Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct
By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman
Dedicated in memory of Florence Lipstein, whose yahrzeit is 25
by Sidney and Cheryl Lipstein
Mishpatim — Appreciating God's Precepts, in Study and Practice
In last week’s lesson, we discussed the concept of mishpat, and we
explained its fundamental significance within the Jewish moral tradition. A Jew is given the opportunity to
follow in the footsteps of Avraham, dispensing mishpat and tzedaka,
and thereby to walk in the ways of God.
The Jew who succeeds in inculcating mishpat in his life gains
control of his character, and he is able to act in every situation with the
necessary action and reaction.
The word “mishpat” appears in the Torah not only in its singular,
independent form, but also as the root of the plural “mishpatim,” often
translated as precepts. The word “mishpatim”
is a generic word for rational mitzvot, but in a number of contexts, it
specifically refers to interpersonal civil laws.
The prominence of the ideal of mishpat is expressed through the
appreciation of the system of rational mitzvot, mishpatim. In numerous places in the Torah, God
repeats that the unique contribution of His legal system is exemplified by the
righteous chukkim (decrees, non-rational laws) and mishpatim which
He presents to the Jewish nation.
In order to understand the significance of the mishpatim, as well as the
outlook and actions they entail, we will first delineate the uniqueness of the
mishpatim and explain the Torah’s distinction between chukkim and
mishpatim. Why does the Torah
choose to differentiate between the two terms?
Clearly, every society needs a set of laws dealing with civil issues; therefore,
one can imagine that there need be nothing overly unique in the Torah’s system. Yet, in a number of contexts, the
mishpatim of the Torah are described as extremely special. The singularity of the Jewish system
of justice is in fact expressed succinctly in a verse from the psalms recited in
our daily prayers:
He relates His word to Yaakov, His decrees and precepts to Israel.
He did not do so for any nation; they
know not such precepts — praise God!
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Bloch of Telz explains these verses in the following way. There is a seeming anomaly in God’s
revelation at Mount Sinai: one would imagine that the Ten Commandments would all
be uniquely Jewish, yet the second half contains some logical mishpatim,
which are presumably accepted by Jew and non-Jew alike. God thereby demonstrates to the Jews,
as described in these verses, that even the seemingly logical mishpatim
cannot be truly known by the nations. (See Tehillim, ArtScroll Tanach
The premise that even logical commandments shared by Jew and non-Jew alike are
indeed different is seemingly expressed in the midrashic description of God
offering the Torah to other nations before presenting it to the Jewish people. In Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi
Tarfon describes God’s offers and the various nation’s rejection:
The Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘shone forth from Se’ir’ (Devarim 33:2) and
revealed himself to the children of Esav… and said to them “Will you accept the
They replied, “What is written in it?”
“Do not commit murder” (Shemot 20:12), said God.
“Go away” the children of Esav retorted. “We cannot abandon the blessing of
Yitzchak to Esav, for he said (Bereishit 27:40): “By your sword you shall
From there, God proceeded to appeared to the children of Yishmael… “Will you accept the Torah?” He asked.
“What is written in it?” they inquired.
“Do not steal” (Shemot 20:12), said God.
They responded, “We cannot stop doing what our ancestors did…”
At that point, God sent angels to all the other nations of the world…
The scene is rather startling. After
all, the mitzvot that Esav’s and Yishmael’s descendants are uninterested
in and unable to accept are logical precepts; these prohibitions are binding
upon non-Jews as part of the seven Noahide commandments. Why would one reject the Torah due to
unwillingness to accept what one is obligated to do anyway?
One approach is to compare the Jewish precepts to the corresponding Noahide
ones; this reveals that many of the Jewish laws are far more inclusive. For instance, the prohibition against
killing for a Noahide proscribes outright bloodshed, while for a Jew, even
publicly embarrassing his fellow man is considered bloodshed (see Bava Metzia
One might even go a step further and contend that the tradition of the Torah
requires one not only to avoid forbidden actions, but in fact to develop one’s
personality and an outlook based on its reality.
