The Marah narrative is the story of a nascent nation facing the crushing realities of life in the wilderness with limited physical provisions, no legal code, an uncertain moral compass, and a theological vacuum. Commentators disagree over which of these issues took precedence and how Hashem began to address them at Marah. For the Mekhilta and the Bavli, the first priority was for the Israelites to get accustomed to Torah and mitzvot, while Ramban argues that the nation needed to learn moral discipline and self-control. R. Saadia and Ralbag contend that philosophical beliefs were an even more critical foundation for the people's religious development, and R. Yosef Bekhor Shor maintains that the way to the nation's heart was by first providing for all of its material needs.
Exegetes also grapple with the textual issue of how to understand the transition between the first half of the story which reports how Hashem provided for the physical needs of the nation and the second half which ostensibly describes the religious guidelines that Hashem set down. Some Midrashic opinions maintain that the entire story speaks of spiritual needs, and they reinterpret the lack of water as a metaphor for a spiritual thirst for Torah. At the other end of the spectrum, R"Y Bekhor Shor and R. Bachya contend that both parts of the story focus on the material needs of the people and that "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" refers to physical provisions rather than legal commandments. Finally, many exegetes assert that there are indeed two separate aspects and that the miracle of Marah was intended to demonstrate that physical health is dependent on following the mitzvot of Hashem.
In exploring the events of Marah, commentators present various understandings of what were the "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" and why they were necessary:
At Marah, Hashem gave the Israelites instructions as to how to behave. This option subdivides as to whether these directives were intended for all generations or just for the nation in transit.
Hashem began to give the nation a preview of some of the Torah's eternal commandments.
"שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" – The parallel verse "וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם" in Shemot 21:1 also refers to the giving of mitzvot, and this may underlie R. Yehuda's words in the Mekhilta. However, as Ramban points out, if the verse is referring to specific laws, one would have expected the Torah to enumerate them as it does in other instances.
Commandments before Sinai – All of these sources agree that the Israelites received a number of commandments prior to the revelation at Mt. Sinai.3
Marah – physical and spiritual – This approach understands that mitzvot and Torah were the most vital element for the development of the Israelite nation,4 and thus they needed to be given at the very first opportunity. Marah, as the first post-Yam Suf stop, was therefore the place where fundamental precepts (or at least a preview5 of them) were transmitted to the people along with the water needed to quench their physical thirst. The "דורשי רשומות" in the Mekhilta6 go a step further. They suggest that the lack of water described in the episode is merely a metaphor for a shortage of Torah.7 According to them, the entire story revolves purely around the spiritual needs of the nation, rather than their physical necessities.8
Referents of "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" – In attempting to identify the specific commandments to which these terms refer, these sources are influenced by how they understand the general meanings of these terms,9 the needs of a newly freed nation, and verses from other places in Torah which may provide evidence that a particular precept was given before Sinai.10 The Mekhilta records the earliest two sets of identifications, each of which views "חֹק" and "מִשְׁפָּט" as two distinct entities:
These two Tannaitic positions combine to cover most of the commandments in the Decalogue.13 Subsequent sources mix and match between these two opinions to form additional permutations and combinations:14
Meaning of "נִסָּהוּ" and its relationship to Shemot 15:26 and 16:4 – This approach subdivides regarding whether "נִסָּהוּ" means to test or to elevate / glorify (see נסה),24 and whether it is connected to the giving of mitzvot or lack of water.25
To test – this is how R. Eliezer and most commentators understand the word, and this matches its common usage in Tanakh. There are several ways to understand this test:
Hashem tested the nation to see if they would follow his commandments – RalbagBeiur Divrei HaParashah Shemot 15:25About R. Levi b. Gershom's third option. According to this view, "וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ" refers to the commandments of "שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט", and the following verse (15:26) spells out that the test is: "אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְוֹתָיו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כָּל חֻקָּיו...". Ralbag notes that this reading is also supported by the parallel to "לְמַעַן אֲנַסֶּנּוּ הֲיֵלֵךְ בְּתוֹרָתִי אִם לֹא" in Shemot 16:4.26
Hashem tested the nation to see how they would complain about material needs – Rashi.27 According to Rashi, the Israelites failed the test as they complained in an inappropriate manner.
