19.1. Civil and Criminal Law as a Religious System

The previous portion, Yitro, presented the general principles of the covenant with God. This included, most prominently, the Ten Commandments, and the special status of the Jewish people as a “kingdom of priests” for all of humanity. Portion Yitro was thus the “Moses” portion – the inner essence of the covenant.

In this portion now beginning, whose name is Mishpatim, “Rules,” the same covenant will now be elaborated in detail, showing how the general principles are to be applied in actual practice; that is, what they look like when applied to daily life. In that sense, then, this portion is the “Aaron” portion.

Legislation, both civil and criminal, is an essential part of the teachings of the Torah. In Judaism there is no division into secular and religious, worldly and spiritual. Absolutely everything – social laws, economic relations, civil and criminal codes – belongs to the field of religion, and everything is part of one’s connection with God. The laws exist not only to normalize life within human society, but to uphold the covenant with God.

Both civil and criminal law are covered primarily in the Mishpatim portion, but also in other portions of the Torah. These commandments and laws are not systematized by topic, but are presented in their various portions associatively. However, to clarify the halachah it is necessary to connect them together. Such a systematization was an essential part of the work of the Talmud and codifiers of the halachah. Many commentaries on the Torah put a special emphasis on clarifying the relationship between the Torah text and the halachah.

We will not, however, discuss the halachic application of the laws of the Torah. The purpose of our commentary is to draw philosophical conclusions from the text of the Torah, not to subject it to legislative or halachic analysis. We therefore strive to examine each passage in the context of its overall theme, in order to arrive at an understanding of the lesson that it is coming to teach us.

We have already noted that many of the Torah’s laws in the social domain accord with the legal system that was adopted in the ancient Near East, primarily the Code of Hammurabi[1]. The Torah amends and corrects that system, while not requiring immediate transition to the ideal.

Another point related to this is that – to cite this case of slavery as a representative example – the Torah speaks here not of a society so well organized that slavery will not exist at all, but about correcting and improving life’s realities such as they are. Therefore, as both humanity in general and the Jewish people in particular advanced, both culturally and spiritually, the Torah sages later declared some of these laws to be no longer applicable.

This does not mean that these laws have essentially lost all their meaning. Studying these laws in order to understand the ideas they embody will always remain decisively important. But they are no longer applicable in practice, because of humanity’s advancement in solving the problems that these laws were originally meant to address.

[1] See Bible Dynamics on Genesis, §16.6.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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