The power and priority of Torah’s mishpatim


The Ramban begins his analysis of our parasha, Mishpatim, by noting that mishpatim (ordinances and civil laws) are the first category of mitzvot presented. This contrasts with what took place at Marah (Sefer Shemot 15:25), when mishpatim are referenced only after chukim (statutes). The Ramban proposes that in our parasha, the Almighty wanted to present this group of mitzvot before any other, “for if a man does not know the laws of house and field or other possessions, he might think that they belong to him and thus covet them and take them for himself.”

A lack of knowledge of this class of mitzvot would, therefore, eventuate in anarchy and the breakdown of civil society.

The Ramban buttresses his words with a partial quote from a version of Midrash Shemot Rabbah (30:15) that is no longer extant: “The entire Torah depends upon mishpat,” and concludes, “that is why the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the civil laws directly after the Ten Commandments.”

Our version of this midrash differs markedly from the Ramban’s text: “Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] said: ‘Just like the Holy One, blessed be He, warned us [of the singular import] of the Ten Commandments, so, too, did He warn us regarding the [unique significance] of [observance of] the Law. Why is this the case? [This is so, since] the [existence] of the entire world depends upon it. As the text states: ‘A king establishes the country b’mishpat’ (Sefer Mishle 29:4) and through it [mishpat] Tzion will be built. As the text states: ‘Tzion shall be redeemed b’mishpat and her penitent through righteousness’.” (Sefer Yeshayahu 1:27)

Immediately after the word din is deployed in this midrash, citations containing the word, mishpatim, follow — suggesting that it is the most representative and powerful form of din.

The Rav asks a fundamental question regarding the order of the perakim in Parshiot Yitro and Mishpatim that helps illuminate a fundamental dimension of mishpatim:

“Following the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah should have proceeded immediately with Chapter 24 of Parashat Mishpatim, in which G-d tells Moshe to seal the covenant with the people. Instead, there is an interruption between these two chapters. Parashat Mishpatim, with its many detailed laws of nezikin [torts], seems to depart from the context. … Why was it given such preference?”

The Rav’s answer to his question gives powerful voice to the intrinsic meaning of mishpatim:

“Parashat Mishpatim is not only a description of laws between human beings and a moral code. It lays out an entire framework of civil relationships. Why should the Torah address the question of financial commitments? Why should the Torah care about the situation of a paid or unpaid watchman? … Parashat Mishpatim discusses issues of kinyanim (acquisitions), hazakot (presumptions of ownership) and shtar (the transfer of promissory notes). These monetary issues have no place in a moral code. The conclusion, then, is that civil laws carry religious significance. Destruction of property and trespassing are not merely violations of civil law but moral transgressions.”

The analyses of mishpatim undertaken by Midrash Shemot Rabbah, the Ramban and the Rav, lead us to a greater appreciation of their meaning and status within Judaism. The midrash teaches us that the entire world depends on mishpat for its very survival, the Ramban informs us that mishpatim are the lynchpin of civil order and the Rav elucidates their moral significance and role in Jewish thought and practice.

Little wonder, then, that Yeshayahu declared so long ago, “Tzion shall be redeemed b’mishpat and her penitent through righteousness.”

With Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, may this time come soon and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.