The Israelites tested Hashem to see if He could provide for them – Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan)28
Hashem elevated the Israelites above the other nations by giving them mitzvot.31
Hashem glorified the Israelites in front of all of the other nations by providing for their physical needs.32
Subjects and objects of "שָׂם לוֹ" and "נִסָּהוּ" – All of these sources understand that "שָׂם לוֹ" means that Hashem gave something to the Children of Israel. Similarly, the Mekhilta and Rashi understand that Hashem is the subject of "נִסָּהוּ" and He is testing the people.33 However, Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) interprets that the Israelites are the ones who tested Hashem (with their demand for water).34
Ethical Code of Conduct
Moshe taught the people how to properly conduct themselves during their trek in the desert.
"שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" – Ramban and Minchah Belulah understand this expression to refer to the mandating of a conventional pattern of behavior (מנהג). They cite parallel verses from the books of Yehoshua and Shemuel where Yehoshua and David are similarly "שָׂם... חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט", and they explain these as referring to the establishing of a custom or expected behavior rather than to Torah laws.
Definitions of "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט"
According to the first variation in Ramban, each of "חֹק" and "מִשְׁפָּט" refer to the manner in which the Israelites' needs would be provided for in the wilderness.
The second option in Ramban views the two terms as parallel but different aspects of how the Israelites needed to behave in the wilderness. "חֹק" refers to trusting in Hashem for their needs and "מִשְׁפָּט" relates to proper interpersonal discipline while camped in the desert.
R. Medan distinguishes between the two terms. He understands "חֹק" as a quota,37 and reads "מִשְׁפָּט" as the process through which the water allocations were made for each family.
Meaning of "נִסָּהוּ" and its relationship to Shemot 15:26 and 16:4 – This approach understands "נִסָּהוּ" as referring to the test of whether the Children of Israel would adhere to the code of conduct prescribed by the "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט". Ramban explains that the tests both here and in Shemot 16:4 are to see how the nation will react to the difficult conditions of their wilderness trek. R. Medan similarly views both as testing whether the people would act with restraint and abide by the strict system of food and water rationing. According to this approach, 15:26 refers to the ethical behavior previously mandated in 15:25.38
Conditions in the wilderness – According to R. Medan's reconstruction, even though Hashem provided supernaturally for the Israelites' subsistence in the wilderness, the supplies of food and water were not unlimited, and rationing was vital.39 Thus, each person was limited to one omer of manna per diem, and the manna was weighed to make sure that nobody took more than their fair share.
Marah and self-control – Marah was the first stop in the wilderness, and it was critical that ground rules be laid down immediately to insure the nation's physical survival and moral behavior. If the people had not been taught to exercise discipline and self-restraint, the result could have been chaos and disaster.40 According to this approach, Marah was not an exalted spiritual experience in which the nation received a preview of the revelation at Sinai, but rather a much more mundane story of providing for the nation's basic physical needs and enabling newly freed slaves to create a civilized society.
Ethic independent of halakhah – Ramban's focus on the existence of a code of morality in addition to the commandments of the Torah is consistent with his positions in Vayikra 19:2 and Devarim 6:18 that morality is not governed merely by the letter of the law.41
Subjects and objects of "שָׂם לוֹ" and "נִסָּהוּ" – Hashem is the one who is educating and testing the nation.
Commandments before Sinai – This approach does not need to postulate that any commandments were given before the revelation at Sinai other than the Shabbat which is explicitly mentioned in Shemot 16.42
Principles of Divine Providence
The events of Marah taught the nation that Hashem rewards the righteous and punishes the sinner.
"שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" and its relationship to Shemot 15:26 – According to most of these commentators,43 this phrase refers to Hashem's laying down the theological principle of reward and punishment.44 This tenet is then spelled out in 15:26.45 For other cases of "שָׂם... חֹק" referring to the ways in which Hashem runs the world, see Yirmeyahu 33:25 and Mishlei 8:29.
Definitions of "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט"
R. Saadia explains that "חֹק" refers to the reward of the righteous and "מִשְׁפָּט" refers to the judgment of the wicked.
Abarbanel understands that "חֹק" and "מִשְׁפָּט" both refer to the principle of providence, with the first being from the Israelite perspective and the second from Hashem's perspective. His distinction is based on the verse in Tehillim 81:5.
