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Parshat Mishpatim


If last week was G-d's "Big Ten", this week's parsha is a guide book for the Biblical version of Celino & Barnes.

Mishpatim provides 53 more mitzvot (commandments), civil rather than religious laws, a topic resonant for Shabbat Mom, a proud daughter, sister and sister-in-law of civil litigators. ("When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him.") Others give Shabbat Mom pause. ("When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are.") Thirty of these laws are prohibitions. ("Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be proscribed.") Twenty-three are imperative ("You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan").

Known in English as "The Book of the Covenant", the Exodus chapters contained in Mishpatim are basically divided into four sections: civil and criminal issues (including capital offenses); caring for society's vulnerable; protection against assimilation; and Moses's ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the inscribed tablets containing the Decalogue.

Widely quoted and cited is a passage that relates specifically to punishment for men who fight and unintentionally "(push) a pregnant woman and (cause) a miscarriage" but has come to represent the entirety of personal-injury law: "...(When) damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." By all commentary accounts, the rabbis never intended this often-misinterpreted section to be taken literally; the idea is that monetary compensation should be commensurate with the severity of the injury.

Don't take bribes. Don't favor the rich or the poor when making judgements. Never participate in paganism. Observe "the Feast of Unleavened Bread" (Passover); the Feast of the Harvest (Shavuout); the Feast of the Ingathering (Sukkot). Observe the "Shmita" year ("Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it.")

Seemingly ripped from today's headlines and mentioned not once but twice in Mishpatim is the moral and legal requirement to empathize with and protect the rights of the "ger" (stranger) living in your midst.

"You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."

This is one of Shabbat Mom's personal favorites, often recited during interfaith gatherings. And no wonder: it is repeated throughout the Torah a record 27 times.

That little guy pictured above? While Maimonides suggests that the literal meaning of this law, mentioned three times in in the Torah, may actually refer to a forgotten pagan ritual, the dietary interpretation is the bane of many a kosher child longing for a McDonald's cheeseburger:

"You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk."

Shabbat Shalom!