Shabbat February 22, 2020 -Mishpatim - Torah Reading Exodus 21:1-24:18 Torah Reading – special maftir Shabbat Shekalim - Maftir Exodus 30:11-16
This week’s parasha has the title of Mishpatim – one of several Hebrew
words that mean “laws.”. Rabbi Akiva taught that it was incumbent on
the teacher to explain the reason behind laws whenever possible,
deducing that from the first line of this parasha: v’Eleh hamishpatim
asher tasim lifneihem – and these are the laws you shall put in front
of them. He concluded that putting laws in front of the people
included explaining the reasoning behind them.
Many laws of different kinds are covered in this week’s reading. They
concern such diverse topics as owning slaves, murder, burglary, sexual
irregularities and theft of livestock. Some of them are what we would
consider criminal law, some civil law, and some religious obligations.
To the ancient Israelites, though, there were no such distinctions.
The Law came from G-d through Moses and it governed all kinds of
The rabbis taught that the famous requirement that when causing damage
to another one must pay with “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,
a hand for a hand and a foot for a foot” really referred to financial
compensation. Another commandment whose plain meaning was softened in
rabbinic interpretation is the requirement that one who curses his
parents must be put to death.
In the section on slaves there is information on what is required if a
man marries his female slave that tangentially mentions that women’s
rights in marriage include onah or sexual satisfaction. The Talmud
expands on this requirement, making clear that denying one’s wife her
conjugal rights is a significant breach of Jewish law. In The Jewish
Woman in Rabbinic Literature Menachem M. Breyer recounts that R.
Yehuda was punished for denying his wife onah due to his preoccupation
with his Torah studies. This Jewish concept of sex as a wife’s
pleasure and a husband’s obligation is in opposition to much of
Western culture, as is the stress on marital sex for pleasure rather
than just for procreation.
The parasha instructs us on the importance of kindness towards
"gerim." Often translated as “strangers” - in this context, the word
gerim means resident aliens. Twice in the reading, in verses 22:20 and
23:9, we are instructed not to oppress the stranger, with the specific
reason being that we were ourselves strangers in the land of Egypt. In
the second rendering of the command the language is poetically
evocative: v’atem y’datem et nefesh hager – you know the soul of an
alien. American Jewish activism on behalf of refugees shows that the
lesson is still alive in the minds of many modern Jews.
Other commandments also are ones that fit with modern senses of right
and wrong. There’s a prohibition against judges taking bribes, a
mandate to care for widows and orphans, a requirement to help even
someone who hates you if his ox has fallen down and he needs
assistance to help the animal back up.
Yet some of the commandments are more troubling to read. If a man
seduces a virgin, the solution is that he has to marry her. Later on,
the same “punishment” is given in Deuteronomy even if he rapes her
rather than seduces her. It’s a view of women as commodity and a
commodity of higher value if she is a virgin. It's sort of the “you
broke it you bought it” view of marriage. This reading also has the
verse M’chashefah lo tchayeh – do not let a sorceress live, a biblical
admonition used by Christians in a variety of times and places to kill
women accused of being witches.
This recitation of laws ends with a brief mention of the shalosh
r’galim – the three Pilgrimage Festivals: Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot.
Then G-d promises to send an angel with the people and reminds them
they are only to worship G-d, not other deities. The Talmud tells us
that the angel’s name is Metatron (which sounds like the name of a
robot to me). The Tikunei Zohar gives a gematria (numerology)
explanation – the numerical equivalent of Metatron is the same as that
of one of the names of G-d (Shaddai).
The people offer sacrifices and promise to follow G-d’s word. They
pledge naaseh v’nishmah – “we will do and we will listen/hearken” to
the commandments. Ibn Ezra commented that “naaseh” refers to doing all
the commandments given already and “nishmah” was a promise to listen
to and obey those yet to come.
At the end of the parasha Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to receive
“the stone tablets, the Torah, and the commandment.” The parasha ends
saying that Moses is there for 40 days and 40 nights. Spoiler alert:
things do not go well in his absence.
Maftir Exodus 30:11-16
This week we read a special maftir and special haftarah for Shabbat
Shekalim. Shabbat Shekalim, one of four special shabbatot leading up
to Pesach, is always on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh Adar (or on
Rosh Hodesh Adar if that falls on a Shabbat). In leap years, which
have two months of Adar, Shabbat Shekalim is the Shabbat before the
The special maftir is the text in which all the Israelites are counted
in a census and taxed to support the Tent of Meeting.
Haftarah 2 Kings 12:1-17
This week we also read a special haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim. The
haftarah is related to the special maftir – an account from the book
of Kings about a census and tax to support the Temple.
Why a census and a tax together? Each person was required to give a
half shekel. Rather than count the people directly, they donated their
coins and then the coins were counted to know how many people there
were. Rashi says that it was done this way because the “evil eye”
likes things being counted and if the people were counted directly,
they could suffer a plague. But money does not communicate plague.
Why do we read this special maftir and haftarah at this time of year?
Tradition says that the census and tax occurred on the first of
Nissan, so this reading one month before is meant to foreshadow that
Beshalach - Shabat Shirah 5780
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