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Parshat Mishpatim: Weekly Torah Portion Summary, Questions, Resources

02/17/2012 12:15 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2013

Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. This week's Scripture reading is taken from Exodus 21:1-24:18. Read the full text of Parshat Mishpatim with interlinear Hebrew/English.

And these are the laws you should set before the Children of Israel:

If a thief is sold into slavery, and you buy him, the duration of slavery should be six years. In the seventh year, you must release him. No strings attached. If he becomes a slave unmarried, he shall become free unmarried. If he becomes a slave while married, he shall become free still married. If the slave's master gives him a wife, and if the woman gives birth, when the slave is freed, the woman and her children still belong to the master. If, at the end of six years, the slave should say, "I love my master, my wife, my children and I do not want to go free," his master shall bring him to the court that made him a slave. There, the slave must have his ear pierced to a doorpost. Then, he must serve the master until the next Jubilee year.

If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not be released the same way a male slave is freed. She must be released after six years or when she hits puberty. If the master does not take the maidservant as a wife, he may not sell her after six years. She must be redeemed. If the master gives the maidservant to his son as a wife, he must treat her as though she were not a servant. If the master takes her as a wife, and then marries another woman, he may not give less to the first wife. If he does not keep her as a wife, give her to his son or redeem her, she must be freed. No strings attached.

Questions and resources:

Why does this portion, which follows immediately after a peak spiritual experience, begin with laws about slavery, the lowest condition for a human? Why is the slaves ear pierced to a doorpost? And why only after he's refused to be released? Why are female slaves treated differently? What's the significance of a Jubilee year?

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains the Torah's shift from narrative to law. The example of the slave wife provides a glimpse at the dilemma of slavery in the Bible. Wikipedia explains the Jubilee.

Strike a man and kill him? You shall be put to death.

Kill a man on accident? God will provide a city of refuge for you.

Strike your mother or father? You shall be strangled to death.

Kidnap someone and get caught? Death by strangulation.

Curse your mother or father? Death by stoning.

Attack a man and confine him to a bed? Go to jail until he recovers. If he recovers, you are acquitted, but you must pay his medical fees and compensate him for the time off of work.

Strike a slave and the slave dies within 24 hours? This death must be avenged. Die by the sword. Strike a slave and he survives for two days. No liability.

Fight with someone and accidentally strike a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry but not die? Compensate the woman according to a judges orders. If she dies, there must be compensation.

What is compensation? The value of an eye for an eye. The value of a tooth for a tooth. The value of a hand for a hand. The value of a foot for a foot. The value of a burn for a burn. The value of a wound for a wound. The value of a bruise for a bruise.

Strike a slave, knocking out a tooth or an eye? Set the slave free as compensation.

If an ox kills someone, the ox must be stoned to death. The owner is innocent. But, if the ox has a history of goring people to death, and the owner has been warned with witnesses present but still does not keep the ox away from people, the ox shall be stoned to death and the owner must redeem his soul with a hefty fine. If the ox gores a slave, the animal's owner must pay the slave master 30 shekels, and the ox is stoned to death.

If someone digs or enlarges a pit and an animal falls in because the pit is uncovered, the pit digger must compensate the animal's owner. If an ox strikes and kills an ox that belongs to a different person, half the value of the ox must somehow be paid as compensation. If an owner does not properly contain a habitually violent animal and that animal kills another? An ox for an ox. If a man steals an ox or a sheep and sells it, he must repay five oxen or four sheep.

Kill someone caught breaking into your home? No penalty. If it's clear the person did not intend to kill you, but you killed him anyway, there is a penalty. A thief must repay in full what he has stolen. If he cannot, he is sold into slavery. If he is caught with the stolen object, he must repay double the amount.

If a man leads his animal to another person's field, causing damage, he must repay from the best of his own field.

Light a fire on your own property but let it spread to another person's land? Compensation must be paid.

Did your friend loan you something for safekeeping, but didn't pay you for your services? Did someone steal that object? The thief is liable and must pay twofold -- if he's caught. If he's not caught, you must go before a judge and swear that you were not paid and that you did not steal the object. If you swear that you did not steal something but a witness says otherwise, a judge decides who is guilty. If an animal dies or is injured while you are watching it for a friend, the dispute is settled out of court, unless the animal dies of negligence, in which case the matter is taken to court.

Did you borrow an animal from a friend, and then the animal came into harm's way? You must pay compensation, unless you already work for the owner, in which case you don't pay.

Questions and resources:

Doesn't the text actually say "an eye for any eye"? So why is the value of an eye substituted? Why such a detailed discussion of ownership? Could this be a metaphor? What are the spiritual underpinnings of proper compensation?

Seduce an unmarried virgin? Pay a dowry and marry her. If the father won't let you marry, pay the dowry anyway.

Do not allow any sorcerers to live.

Bestiality is punishable by death.

Whoever makes an offering to a foreign god shall be put to death.

Do not harass or oppress a convert or foreigner. You were once a stranger in the land of Egypt.

Do not oppress anyone. God will hear the person's cry and put you to death. And your wives will be chained widows and your children will have no inheritance.

If you lend money, give priority to Jews, to the poor and to your neighbors. If he cannot repay the debt, do not treat him as a lender and do not impose interest on him. If he doesn't pay on time and you take his clothing for security, you must return the day clothes by day and the night clothes by night.

Do not curse a judge. Do not curse a leader among you.