Rav Hirsch, in his commentary to these verses, notes another beautiful aspect of
the Torah’s mishpatim unknown to other nations. The rational, legal system of any
country, based upon a social contract, is always subject to change and
amendment. For instance, if the
citizenry agrees that its desire to know the inner lives of others is more
important than maintaining standards of privacy, then a paparazzi society will
develop, in which each member continually looks to invade the other’s privacy in
order to sell a good story. However,
the divine mishpatim are eternal and unchanging. God’s expectations of what human
society can and should achieve, setting standards of privacy, kindness, and
goodwill, can never be outvoted by a majority.
These mishpatim are unique to the Jew, and they are readily
apparent when looking at the standards of the Torah versus those of the secular
society around us.
This uniqueness is expressed powerfully by Moshe as he introduces the mitzvot
in his final speech to the Jewish people, extolling the amazing laws which he
has transmitted from God to the Jewish people.
See, I have taught you decrees and precepts as Lord, my God, has commanded me,
to do so in the midst of the land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and perform them,
for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of other nations, who shall
hear all these laws and say “Surely a wise and discerning people is this great
nation!” For which is a great nation that has a God Who is so close to it, as is
Lord, our God, whenever we call upon Him?
And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and precepts, such
as this entire Torah that I place before you today?
Moshe’s teaching of the Torah is in fact an expression of the righteous law
system which recognizes the closeness of the Jewish people to God and their
wisdom among the nations.
The Ramban describes in his commentary to the verse why it is that Moshe
specifically mentions “decrees and precepts”, chukkim and mishpatim. He writes that “through mishpat,
the world is upheld” (see Mishlei 29:4), and he continues by describing
the world’s recognition of the unique mishpatim of the Jewish people:
And Moshe then says that observing the chukkim and mishpatim yield
great benefits, for they are the source of glory and admiration from other
people for those who perform them, end even the Jews’ enemies praise them for
observing these commandments.
Furthermore, Moshe adds in verse 7 that these mishpatim have a benefit
beyond compare, as God is close to them whenever they call upon Him, and even
the nations contemplate this and realize that the chukkim are performed
by the Jews… and the chukkim and mishpatim are righteous and fair.
Obligation of Dinim
It should be noted that, according to a number of opinions, the Torah’s high
regard for mishpatim may be seen even in the obligations of non-Jews in
this area. The Ramban (Bereishit
34:13) supports this position in defining the parameters of the Noahide
obligation of dinim or dinin, laws, one of the seven commandments
which non-Jews are commanded to observe:
In my opinion, the meaning of “laws” which the Sages have counted among the
seven Noahide commandments is not just that they are to appoint judges in each
and every district; beyond this, He commanded them concerning the laws of theft,
overcharging, defrauding and withholding a hired man’s wages; the rules of
guardianship of property, rape and seduction; the principles of damage and
wounding a fellowman; laws of creditors and debtors; laws of buying and selling,
and their like. They are similar in
scope to the laws with which Israel was charged…
The Ramban thereby expresses his view that all nations of the world are required
to develop a system of justice upholding the parameters of civil law that the
Jewish people are commanded in the Torah.
The Rema, the author of the Ashkenazic glosses on Shulchan Arukh, goes as
far as to entertain the possibility in his responsa (Teshuvot Ha-Rema,
ch.10) that non-Jews might be obligated to decide monetary law in accordance
with the fourth volume of Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, which
encompasses civil law.
Nevertheless, despite the importance of a legal system which binds all nations
of the world to observe ethical, interpersonal civil norms, the Jewish system of
mishpatim is still unique.
Indeed, Rav Chayim of Volozhin is quoted as saying that the obligation of
non-Jews cannot possibly be identical to the Jewish one, on account of the verse
cited earlier: “He did not do so for any nation; they know not such precepts.”
