Category Archives: Mishpatim

Snap Indecision

Kli Yakar Exodus: Mishpatim

Snap Indecision

“An executive is a man who can make quick decisions and is sometimes right.”

Elbert Hubbard

Instant communications often demand instant decisions. Life is often moving so quickly that the pressure to make decisions on the spot can be overwhelming. Time is short and we don’t always have the luxury to dither as to what choice to make. Those that deliberate are often at a disadvantage over those blessed with the ability to make snap decisions.

The Kli Yakar (on Exodus 21:1), who himself was the head of the Rabbinic Court in the great city of Prague, has a very different view of quick decisions, especially in judicial matters. He learns from the verse (Isaiah 56:1) “keep (‘shimru’) justice.” The Kli Yakar attributes this verb as a command to let the case “settle” much as the dregs (‘shimurim’) of wine will settle to the bottom of the bottle. By giving time for matters to settle, one reaches clarity, very much as the dregs of wine settling to the bottom of the bottle gives one clear liquid.

May we be blessed with the ability to make correct decisions in the time we have.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Captain Egbert and Anna Pijfers on their decision and ability to finally visit Israel and for a fantastic dinner. Shalom!

Less-Abominable Slavery

Exodus: Mishpatim

Less-Abominable Slavery

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains or slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take but as for me; give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry (1736 – 1799)

From antiquity and until the early 1800s, it was considered conventional wisdom that slaves were somewhat above farm animals on the social scale of sentient beings. And very much like cattle, slaves were regularly branded to demonstrate that they were property, as well as to affix the mark of the owner, lest others try to steal them.

The Torah hates slavery, but acquiesced to the economic reality of its existence. The Torah prophetically gave rights to slaves and softened the institution in Jewish law to make it a humane and compassionate affair, unknown to mankind at the time.

The Torah foresaw however, a case where a man would voluntarily choose slavery; where man of his own free will would desire to be the property of another.

“But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.” Exodus 21:5-6

There are a range of rabbinic commentaries as to reasons for piercing the slave’s ear, and to do so by a doorpost. Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) explains that it is for the simple purpose of identifying the owner of the slave, if the slave should run away or be claimed by someone else.

How does piercing a slave’s ear help in identifying him as the particular property of his master? Why did the Torah forego the conventional, simple and much more painful process of hot-iron branding?

Hizkuni believes that the much less painful and less disfiguring piercing can still reliably identify the slave’s owner.

Hizkuni writes that the master would have a piercing device of a particular shape that could be later matched to the ear. The second proof of ownership is on the doorpost. The slave’s ear would be matched to the doorpost that was used. If the piercing and the dent in the doorpost from the initial piercing are at the same height, then that would be conclusive evidence that the slave belongs to the master.

May we avoid branding, piercing and slavery in all its forms.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Abraham Lincoln, on his birthday, February 12, 201 years ago.

The Purpose of Grandparenthood

The Purpose of Grandparenthood

The nation of Israel has received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The Bible starts enumerating a long list of additional commandments. Then God gives what amounts to a pep talk to the nation of Israel, how He will send his angel ahead of them and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, to make way for the incoming masses of Israelites.

In the midst of descriptions of enemy destruction and land conquest God states:

“You shall worship God, your God, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst. There shall be no woman who loses her young or is infertile in your land; I shall fill the number of your days.” (Exodus 23:25-26)

Instead of paraphrasing or interpreting Rabbi Ovadia Sforno as usual, I’ll just quote him, as his wording is so intriguing (translation courtesy of Artscroll English Sfrono translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz – highly recommended):

“The number of your days I will fulfill: You will live to the (full) measure of oil which is in your lamp of God (the soul of man), i.e., the vitality (or natural force) rooted (in man) from birth. The reverse of this mostly occurs when man dies from (various) illnesses before his basic vitality has ceased. This occurs due to wrong choices (made in life) or due to fate (literally, ‘the order of the planets’) and the elements (literally, ‘foundations’). Now when a man’s numbers of days are fulfilled he will in most cases see children born to his children and he will be able to teach them, as it says: “Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9). (In this fashion) the affairs of (new) generations will be remedied in the lifetime of their elders, as we are told happened with Levi, Kehath and Amram (the ancestors of Moses).”

Sforno then directs us to earlier comments about the great-grandfather, grandfather and father of Moses, who all led exceedingly long lives.