When your first fruits ripen, do not delay offering them to God.

Present your firstborn to God to be redeemed by the priest after 30 days. Do the same with your firstborn oxen and sheep. Still, keep the animal with its mother for seven days.

Wanna be holy men of God? Do not eat flesh torn from a living animal. Give this to the dogs, if you must.

Do not listen to lies. Do not associated with wickedness. Do not conform to the mainstream if the mainstream perverts justice. Do not show preference for a poor man in court just because he is poor. Treat him fairly.

If you find your enemy's property, you must return it to him. If you see your enemy needs help, you must help him.

Flee from falsehood.

Do not kill a convict if new evidence arises vindicating him. Do not kill the vindicated if new evidence arises damning him. The guilty cannot escape God's punishment.

Do not accept a bribe. Bribes corrupt the righteous.

Do not oppress a convert or foreigner for you know how he feels since you were once in the land of Egypt.

Farm your land for six years. In the seventh year, leave the land alone and do not eat its fruits. Allow the poor to eat from the land in the seventh year. Whatever they leave, allow wild animals to eat.

Work for six days. On the seventh day, rest -- you and your servants and your animals.

Be careful. Keep all of these rules.

Do not mention foreign gods, especially not to a foreigner.

Celebrate for God three times during the year:

  • For the Festival of Unleavened Bread, eat unleavened bread for seven days as the appointed time in spring, since this is when you left Egypt. Come to God with an offering. Do not slaughter the Passover offering until all leavened bread is destroyed.
  • For the Festival of the Harvest, bring your best first fruits to God.
  • For the Festival of the Ingathering, at the end of the year, bring God an offering.
Do not cook a kid in its mothers milk.

Questions and resources:

Why is the command to not oppress a foreigner repeated? What does it mean "do not cook a kid in its mothers milk"? Why is this commandment placed her of all places?

Explore the edict of not oppressing strangers and the difference between the two statements with the American Jewish World Service's interactive text study. Chabad has a thorough explanation of the Jewish practice of not mixing milk and meat.

God will send an angel before you on your journey to the Promised Land. Listen to the angel. Do not rebel against him. Listen and God will destroy your enemies.

Do not bow before foreign gods. Do not worship foreign gods. Do not follow foreign gods. Destroy these "gods." Worship the true God and your food and drink will be blessed. And illness will be banished. And women will not miscarry nor be barren. Your days will be full. Your enemies will flee from you. Swarms of hornets will chase them. Slowly, slowly, the land will be emptied of them so that you may enter and occupy.

From the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of Philistia, from the desert to the river Euphrates -- these will be the borders of your land. Do not make a covenant with these people nor with their gods. Do not let them live in the land, for they will cause you to sin against God.

And God says to Moses, "Bow down to me from afar -- you, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 elders. But only you should approach me in the fog."

And Moses relays the words of God to the people. And all the people respond in unison to the words of God: "We will do!"

Moses writes down all the words of God -- from Creation to the giving of the Torah.

He rises early in the morning to build an altar to God and 12 monuments for the 12 tribes. The firstborn Children of Israel give burnt-offerings and peace-offerings to God. Moses divides the blood -- half into basins and half upon the altar.

Moses reads all that he has written to the people, who respond in unison: "We will do and we will hear everything God has said." Moses sprinkles the blood of the offerings onto the people as a sign of the covenant.

Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 elders go up and see God. They see God standing on some sort of sapphire pedestal. Even though they look, God does not punish them. And they look at God while they eat and drink.

God says to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain and remain with me. I will give you the stone tablets of the Torah, which I have written as instructions for the people."

Moses arises with Joshua, his servant. As he leaves the people, he tells the elders to wait while he's gone and judge the cases of the people. Moses leaves Joshua at the foot of the mountain and ascends.

A cloud -- the cloud of the glory of God -- covers the mountain for six days. On the seventh day, God calls to Moses from within the cloud to give him the Ten Commandments. In the eyes of the Children of Israel, the cloud of the glory of God is a consuming fire atop the mountain. Moses enters the cloud and ascends. He is upon the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

Questions and resources:

Why is there a difference in the two responses from the Israelites? What is the difference? Why does Moses write this stuff down? What exactly do Moses and his crew see when they look at God?

Attempting to explain why the Jews are the "People of the Book," the animated Parshat Mishpatim explores all these questions and more.

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection:

  • Haftorah Mishpatim Summary -- In the haftorah, found in Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26, the Prophet Jeremiah berates the people of Judah for keeping slaves against God's wishes, and predicts that Jerusalem will be conquered because of the people's disrespect for God. (MJL)
  • The Animated Parshat Mishpatim What's with the acts of writing and reading anyway? (G-DCAST)
  • Humans as Co-creators, Co-owners A Jewish legal commentary on the connection between property ownership and the relationship between God, people and nature. (Canfei Nesharim)
  • Rashi on Parshat Mishpatim -- The classic commentator in all his interpretive glory. (Chabad)
  • Do Not Oppress the Stranger -- An interactive text study about the Jewish obligation to not treat foreigners, strangers and converts justly. (AJWS)
  • The Eyes Have It -- Understanding why "an eye for an eye" does not actually mean "an eye for an eye" -- and why maybe it actually should. (Sixth St. Synagogue)
  • Resetting Our Moral Compass -- What does monetary compensation have to do with mystical reincarnation? The answer is summed up in this "Energy of the Week." (IYYUN)