Furthermore, the Ramban himself, in the continuation of the above-cited passage,
lists a number of distinctions between the Jewish system of justice and the
non-Jewish one. While God cares
about all nations, and He requires that they build a legal system similar to the
one which the Torah’s prescribes for the nation of Israel, there is it is a
truly unique bond between the Jewish people and God, as expressed in the
mishpatim. This is what Moshe
declares that even the nations of the world realize. What is this bond, and what is its
The centrality of the idea of mishpat and the specifics of the
mishpatim is expressed by the position of the eponymous Torah portion,
Parashat Mishpatim, particularly its first three chapters (Shemot
21-23), which contain mostly civil laws, rather than ritual laws.
This unit is sandwiched in between two
narratives of the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The preceding portion, Parashat
Yitro, contains a detailed account of the Giving of the Torah, the
incredible display of God’s greatness and magnificence at the Convocation at
Sinai, in which God gives the Torah and the Jews receive the Torah (ibid.
19-20). At the conclusion of this
unit, a few ritual laws are mentioned, and then the Torah begins to detail the
civil laws of Parashat Mishpatim.
However, immediately after these chapters, the Torah returns (ibid.
24) to the depiction of the Giving of the Torah, including the Jewish
declaration of acceptance, the words “Naaseh ve-nishma,” “We will do and
we will listen.”
Why is it that the civil laws are presented in the middle of this whole
description of the Giving of the Torah?
Why do they deserve such a central position in the Torah? An analysis of the introductory verse
of Parashat Mishpatim and the remarks of some commentators will help us
to understand this. The verse (21:1)
And these are the precepts that you shall place before them.
The commentators wonder about the use of the initial conjunction, the letter “vav”,
usually translated “and”. If the
civil laws are introduced at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim with the
letter vav, what is the connection to the previous unit?
The Ramban (ad loc.) quotes a statement of the Sages:
And thus did the Sages say in Midrash Rabba (Shemot Rabba 30:15):
“The entire Torah depends on mishpat; therefore, the Holy One, Blessed is
He, gave the dinin immediately after the Ten Commandments.”
The Ramban also explains that civil laws are an expansion of the fundamentals of
interpersonal relations already mentioned — foremost among them,
“You shall not covet” (ibid. 20:13):
If a person does not know the law governing a house or a field or other
property, he will think that it is rightfully his and he will covet it and take
it for himself. Therefore he said to
Moshe, “Place before them just judgments that they may practice among
themselves, and thereby they will not covet what is not legally theirs.” (ibid)
Rashi also deals with the significance of beginning with a vav and
mentioning these laws next to the description of the Altar.
Whenever “and these” appears, it adds on to that which has been stated
previously. Just as the
above-mentioned were given at Sinai, so too, these commandments were given at
Why is the passage of dinin juxtaposed with the preceding passage of the
Altar? This tells you that you should
place the Sanhedrin adjacent to the Holy Temple.
The comments of the Ramban and Rashi express the centrality of mishpatim. As Rashi writes, all these laws were
given at Sinai; they are all divine, even the ones dealing with the societal
concerns of all nations. The judges
of the Sanhedrin sit in the Holy Temple, for the adjudication of civil law is as
holy as the Altar itself.
Furthermore, as the Ramban writes, “The entire Torah depends on mishpat.” Mishpat and mishpatim
are central to Judaism.
Meeting God on Earth
The laws of the Torah, dictated in the Written Law and defined and elaborated
upon in the Oral Law, are a means of applying God’s standards and bringing them
down to this world. The mishpatim,
which comprise the basis of the Jewish legal system, are the means of
translating the will of God into the everyday situations that arise. The judge, basing his decisions on
the mishpatim, is expressing God’s will as taught by the Torah. This idea is expressed clearly by Rav
Shemuel bar Nachmani:
Rav Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rav Yonatan: “Any judge that
renders a judgment that is absolutely true causes the Divine Presence to rest
upon Israel, as it is stated: ‘God stands in the divine assembly; and in the
midst of judges shall He judge’ (Tehillim 82:1). But any judge that renders a judgment
that is not absolutely true causes the Divine Presence to depart from Israel…” (Sanhedrin
God is present in assemblies that issue judgments in accordance with his laws. This carries with it tremendous
obligations for the judge.
