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Torah Sparks

February 5, 2005 - 26 Shevat 5765

Annual: Ex. 21:1 - 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial: Ex. 21:1 - 22:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8 - 22; 33:25-26 (Etz Hayim, p. 482; Hertz p. 323)

Prepared by Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Possibly the most important thing about this week's Parshah is its opening word: "V'eleh," "And these are the statutes that you shall set before them." Mishpatim contains a variety of laws that define every aspect of life. They cover criminal actions (homicide and kidnapping), civil behavior (returning lost property and public nuisances), domestic standards (marriage and divorce) and our relationship to God (holidays and idolatry). These laws define our relationship to God as well as the essential laws that define a good society. The opening word of Parshat Mishpatim, "V'eleh," "AND these…" reminds us that the Ten Commandments which appear in the previous portion are the beginning but not the end of Jewish living.

What follows in Mishpatim is a continuation of the Ten Commandments.

Some of the laws in this week's portion may trouble us, particularly laws which appear to condone slavery. To understand these laws, we must seek to understand them within the context of the time in which they were composed. At the same time we have far reaching laws protecting people-in-need-of-protection that are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. Both remain part of our tradition so we continue to study them and explore them for deeper meaning.

Theme #1: A Biblical Response to Slavery

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master and he shall leave alone. (Exodus 21:2-4)

Derash: Study

  • If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve six years and in the seventh you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today. (Deuteronomy 15:12- 15)
  • Such male and female slaves as you have - it is from the nations round about you…. These shall become your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you for them to inherit for all time. For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants, whom I freed from the Land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 25: 44 - 46, 55)
  • It is permissible to work the slave hard; but while this is the law, the ways of ethics and prudence are that the master should be just and merciful, not make the yoke too heavy on his slave, and not press him too hard; and that he should give him of all food and drink. And thus the early sages used to do - they gave their slaves of everything they ate and drank themselves, and had food served to their slaves even before partaking of it themselves.… Slaves may not be maltreated or offended - the law destined them for service, not for humiliation. Do not shout at them or be angry with them, but hear them out... (Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Avadim 9:8)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why would a fellow Israelite become a slave? This institution that troubles us; why do you think the Torah permits Jews to practice slavery after they were just freed from slavery? Does the Torah condone this practice or simply tell us what to do when it is practiced?
  2. Read these three verses in the Torah dealing with slavery. What do they teach us about slavery in the ancient world? How are these passages different from one another? How do you account for these differences?
  3. If we believe that the Torah is still relevant to our lives today, how should we interpret the troubling passages? Should we simply dismiss them as antiquated or are there other ways of interpreting this institution that might still be relevant for us today? What do you think the Torah is trying to accomplish by creating legislation that defines the treatment of the slave?
  4. Can you think of other passages in the Torah that challenge our modern sense of morality? If one believes the Torah was divinely revealed how do we explain these seeming contradictions?
  5. How does Maimonides who lived in the twelfth century go beyond the legislation of the Torah in his comments on slavery? What was his basis for instituting such changes?
  6. Slavery still exists in some parts of the world today? What responsibilities do we have to fight against this practice?

Theme #2: The Stranger In Our Midst

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them I will hear their out-cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:20-23)

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

Derash: Study

  • The memory of bondage and exile is regarded here (Exodus 23:9) as acting as a protective shield against the evil impulse of over-lordship and dominion, the temptation to exploit and oppress, on the part of the self-supporting respectable citizen who himself was once a slave and in exile and now wishes to lord it over those who are now strangers in his land… Because of a history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you gain independence. (Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Sh'mot - 1976)
  • Just as there is wronging (ona'ah)* in buying and selling, so there is wronging with words. One should not say to someone, "How much is this item," if he does not want to buy it. If someone is a Baal Teshuvah, a penitent, one should not say to him, "Remember your past deeds." If someone was descendent from a Ger, a convert, one should not say to him, "Remember the deeds of your forefathers." For it is stated, "You shall not wrong (toneh)* wrong or oppress a convert. (Mishnah, Baba Metziah, Chapter 4)
    *Note that the words ona'ah and toneh come from the same Hebrew root. The Mishnah concludes that wronging must be similar in these two cases.)
  • What is the meaning of that which is written, "You shall not wrong the stranger (Ger) nor shall you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." … Rabbi Natan says, "A blemish that you yourself have do not mention to your fellow." (Baba Metziah 59b)
  • "You shall not wrong a Ger" - with words "nor shall you oppress him" - with money. You are not to say to him, "Only yesterday you worshiped idols and up until just now swine's flesh was between your teeth." From where do we learn that if you wrong him so too will he wrong you? As it says: "For you were strangers (gerim)." (Mekhilta)
  • "The stranger need not lodge outside" (Job 31:32). The Holy One declares no creature unfit -- He receives all. The gates [of repentance] are always open, and he who wishes to enter may enter. (Exodus Rabba 19:4)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. In the Bible the word "ger" originally referred to "a foreign born resident whose status was intermediate between that of a native born citizen (ezrah) and a foreigner temporarily residing outside the community (nohri)." (Etz Hayim, Page 468) In later literature the word "ger" came to have the connotation of a convert or a proselyte. Is it pejorative to refer to a convert as a Stranger? In what ways is the proselyte similar to and different from a stranger.
  2. According to the Talmud there are no less than 36 references in the Talmud to the protection of the "stranger." Why is this law mentioned so many times? What is the connection in Exodus between the stranger, the widow and the orphan?
  3. Have you ever found yourself in the position of being a stranger in unfamiliar surroundings? What was it like? How did the people around you help you and were there others who hurt you?
  4. What should our attitude and actions be in dealing with illegal immigrants and day laborers who are working in our communities? Do they fall into the category of "gerim," or strangers in our midst? What responsibilities does society have toward them and what responsibilities should we have?
  5. Look at the final passage from Exodus Rabbah. According to this passage who is the stranger? How is someone who sins or feels distant from his tradition a stranger? How can we make people who are strangers to the Jewish tradition feel comfortable when visiting the synagogue or participating in Jewish life?


  • Baba Metziah - A section of the Talmud in the Order of Nezikin, (Damages) which deals with civil and criminal laws.
  • Exodus Rabbah - A popular Midrashic work on the book of Exodus. It was compiled in the sixth century, CE.
  • Nechama Leibowitz - 1902-1997 An Israeli scholar of the Bible and its rabbinic interpretations.
  • Moses Maimonides (a.k.a. Rambam) - 1135 - 1204 halachic codifier, philosopher and communal leader who lived in Spain and Egypt. Maimonides is best known for his magnum opus on Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah.
  • Mishnah - The first written compilation of the orally transmitted teachings of Jewish law. It was edited by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi around 200 CE.
  • Mekhilta - A Midrashic work on the book of Exodus quoting early sages. It was compiled around 400 CE.

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