Ralbag in his second approach and possibly also Rashbam46 interpret the term to refer to practical commandments. However, even according to them, at Marah, Hashem only established the necessary theological foundations47 for the future transmission of the mitzvot, but did not give any of the actual commandments themselves.48
Subjects and objects of "שָׂם לוֹ" and "נִסָּהוּ" – Most of these sources assume that Hashem is the subject of these verbs and He is educating the Children of Israel. Ralbag (in his first approach), however, understands that the verse describes the nation's erroneous notion that Hashem was a wrathful God capable only of punishing people, and their testing of Hashem to see if He could provide for their needs as well.49 According to Ralbag, the sweetening of the water and Hashem's words in 15:26 were His response to the people which demonstrated that He is a benevolent God who also controls the good in the world.50
Meaning of "נִסָּהוּ" and its relationship to Shemot 15:26, 16:4, and 17:7 – The commentators diverge here in their interpretations:
Hashem tested the Israelites - R. Saadia explains that Hashem was testing whether the nation would conduct themselves appropriately under adverse circumstances.51 Shadal proposes a variation of this according to which Hashem was testing whether the Israelites would continue to complain after He provided for their needs. Shadal points to the parallel in Shemot 16:4.
The Israelites tested Hashem - Ralbag's first approach - see above.52 "נִסָּהוּ" would thus be parallel to "נַסֹּתָם אֶת ה'" in Shemot 17:7.
Hashem elevated the Israelites by informing them that He would give them mitzvot - Ralbag's second approach.
Hashem performed miracles for the Israelites - Abarbanel. He relates "נִסָּהוּ" to נס.
Hashem began to make the Israelites accustomed to depending upon Him for their needs - This may be the position of Rashbam Shemot 16:4.53 By providing miraculously for the nation's basic needs on a daily basis, Hashem was able to nurture their faith in Him and His ways.
Marah's pedagogical methodology – Abarbanel explains that the Children of Israel needed to internalize belief in Divine providence and in Hashem's system of reward and punishment before they could be given the commandments. Marah and the miracles of Shemot 16-17 thus attempted to achieve this objective so that the Israelites would be prepared for the revelation at Sinai.54
Commandments before Sinai – This approach does not need to postulate that commandments were given before Sinai,55 and Ralbag emphasizes that Shemot 21:1 indicates that civil law was given only after the Decalogue.56
Resources for Physical Survival
At Marah, Hashem provided for the physical needs of the nation.
"שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" – R"Y Bekhor Shor interprets this to mean that Hashem provided the nation with sustenance.57 He points to the case of Bereshit 47:22 as another example where "חֹק" refers to food.58
Meaning of "נִסָּהוּ" and its relationship to Shemot 16:4 – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, in both verses Hashem is testing the nation to see if their hearts will be won over by His caring for all of their needs.59
Promise of health in 15:26 – As opposed to most other commentators who view Hashem's promise of health as a reward for keeping the commandments, R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that Hashem is merely telling the nation that this will be the natural result60 of observing mitzvot such as kashrut and ritual impurity.61 Indeed, according to R"Y Bekhor Shor this is the very purpose of these mitzvot.62
Marah's pedagogical methodology – Hashem is emphasizing the "carrot" approach. First, He provides for all of the nation's physical needs without asking for or expecting anything in return. Only after Hashem has sustained the nation with His miracles for a period of time will they feel a debt of gratitude and be receptive to His commandments. According to R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, the entire story of Marah, including its aftermath, is entirely focused on Hashem's caring for the Israelites' sustenance and health.
Commandments before Sinai – This approach does not need to postulate that commandments were given before Sinai.63
Hashem taught Moshe the medicinal properties of herbs.
Definitions of "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" – These terms refers to the principles and knowledge of the properties of various plants, with "חֹק" meaning the properties which are less understood and "מִשְׁפָּט" being the ones which are better understood.66
Meanings of "שָׂם לוֹ" and "נִסָּהוּ" – Hashem provided Moshe ("שָׂם לוֹ") with this botanical knowledge, and Moshe tested out the tree ("נִסָּהוּ").67
Cautionary advice in Shemot 15:26 – Hashem admonishes Moshe not to rely solely on his newly acquired medicinal knowledge,68 but rather to pray to Hashem and observe His commandments, thereby preventing the onset of any malady in the first place.69
Unitary theme of Marah – According to this approach, herbalism and the curing the waters of Marah is the theme which links all of the verses in the story, and there is no dual message.70
Commandments before Sinai – This approach does not need to postulate that commandments were given before Sinai.71