And Rav Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rav Yonatan: “A judge should
always view himself as though a sword is resting between his thighs, and Gehenna
is open beneath him…”
In a number of contexts, the Ramban expresses this idea as well. He establishes that judges who
proceed in accordance with Godly mishpatim in fact represent a rendezvous
with eternity, where God actually takes part in the trial through the mouthpiece
of the judges.
The Ramban (ibid. v. 6) discusses why
the Torah refers to judges with the term “elohim”, a name usually
reserved for God himself. He begins
by quoting ibn Ezra:
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra says that judges are called “elohim” because they
uphold the laws of God in the land.
Simply stated, ibn Ezra seems to understand that judges act as agents of God in
administering His justice. While
this is already an audacious statement, the Ramban takes it one step further.
But in my opinion… this alludes to the fact that God is with the judges in
matters of justice. It is He Who really declares who is innocent and who is
The Ramban goes on to list a number of verses referring to God standing with the
judges and administering justice through the courts. In conclusion, he brings support for
this concept from Shemot Rabba (30:24):
When a judge sits and judges truthfully, the Holy One, Blessed be He, leaves the
highest heavens, as it were, and causes His Divine Presence to dwell alongside
The judges, according to the Ramban, in their knowledge of God and His
mishpatim, are worthy of God’s standing in judgment with them, as the verses
depict literally. In Devarim
(19:19), the Ramban explains that this is the reason why the law states that
conspiring witnesses found guilty after the defendant has already been punished
will not receive his punishment: God, Who sits with the judges, ensures that
they rule properly.
God would not allow the righteous judges, who stand before Him, to spill
innocent blood, for “the judgment is God’s” (Devarim 1:17)…
All this is testimony to the great
eminence of the judges of Israel and to the guarantee that the Holy One, Blessed
be He, agrees with them and is “with them in the matter of judgment”… for they
are indeed standing before God… and He leads the judges on the true path.
Love of Mishpatim,
Love of Justice, Love of Beit din
If the mishpatim are the expression of the wisdom and will of God, than
there are a number of practical ramifications.
Rashi (Devarim 4:9) indicates that the Torah’s warning against
forgetting the commandments is a warning against forgetting even a small element
of these laws; anyone who does so will be viewed as foolish by the nations,
rather than wise and discerning. For
the very reason that the interpersonal laws are bestowed by God, they require
precision in order for one to fulfill them properly.
Most importantly, a reverent view of the mishpatim translates into a
respectful view of the court, the beit din. The courtroom is not merely a place
for dealing with disputes, but a venue for seeing the brilliant view of God , as
voiced by the judges, regarding the interpersonal situation at hand. For this reason, the Torah explicitly
mentions that disputants must bring their case to beit din to determine
who is in the right and who is in the wrong:
When there will be a grievance between people, they shall come to the court, and
they will judge them; they will vindicate the righteous one and find the wicked
one guilty. (Devarim 25:1)
Moreover, based upon our approach, going to beit din is essentially
translating God’s will, as expressed in the Torah, into one’s everyday life. It is a means of coming “face to
face” with the divine will and being able to apply it to one’s life.
Practically speaking, one must find a beit din which is respected and
does their job as prescribed, upholding the Torah’s system of justice as
representatives of God on this earth.
Going to beit din is nothing less than seeking out God’s counsel
on the situation.
For this reason, both litigants should be happy to go to beit din, not in
order to fight, but in order to find the answer to the honest question: which
one is correct? They will both be
happy with the verdict, because their sole desire is to act in accordance with
the divine system of righteous laws, handed down from God.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 7a) even
cites a beautiful aphorism:
Yet another used to say: Let him who comes from a court that has taken from him
his cloak sing his song and go his way.
