial process. Therefore, just as Harav Ovadiah Bartenura explains that Pirkei Avos opens by emphasizing that its moral and ethical teachings emanate from Hashem, so too Rashi points out that Parashas Mishpatim begins by stressing that the civil laws and interpersonal mitzvos contained therein were taught at Mount Sinai together with the Aseres Hadibros that are recorded in Parashas Yisro.

Harav Yissocher Frand extends this theme by pointing out that contemporary Western society also has self-proclaimed experts on ethics and morality. The New York Times magazine features a weekly column that contains discussions and rulings on contemporary ethical issues, and another column appears three times a week in more than 200 newspapers worldwide that addresses questions of proper etiquette and behavior.

However, while non-Jews certainly have guidelines about issues of morality and interpersonal relationships, they are ultimately manmade and are limited by the scope of the insights of their authors. The Torah, on the other hand, teaches us an exceptional and heightened sensitivity to others through a system of derech eretz that could only be conceived by Hashem.

For example, a compassionate gentile who is traveling on the highway will pull over to assist a car he sees broken-down on the side of the road with a flat tire. However, if there are two cars broken-down, one belonging to his best friend and one to his biggest enemy, he will obviously choose to help his friend. However, in such a situation, the Torah specifically requires that one work to overcome and uproot his negative feelings toward his enemy by giving him precedence over his friend (Bava Metzia 32b). Such an obligation is mind-boggling, and could never have been developed by even the most enlightened human based on his own moral barometer, and could only have originated at Mount Sinai.

As Rav Frand concludes, the lofty, almost angelic level reached by our great Rabbis will never be taught or even fathomed by ethicists or etiquette authorities. Such ethereal insights can only be attained through the study of the Holy Torah and the Divine moral and ethical teachings contained within.

Q: After the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the first mitzvos that were taught to the Jewish people were the code of civil law contained in Parashas Mishpatim. Why doesn’t the Shulchan Aruch similarly begin with the section known as Choshen Mishpat, which discusses these financial subjects?

Q: The Gemara in Bava Metzia (32b) quotes a dispute whether the prohibition against causing pain to animals is Biblical or Rabbinical in nature. According to the opinion that doing so is a Biblical transgression, what is the Torah source for this prohibition?

A: The Satmar Rebbe, Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zy”a, notes that toward the beginning of Choshen Mishpat, the Shulchan Aruch rules (12:2) that there is a mitzvah for judges to encourage the litigants in a financial dispute to compromise and settle, rather than insisting on the strict application of the letter of the law. Although this is the correct approach to civil disputes, it would be inappropriate to begin Shulchan Aruch by promoting such an attitude toward halachah in general.

A: Rashi suggests that the Biblical source for the prohibition against causing pain to animals is the mitzvah in this week’s parashah (23:5) to help unload a donkey that is crouching under a heavy burden.

The Rambam writes that the angel rebuked Bilaam for striking his donkey (Bamidbar 22:32) because of the commandment not to cause pain to animals. The Chavatzeles HaSharon points out that the Rambam seems to understand that this prohibition is so logical and self-evident that it applies even to non-Jews.

The Ramban and Chinuch explain that the mitzvah of ritually slaughtering an animal was given so that it will be killed in a manner that minimizes its pain as much as possible. The Raavad maintains that this prohibition is derived from the commandment (Devarim 25:4) not to muzzle an ox while it is threshing.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.