“The longevity of these men enabled them to influence their grandsons as well as their sons. The choice fruit of these spiritual plantings were Moses and Aaron. They are the end result of the many years of education and guidance contributed by Levi, Kehath and Amram, and they are worthy to be chosen as leaders and spokesmen.”

May grandparents have the continuing opportunity to teach and guide their grandchildren, and may parents know how to get out of the way or even facilitate these special opportunities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my grandparents who I learned so much from and to our parents who are such a big influence on our kids (Is it harder for children to listen to the immediately preceding generation? Are we hardwired that way? Is that why Sforno attributes such importance to the grandparents guiding the grandchildren?)

Commandments Express: Meat and Potatoes

Commandments Express: Meat and Potatoes

After giving the Ten Commandments, God relays a whole host of commandments in bullet-like fashion, in a variety of areas.

I’ll divide them into the following four broad categories:

Slavery and Marriage

The Justice System

Be Nice. Be Fair

God: A Jealous Lover


Slavery and Marriage

Having recently freed the Jewish people from slavery and provided them with a basic foundation of commandments, God picks as the very first set of detailed commandments the need to be sensitive to slaves.

While the Torah did not ignore the highly prevalent institution of slavery, it was highly innovative in terms of giving them basic human rights and recognizing their deprived situation. “To fulfill the laws pertaining to a Jewish slave” [Commandment #42] is a broad enactment that infuses this otherwise difficult reality with dignity, care and eventual self-sufficiency for the slave involved.

Slavery for women in the Torah has an entirely different connotation. It is classically relevant for young girls, for the express purpose of leading to bona fide marriage. “For the master of a Jewish maidservant to either take her for a wife or give her to his son for a wife” [Commandment #43] defines female “slavery” as exclusively a prelude to marriage. This would typically be an arranged contract between a poor or destitute father of the bride with a wealthier perspective husband or father-in-law. The Torah however provides two specific clauses that protect and release the girl if a marriage will not be consummated.

“For the master of a Jewish maidservant to redeem her if he or his son will not take her for a wife.” [Commandment #44]

“The master of a Jewish maidservant cannot sell her to another man.” [Commandment #45]

As can be seen, the Jewish version of slavery, especially regarding women (who were the most exploited) is radically different than anything that existed in the ancient world, or even into modern times.

While on the topic of marriage, the Torah provides a broad command that applies to all brides: “Not to withhold food, clothing or marital relations.” [Commandment #46]

Except for this last commandment, the previous slavery-related ones do not apply in current times.

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The Justice System

The following long stretch of commandments (from number 47 until 62) presumes the existence of a strong judicial system able to enforce Torah-mandated law. Many of the punishments, especially corporal and capital punishment were only used in a society where court-induced punishment would have a deterrent effect. Even when the Great Sanhedrin or Beit Din (the ancient Jewish Supreme Court) was active, they discontinued many of the harsher punishments when the feeling was that certain crimes were rampant.

There were four different execution methods for different crimes, two of which are included in this section:

“For the Beit Din to execute by strangulation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #47]

“Not to strike one’s father or mother.” [Commandment #48] This still applies today, though formerly was punishable by execution.

“For the Beit Din to penalize with fines one who injures his fellow-man.” [Commandment #49]

“For the Beit Din to execute by decapitation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #50]

“For the Beit Din to judge the case of a damaging ox, whether it injured a man or damaged property.” [Commandment #51]

“Not to eat the meat of an ox sentenced to death, even if it was properly slaughtered.” [Commandment #52]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages or injuries caused by someone who dug a pit, ditch or cave in a hazardous area.” [Commandment #53]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a thief who stole from people without their knowing.” [Commandment #54]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by someone’s domestic animal grazing or trampling.” [Commandment #55]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by fire.” [Commandment #56]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of an unpaid guardian.” [Commandment #57]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases between a plaintiff and a defendant.” [Commandment #58]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a paid guardian.” [Commandment #59]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of the borrower of an item.” [Commandment #60]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a seducer.” [Commandment #61]

“Not to allow the practitioner of sorcery or witchcraft to live.” [Commandment #62]

This ends the judicial commandments for now. The progression is interesting, in that it starts with capital crimes, then deals with damages and injuries, theft, negligence, commercial relationships, borrowers, seducers and finally witches, which brings us back to capital punishment.

