19.5. Familial and Social Regulations (22:15-30)
(15) If a man seduces a virgin for whom the bride-price has not been paid, and lies with her, he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price.
(16) If her father refuses to give her to him, he must still weigh out silver in accordance with the bride-price for virgins.
(17) You shall not tolerate a sorceress.
(18) Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death.
(19) Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be proscribed.
(20) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(21) You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.
(22) If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me,
(23) 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.
(24) If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.
(25) If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets;
(26) it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.
(27) You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people.
(28) You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats. You shall give Me the first-born among your sons.
(29) You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.
(30) You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.
(15) If a man seduces a virgin for whom the bride-price has not been paid, and lies with her, he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price: The laws of the Torah strive, whenever possible, not to punish, but to rectify the overall situation.
(16) If her father refuses to give her to him, he must still weigh out silver in accordance with the bride-price for virgins: Likewise, if the girl herself does not want to marry the seducer, she is not forced to do so. It is a fundamental principle of the Torah that no parent may force a child, be it a son or a daughter, to be married against his or her own wishes.
(17-18) You shall not tolerate a sorceress. Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death: Persons who perform such acts are seen as utilizing God-given forces for evil purposes (spiritual forces in the case of witchcraft, life-giving forces in the case of bestiality). Such crimes incur the death penalty because they destroy the fabric of society.
Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death: The Talmud notes that bestiality too was in ancient times employed for occult purposes. This is the reason that the Torah juxtaposes these two verses.
(19) Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be proscribed: The more literal translation is “shall be utterly destroyed,” that is, executed. Idolatry is not merely the simple violation of a prohibition, but an absolute departure from the teachings of the Torah in their totality. The perpetrator must therefore be eradicated from the Jewish people.
(20) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him: In biblical Hebrew, a ger, “stranger, alien,” is a non-Jew who has settled in a Jewish country among Jews (in later Hebrew ger came to mean, more specifically, a convert to Judaism). An alien’s position is vulnerable, for he has no relatives or long-established compatriots who will come to his aid. The Torah therefore repeatedly warns against oppressing the stranger.
The Oral Torah, and the halachah, which ultimately derives from it, distinguishes between two types of ger (proselyte): (1) ger tzedek (“righteous proselyte”), a former gentile who has converted to Judaism, and is thus now a Jew in every sense, and (2) ger toshav (“resident alien”), who remains a non-Jew, while fully taking upon himself the obligations of the Torah, which means complying with the “Seven Noahide Commandments,” including loyalty and obedience to Jewish authority in the Land of Israel.
The laws that apply to each of these two types of ger are completely different. The former is considered a Jew and an integral part of the Jewish nation in every respect, while the latter is not. But because it is the way of the Written Torah to lay out only the general principles, while leaving it up to the Oral Torah to fill in the details, the Torah here uses only the one general term, ger, for both types.
(20) For you were strangers in the land of Egypt: The experience of Egyptian slavery, and the redemption from it, the Exodus, are both vitally important to the formulation of Jewish morality.
(21) You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan: Widows and orphans too are especially vulnerable, often having absolutely no one they can depend on to come to their aid or defense. The Torah therefore emphasizes the strict prohibition of oppressing them (the severity of the offense is further underscored by the consequences of committing it, as described in the next verse).
(22–23) If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they 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: This unusually harsh condemnation of those who oppress widows and orphans, including threats of death and family misfortunes to the perpetrators, is an indication of the enormous religious significance of social justice in Judaism.
(24) If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them: The Hebrew word for interest (usury) here is neshech, from the root N‑Sh‑Ch, “to bite,” which refers, in particular, to a snakebite. The imagery is especially apt, because the usurer, pretending to want only to help his desperate neighbor, extends to him the kind of “venomous credit” from which he may never recover.
Jewish tradition teaches us an important lesson, that an interest-free loan to our fellow human being is more helpful to him than the same funds presented as an outright gift. An interest-free loan enables a person to get back on his feet by working to repay the debt, thus normalizing his life in the process.
Simple handouts (“welfare” or “relief” payments) are frequently downright harmful to society, because they accustom people to the possibility of living quite adequately without working. As compared with gifts to the needy, a loan that needs to be repaid, but with no interest accruing, is therefore generally far more beneficial in the long run.
To the poor among you: The Torah’s ban on usury is based on the reality that imposing interest payments on a destitute debtor, for whom repaying even just the principal is already a significant hardship, constitutes a form of “oppression.” But suppose he is not poor, and is only borrowing funds to further improve his living conditions, or to expand his business. Is the prohibition of exacting interest still justified?
This question first arose as a practical issue in the seventeenth century, when most of Europe transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy, and the issuance of interest-bearing loans assumed a completely different character than it had previously had. In order to address this change of circumstances, the rabbis of that period instituted an innovation, the hetter iska – literally, “business permit”; that is, a permit to engage in interest-based business dealings that would otherwise be forbidden to both the borrower and the lender. This issue will be further elaborated in the Bible Dynamics commentary to Deuteronomy (22:20), where the topic of interest-bearing loans is treated in greater detail.
(25-26) If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep?: Although the lender has already demonstrated admirable forbearance and generosity (but as the Law in fact requires) by agreeing to lend funds to his poor neighbor interest-free, that is still not yet the whole story. The Torah further requires the lender to show sympathy to the borrower in matters concerning property he has transferred to the lender as security for the loan.
(27) You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people: Criticizing one’s fellow human being and cursing him are obviously two very different things. This prohibition concerns only the latter. Criticism is normal and constructive, but curses only incite hatred, and are therefore prohibited.
You shall not revile God: The Hebrew word Elohim, although grammatically plural, refers most often to God, and is one of His primary names. But Elohim can also mean any “gods” whatsoever.
Thus, Elohim lo tekallel of this verse, in addition to its main meaning as translated here – “You shall not revile God” – can also be understood as “You shall not revile gods.” That is, it is a prohibition on cursing the gods of other nations and religions. Indeed, they are false deities, but since they are worshipped by the peoples of the world and are influential in their spiritual development, it is forbidden to revile them.
(28) You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats. You shall give Me the first-born among your sons: The commandment to consecrate firstborn sons to the Almighty was already mentioned (13:2) immediately after the Exodus from Egypt, and as a remembrance thereof (in actual practice, the consecration of a firstborn son is accomplished by “redeeming” him by means of a small payment by the child’s father to the priest).
The same commandment is repeated here, and further extended to include also the first fruits of each harvest, which must be brought to the Temple as recognition that life and material success are gifts from Above.
(29) You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me: This commandment regarding cattle and flocks relates to their firstborns specifically.
(30) You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs: Food restrictions, especially this one that forbids partaking of an animal torn by beasts in the field, are an important element of preparing for holiness. But holiness is not defined by this per se, and does not consist solely in such prohibitions. We will take a closer look at the theme of holiness in our Bible Dynamics commentary to the Book of Leviticus.