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Parshat Mishpatim

By: Rav Aharon E. Wexler

Parshat Mishpatim gives us our first introduction to Biblical Law. Introducing Himself to an early agrarian economy of former slaves, God offers a form of legislation that speaks to them, filled with examples which illustrate more general legal principles.  Although it speaks of asses, oxen, and sheep, the Torah speaks just as much to us as it did to our fathers 3,320 years ago.


It is also interesting that God used similar wording for His Torah as that of another famous lawgiver, Hammurabi, roughly a contemporary of Avraham Avinu. The Code of Hammurabi is a strict code that testifies to a high degree of civilization, but also to problematic moral reasoning, in which, for example, sons are punished by the legal system for the sins of their fathers.


Hammurabi’s law was harsh and reciprocal law, literally “an eye for an eye.” The law was practical and it worked, and its formulations are so pithy and clear that the Torah itself sometimes uses the very same words in its own laws. Beyond similarities in language, however, these two codes part ways – when it comes to moral reasoning, the Torah is clearly far more advanced.


According to Hammurabi’s code, if you build a house for a client and it caves in, killing someone’s son, the punishment was that your son would be killed – literally, sons would be punished for the sins of their fathers. Now perhaps we can appreciate why the Bible goes out of its way in proclaiming that in its courts of law, that would no longer be the case.


Shabbat Shalom!




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