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 Parshat Mishpatim


Two forty minute lessons
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9th - 12th Grade

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The Structure of Parashat Mishpatim -1

by Moshe Abelesz for The Lookstein Center


Note: This lesson is based on Part 2 of Rabbi Leibtag’s shiur on Parashat Mishpatim “An Educational Progression”. Rabbi Leibtag endorses this endeavor, but has not reviewed the lesson and takes no responsibility for its content.

These lessons analyze the internal structure of Parashat Mishpatim, the parasha contains the FIRST complete set of mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael receive after the Ten Commandments. Each section of the parasha includes different type of laws, which progress from the most basic civil laws to laws that reflect a higher ethical standard. This progression of the laws provides the building blocks that allow Israel, if they follow through, to achieve the goals of becoming a mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh.

Lesson Objectives


Content: The student will be able to describe:

1) The basic content of Parashat Mishpatim
2) The structure of Parashat Mishpatim as described in the lesson
3) The various laws that are found in Parshat Mishpatim
4) The hierarchy of the set up of the particular laws:
a. religious law “bein adam li Makom
b. civil law “bein adam lichavero
c. laws that are punishable by court (beit din)
d. laws that are punishable by God
e. laws pertaining to the morality of the society (unique to Am Yisrael)
f. laws which protect the less fortunate members of society
5) The term “mamlechet kohanim vigoy kadosh” and the laws pertaining, or building up to this concept

Skills: The student will be able to:

1) Examine and analyze biblical text
2) Differentiate and analyze the various commandments within the parasha

Values: The student will appreciate:

1) The importance of civil law
2) The basic make-up of the laws pertaining to the ideal Jewish society well as individual
3) Social reasons for specific commandments
4) Commandments pertaining to love of a fellow man
5) Commandments pertaining to love of God
6) The importance of ethical behavior, particularly for the less fortunate members of society
7) That only after creating an ethical society can one merit a special relationship with God
8) Observance of these particular mitzvot will help Bnei Yisrael conquer the Land of Israel.

Resources and Equipment needed

Tanakh for each student, overhead (optional)


