Parshat Mishpatim

Parshat Mishpatim lays before us the civil law and begins “and these are the laws that you shall set before them (asher tasim lifnahem).”  Strangely it does start “speak to the children of Israel so this leads to various different understandings of what is meant by “before them” – who are them? The wealth of interpretations vary from the perspective of who the laws should be presented to, just the judges or to everyone  – to whom are the laws intended to be presented?

The Talmud Gitin 88 explains – before them – not to other nations and not to the common people (hediotim – simple or normal) people. This is interpreted that just as Moshe presented the Torah to the elders in the wilderness, so these laws should be presented to the leaders and judges of the nation. Only they are considered wise enough to put them into practice.

The Talmud Kedushin 35 understands “before them” to indicate that men and women must be treated equally under the law.

The Midrash Mechilta explains that a teacher must present his Torah lesson as a well laid table (shulcan aruch). In the Talmud “Rabbi Akiva says – from where do we know that a teacher must explain and give reason – from this verse “before them.”

The Ramban explains that if the people are not taught the civil code they would often be tempted to take what is not theirs, indicating his opinion that “before them” refers to everyone. The Ktav Sofer explains “before them” to mean that society must be governed by laws and justice before the mitzvot, as if you do not abide by civil and social laws you cannot keep mitzvot.

So on the surface there is a real dilemma who, should the details of the law be only be in the hands of the judiciary or is for all of us and this reflects reality. Clearly Hashem set out everything in the Torah for each and every one of us to read, study and try to understand but much as we learn and discuss it in theory it is up to the judges in court to make decisions and rulings.

Rav B H Epstein suggests that actually the real important part of the phrase is the word set (tasim), as Rabbi Akiva said present the Torah as a well laid table and this is the key, we need the Oral Law such as the Talmud for both us and our judicial system to interpret what is written in the Torah. The examples here are numerous – an eye for eye, payments for damages and many more. Parshat Mishpatim follows after the clearly presented Ten Commandments and does need learning and explanation.

Yesterday I phoned my son Ilan for something or other and he was in the car on the way to work listening to his ten minute daf yomi being set out in front of him on his mobile phone. I have had a busy week as I have been doing a lot of teaching online on networking technology to Amdocs people in different parts of the world. It is quite a tough challenge to teach three hour sessions to people who are sitting by their computers at work or at home when you cannot actually see them or know whether they are really listening or drinking coffee or dozing off. So as I cannot really see them I try to add my own “oral law” and add some fun to keep up the tension with music and film sound clips and little quizzes. In the middle of one of my sessions this week, I all of a sudden heard a dog bark somewhere which turned out to be a friend of mine Graham Glendenning in Ireland, obviously approving of my explanation.

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