Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Mishpatim

Law and Order

Should the main purpose of a judicial code be to lay down principles of right and wrong or to preserve law and order? Which do the legal sections of the Torah aim to do?

  • Examine the laws presented in Parashat Mishpatim (and other legal sections of Torah). What types of laws are included?  How are these formulated (are they conditional or absolute statements?)  What punishments are included?  What does this suggest about the purpose of the Torah's legal code?
  • How do other Ancient Near Eastern law codes compare?  What can the differences teach about the underlying values of each culture and their conceptions of justice?  See The Torah and Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes.
  • Would you refer to the Torah as a whole as a law code? Why or why not?

Of Fetuses, Bystanders and Manslaughter

Shemot 21 speaks of a case in which a pregnant woman is injured in a brawl leading to either a miscarriage or the premature birth of her baby.  The verses abound in ambiguities, making the exact law unclear.  Scan the verses and discuss the following issues, using Injury to Bystanders and the Meaning of "יהיה אסון" as a guide:

  • What can this case teach about how the Torah views the status of a fetus? Is it considered its own independent entity, no different than any human being? Or, is it considered to be only a part of its mother's body ("עובר ירך אמו"), leading to lesser culpability if aborted?  What textual issues affect your answer?
  • If a person intended to kill one individual, but mistakenly kills another, how should the action be viewed?  Is this a capital crime, as there was intent involved, or is it accidental manslaughter, as the victim was not actively targeted? What does the case of the pregnant bystander teach about the law?

An Eye for an Eye

As the penalty for certain forms of physical assault, the Torah puts forth a principle of "measure for measure" punishment, declaring that one give an "eye for an eye, tooth for tooth" etc. 

  • Is this the fairest form of justice, or "cruel and unusual" punishment? 
  • In setting penalties for crimes, which of the following objectives should take precedence: compensation to the victim, rehabilitation of the criminal, retribution, or deterrence?  What does this law suggest?  Is this the norm or exception in Torah?
  • The overwhelming majority of Talmudic sages rule that in the case of bodily harm, the guilty party pays restitution rather than being mutilated. But is this the simple interpretation of the verses in the Torah? Does the peshat of the Biblical texts differ from the Rabbinic verdict? If so, why is this? And, most importantly, how can the peshat and derash be reconciled? See "עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן" – An Eye for an Eye.

The Benefits of Shemittah

What is the Purpose of Shemittah?  While RambanVayikra 25:2About R. Moshe b. Nachman focuses on how the year helps an individual's spiritual growth and increases their recognition of Hashem, ShadalVayikra 25:2About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto emphasizes how the year inculcates social equality and concern for the less fortunate.  Rambam3 39About Rambam Moreh Nevukhim,1 in contrast, suggests that Shemittah serves a practical function in keeping the land healthy and capable of bearing fruit.

  • Is it possible that certain commandments were instituted only for utilitarian purposes? What other mitzvot have been given such an explanation?2
  • Does the Torah promote capitalism or socialism?  What do the laws of Shemittah suggest?3
  • How are Shemittah and Shabbat similar?  What benefits are gained from an enforced resting and refraining from work?  
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