Procedure 1. It may be useful to prepare an overhead Projector and slides with the answers ready so that you can go over the answers efficiently. 2. Introduce the subject by asking the students to skim through the parasha. Ask the students to describe a number of laws from the parasha and ask them whether the order in which they appear makes sense to them. Explain that the purpose of the unit is to make sense of the parasha. 3. With the class, divide the parasha into the following sections: Section 1: 20:19-23 (The mitzvot actually begin at the end of Parashat Yitro). Section 2: 21:1-22:16 Section 3: 22:17-19 Section 4: 22:20-23:9 Section 5: 23:10-19 4. Hand out worksheet (see appendix). Work through together, citing from text wherever possible. Question 1 This unit begins with three mitzvot (20:19-23) that fall under the category of religious laws, i.e. "bein adam la'Makom" (between man and God). The focus shifts immediately thereafter (at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim 21:1) onto the category of civil laws, i.e. " bein adam l’chavero" (between man and his fellow man, i.e. civil law). Question 2 Pasuk Case Law 2 If you buy a Hebrew slave… He shall serve for six years… 7 If a man sells his daughter … She shall not be freed… 14 If a person plots against his neighbor… Then you must take him… 18-19 Iftwo men fight, and one hits the other… The one who struck him shall be acquitted… Question 3 a) These MISHPATIM begin with the laws of a Hebrew slave (21:2-11) and are followed by numerous examples of 'case-type' civil laws dealing primarily with "nzikin" (damages 21:12-22:16). The presentation develops in an organized, structured manner, progressing from cases of capital offense to issues concerning accidental property damage. b) Civil Laws (Bein adam l’chavero) that can be tried in court. Basically, this section contains numerous examples of 'case-law,' upon which the Jewish court (BET-DIN) arrives at its rulings. In fact, this is the basic meaning of a "mishpat" - a CASE where one person claims damages from another, and the SHOFET (judge) must render a decision. You should point out that these cases are not inherently Jewish cases and that it’s possible for secular civil courts to come to similar conclusions. Therefore, it is clear that these laws are between Man and Man. c) The 'key word' in this section is "ki" which implies IF or WHEN. Note how most of the parashiot from 21:1-22:18 begin with the word "ki" or ["im" / if/ when] and even when it is not written, it is implicit. In other words, each of these "Mishpatim" begins with a certain CASE [if...] and is followed by the ruling [then...]. For example: IF a man hits his servant THEN... (21:20); IF an ox gores a man... THEN the ox must be stoned (21:28). Question 4 a) These laws are written in the imperative form: “A sorceress SHALL NOT be left alive etc.” It is clear that the Torah is starting a new section. b) On its own it is unclear why these laws are here. It is therefore, important to explain at this point that God is trying to teach Israel how to achieve the level of mamlechet kohanim and goy kadosh. It is not possible to jump to this level in one leap; the people must gradually rise to it. God does this by first teaching Section 1. The backbone to the laws must be faithfulness to God. God then teaches Section 2. Conflicts will arise between people, so God establishes laws that will enable the society to function on a basic moral level. However, at this stage, the moral backbone of the people is still delicate. If they allow depraved immoral practices to exist, it will destroy the moral fiber of the society. Therefore, no tolerance must be shown to acts of depravity. Now that the society has these basic building blocks, the Torah moves to Section 4, the building of an exceptionally moral people. Question 5 Verses Who is persecuted? Who defends the persecuted? 22:20-23 The stranger, the widow and the orphan “When they cry out to Me, I will hear their distress.” 22: 24-27 The poor “When he cries out to Me, I will hear for I am compassionate.” Question 6 a) Often, these groups of people have little protection, and the law can work against them. Legislatures can create laws that protect their societies from becoming havens for the oppressed. Because these groups of people find it very difficult to get the law to work in their favor, God promises that if we oppress them, He will protect them. You could point out, that when forming budgets, governments tend to cut grants to the needy (elderly, infirm, education) as they are “soft” targets, rather than raise taxes to the wealthy, i.e. those who can stand up for themselves. b) As opposed to the 'case-type' laws found up until this point, we now find a collection of IMPERATIVE-type laws, i.e. DO... or DO NOT... that are beyond the realm of civil enforcement by BET-DIN. These mitzvot focus on the nature of the society which God hopes to create within Am Yisrael, as they govern the conduct of every individual in his daily life. ETHICAL STANDARDS Note how the Torah uses two almost identical phrases to 'enclose' this special sub section (22:20-23:9), which focuses on God's expectations for the moral fabric of our society. The opening sentence: “You SHALL NOT WRONG a STRANGER or oppress him, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (20:20) And the closing statement: “You SHALL NOT OPPRESS a STRANGER, whereas you know the FEELINGS of a stranger, for you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (23:9) In between these two pesukim, we find many other mitzvot, which reflect this same high ethical standard: “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I WILL HEED THEIR OUTCRY....” “When you lend money... if you take his garment as a pledge, you must return it by sunset... for if you don't, when he calls out to me, surely, I WILL HEAR HIS CRY...” (22:20-26) In contrast to the previous section, whose laws are enforced by BET-DIN, in this section God Himself enacts punishment. Each member of society is expected to treat the poor and needy with kindness. If one does not follow these laws, God may 'intervene' and turn the Jewish people into orphans. This section includes several additional mitzvot (also in the imperative form) governing individual behavior (see 22:27-30) - cursing a judge or a political leader, giving tithes at the proper time [paying taxes], and a basic dietary law. These laws affect the individual's daily lifestyle and include an important general commandment reflective of the entire section: "You shall be a HOLY PEOPLE for Me..." (22:30). Even though these laws at first