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Be Nice. Be Fair

Having started the en masse redaction of commandments with sensitivity towards slaves and then development of the justice system, the Torah now addresses (commandments 63 until 85) sensitivity towards other oppressed groups – converts, widows, orphans, poor, sinners and even guilty defendants, and those that defend all of them, namely the courts and ultimately God. Most of the following commandments are considered applicable in our day and age:

“Not to oppress a righteous convert with words.” [Commandment #63]

“Not to wrong a righteous convert in matters of monetary value.” [Commandment #64]

“Not to inflict suffering on any widow or orphan.” [Commandment #65]

“To lend money to the poor of Jewry.” [Commandment #66]

“Not to demand a borrower pay his debt when he cannot.” [Commandment #67]

“To have no part in lending at interest.” [Commandment #68]

“Not to curse a judge.” [Commandment #69]

“Not to curse God.” [Commandment #70]

“Not to curse a ruler of Israel.” [Commandment #71]

“Not to alter the order of precedence of separating and giving tithes.” [Commandment #72]

“To eat no animal with a mortal affliction.” [Commandment #73]This would be directed to the poor person himself, who out of desperation would be tempted to eat from substandard meat.

“For a judge not to hear one plaintiff when the other is not present.” [Commandment #74]

“For the court not to accept testimony of a man of sin.” [Commandment #75] – Referring to public sinners of certain categories whose personality is considered less than trustworthy.

“Not to impose the death penalty unless there is a majority of at least two judges who declare a guilty verdict.” [Commandment #76]

“A judge should not merely follow the opinions of others, but should have his own clear understanding in giving a verdict.” [Commandment #77]

“To follow the majority in laws of the Torah.” [Commandment #78]

“Not to pity a poor man in a trial.” [Commandment #79]

“To assist in unloading a domestic animal.” [Commandment #80]

“For a judge not to pervert justice for a sinner because of his wickedness.” [Commandment #81]

“For a Beit Din not to decide a guilty verdict on a capital case based on circumstantial evidence alone.” [Commandment #82]

“For a judge to accept no bribe.” [Commandment #83]

“To leave ownerless everything the land produces in the seventh year.” [Commandment #84]

“To rest from work on the Sabbath”. [Commandment #85] – This is the flip side of Commandment #32: “Not to work on the Sabbath” (one prohibits working, the other commands rest). It also relates to the immediately preceding commandment of resting of the land on the seventh year, and is of greatest value to the poor.

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God: A Jealous Lover

Having protected the interests of the downtrodden as well as defined in detail the relationship to and responsibilities of judges, God now defines in more detail (Commandments 86 to 94) additional specific aspects of the Jew’s relationship to God Himself. Almost like a jealous lover, God demands an exclusive worshipful relationship, gifts, visitation, and unique or even puzzling demonstrations of loyalty:

“Not to swear in the name of an idol.” [Commandment #86]

“To entice no one in Jewry to worship an idol.” [Commandment #87]

“To go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple for the three festivals.” [Commandment #88]

“Not to bring the Passover sacrifice while there is still leavened bread (chametz) in our possession.” [Commandment #89]As perhaps the most important if not popular of the three festivals, the Torah adds some critical rules as to the Passover sacrifice.

“The kohanim (priests) cannot leave the fats of the Passover sacrifice overnight without being burnt on the altar.” [Commandment #90]

“To bring the first fruit that ripens on a tree (bikurim) to the Holy Temple and give it to the Kohen (priest).” [Commandment #91]This typically coincides with the second of the three yearly pilgrimages, the summer Pentecost holiday (Shavuot).

“To cook no meat with milk.” [Commandment #92]There is no apparent direct link of this commandment to the others, though the meat versus milk command is declared in three different iterations in equally unexpected locations. It seems to be some general ubiquitous type of commandment that applies to our daily necessity to eat and probably defines more than almost anything else our daily and almost constant respect of God and His laws in a most practical and concrete fashion.

“Not to make a treaty with idol worshippers.” [Commandment #93]

“Not to settle idol worshippers in our land.” [Commandment #94]

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Now that’s a set of laws

God has covered sensitivity to the weak and oppressed, established a judicial system, the interaction of the two and details as to the type of relationship He expects from the Jewish people. This is certainly a robust basis for the healthy functioning of a society. However God wants much more, and foremost is to be closer to the Jewish people.

The next set of commandments will deal with the setting up, operation and procedures whereby the Jewish people can have the closest physical connection to God – in the service of the Holy Temple.