glance appear to be "bein adam la'makom", they actually focus more on the very nature of the society that God would like us to create. ["bein adam la'chevro" - between man and his society] Question 7 This section concludes with several mitzvot that emphasize an even higher level of moral and ethical behavior. For example: Honesty and integrity while judging others (23:1- 3,6); Returning a lost animal, EVEN that of your enemy, to its owner ("ha'shavat aveidah") (23:4); Helping your neighbor's animal (again, even that of your enemy) with its load ("azov ta'zov imo") (23:5); "m'dvar SHEKER tirchak" - keeping one's distance from any form of dishonesty (23:7); "v'SHOCHAD lo tikach" - Not to take bribes (23:8). As mentioned earlier, this section, describing the mitzvot of a high ethical standard, closes with the very same verse: "v'ger lo toneh v'lo t'lchatzena...." (see 23:9). Because of the difficulty of their slavery in Egypt, Bnei Yisrael are expected to LEARN from that experience and create a society sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate. In other words, BECAUSE we were once slaves, we are expected to be even MORE sensitive to the needs of others! Question 8 These laws go above and beyond the letter of the law. It is because God wants us to achieve a high letter of morality. “You shall be a HOLY PEOPLE for Me..” (22:30). Question 9 Inform the students that these Mitzvot occur in numerous parts of the Torah. Each time, the Torah teaches a different aspect of each Mitzva. In this parasha, the Torah gives a social reason for these Mitzvot. The students should write the reason the Torah gives for each of these Mitzvot. Verse Mitzva Purpose 10-11 Shmitta The poor of your people shall eat 12 Shabbat Your maid’s son and strangers shall rest 14-19 Shalosh Regalim The people must congregate before God Question 10 Even though these mitzvot contain religious aspects they nevertheless, contain a certain aspect of "bein adam l'chaveiro." In this parasha, the "shmitah" cycle provides extra food for the poor and needy (see 23:11), while "shabbat" provides a day of rest for the "bondsman and stranger" (see 23:12). Similarly, the "shalosh r'galim" are described as that time of year when the entire nation gathers together 'in front of God' (i.e. at the Beit Ha'Mikdash). This mitzvah also influences the social development of the nation, and provides the poor and needy with a chance to celebrate together with the more fortunate (see Devarim 16:11,14-16). Question 11 The following question gives the teacher the opportunity to summarize the lesson. Section/Pesukim Type of Mitzvot Purpose Section 1: 20:19-23 Religious Laws Between Man and God Moral backbone for society Section 2: 21:1-22:16 Civil Laws Between Man and Man Laws that are regulated by Man Section 3: 22:17-19 Destroy depravity Protection of moral fiber of Society Section 4: 22:20-23:9 Protection of Oppressed Above and beyond the letter of the law To Love Man Section 5: 23:10-19 Social Religious Laws To Be Worthy of a Communion With God A different division (as provided by Rabbi Leibtag) with a full explanation is provided below. Use this division if you prefer, but note that it does not fit in exactly with the divisions of the lesson. I. THE FEAR OF PUNISHMENT BY MAN’S COURTS The first section (21:1-22:19) contains civil laws regarding compensatory obligations, common to any civilized society (not unique to Am Yisrael). These case-type laws are enforced by BET-DIN. The fear of punishment by the courts ensures the compliance of the citizenry. II. THE FEAR OF GOD The next section (22:20-26) contains imperatives related to ethical behavior, emphasizing specifically consideration for the less fortunate members of society. Given the difficulty of enforcing this standard by the BET-DIN, God Himself assumes the responsibility of punishing violators in this regard. III. LOVE FOR ONE'S FELLOW MAN The final section of imperative civil laws (23:1-9) contains mitzvot relating to an even higher moral and ethical standard. In this section, the Torah does not mention any punishment. These mitzvot are preceded by the pasuk "v'anshei KODESH ti'hiyun li" (22:30) and reflect the behavior of a "mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh" (see 19:5-6). When the civil behavior of God's special nation is motivated not only by the fear of punishment, but also by a high ethical standard and a sense of subservience to God, the nation truly becomes a "goy KADOSH" – the purpose of Matan Torah. IV. THE LOVE OF GOD After creating an ethical society, the nation is worthy of a special relationship with God, as reflected in the laws of Shabbat, shmitah, and "aliyah l'regel" - 'being seen by God' on the three pilgrimage holidays (see 23:10-17). Question 12 This parasha provides the building blocks that would allow Israel, if they follow through with it, to achieve the goals of becoming a mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh. This progression highlights the fact that a high standard of ethical behavior (II & III) alone does not suffice. A society must first root itself in the most basic civil laws and the establishment of a court system (I). Once this basis has been established, society can then strive to achieve a higher ethical standard. Then, man is worthy to encounter and commune with God (IV). Conclusion ONE LAST PROMISE Even though the Mishpatim and mitzvot end in 23:19, this lengthy parasha (that began back with "ko tomar..."in 20:19) contains one last section - 23:20-33 –, which appears, as more of a PROMISE than a set of laws. God tells Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael that: "Behold, I am sending a MALACH before you, to guide you and bring you to ... (the Promised Land). ... for if you obey him [God's "malach"] and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For My MALACH will lead you and bring you to [the land of] the Amorites, Hittites, etc." (23:20-23) [See also 23:27-31!] This conclusion points to the PURPOSE of the entire unit. Bnei Yisrael must accept these laws that will shape their character as God's special nation. IF they obey these rules, THEN God will assist them in the conquest of the Land. Considering that Bnei Yisrael are on their way to conquer and inherit the Land, this section (23:20-33) forms an appropriate conclusion for this entire unit. Should they follow these laws, He will help them conquer that land, where these laws will help facilitate their becoming God's special nation.



Appendix 1
Mishpatim Worksheet - English

Appendix 2
Mishpatim Worksheet - Hebrew


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