Said Shemuel to Rav Yehuda (Shemot 18:23): “This is alluded to in the
verse, “And all this people as well shall come to their place in peace.”
This is a saying expressed by an ordinary individual, but the great sage Shemuel
finds a Biblical source for it. It
means that even though the court ruled against him, removing his coat as payment
to the other party, the losing party should be happy that wrongly acquired
property has been removed from his possession.
Regrettably, people are not always so appreciative of the beit din. In his masterwork, Emuna
U-vitachon, the Chazon Ish spends two chapters (3-4) dealing at length with
issues of morality and character development.
He attempts to show how many people who express outward piety are in fact
fooling others, and sometimes even fooling themselves. The yardstick for identifying one
whose love for the Torah is pretense is whether he avoids litigation in beit
din. The Chazon Ish condemns
these individuals, who will do whatever they can to avoid having to present
their case in beit din, even when invited amicably to do so, as haters of
God’s law. At one point, he goes so
far as to refer to the individual who avoids going to the beit din as
“rotten to the core.” Though his
outward appearance and even his view of himself might be that of a Torah-loving
and Torah-living Jew, his unwillingness to go to the
beit din to settle a dispute is a sign
he has no interest in performing God’s will and does not really love God’s
Unfortunately, the view of the beit din
in the eyes of many is very negative.
While some of this may be the result of certain courts failing to uphold
the proper standard, the Chazon Ish presents a number of reasons why people
reject a beit din for seemingly noble reasons, which he dismisses as
excuses for those who do not really love the Torah.
To the dismay of the lovers of mishpatim, the situation has deteriorated
to the point that many view an invitation to a beit din as a threat, and
the party who wants to do so is often viewed as the instigator. Unfortunately, while sometimes there
may be ulterior motives, the Jewish approach to the process of mishpat
and din as realized between two practicing Jews has always to honor and
cherish it. The Chazon Ish’s
approach indicates that those who take an anti-beit din outlook under all
circumstance are nothing more than haters of the Torah; they have not studied
enough Torah to appreciate the law, and it is they who undermine the view of God
as expressed by the beit din.
Defining the Terms:
Chukkim and Mishpatim:
To conclude our discussion, a more exact definition of mishpatim will
serve us well. It is often
understood that the distinction between a mishpat and a chok is in
the taam (underlying reason, logic, purpose) of each type of mitzva. A chok has a reason unknown to
man; it may have no reason. A
mishpat, on the other hand, has a taam. However, this distinction seems
lacking and imprecise.
In fact, it seems that even chukkim have some message for us as well (see
Derashot HaRav, page 227), but if so what does it mean that they
lack a taam? The Sages do not
hesitate to give reasons for the para adumma (red heifer), despite
the verse’s calling it the quintessential “decree of the Torah” (Bamidbar
19:2). On the other hand, certain
mishpatim seem very difficult to comprehend.
For instance, the Ran, in his celebrated Derashot (Derush
11), explains that many laws in court aim to express the divine view of a
situation, even though extrajudicial measures will be necessary to ensure that
social justice is maintained. If so,
what does it mean when we differentiate between chukkim and mishpatim
based on whether the commandment has a taam or not?
Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz develops a rather novel interpretation of the distinction
between chukkim and mishpatim; it has far-reaching implications
for the manner of studying them. The
confusion, he explains, comes from the literal translation of taam as
reason. This is not exactly
accurate. The Talmud (Yevamot
23a) discusses the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, who expounds the taam of the
verse in a way at odds with the majority opinion.
The Talmud explains that Rabbi Shimon not only provides the rationale for
the laws; he defines the parameters of the mitzva based upon its taam. The taam, according to Rabbi
Shimon, is the defining factor of the mitzva, giving it its structure, with all
the halakhic ramifications the taam indicates.
Rav Berkowitz explains that this understanding of taam is also what lies
at the root of the distinction between chukkim and mishpatim. The question is not whether a mitzva
has a reason or not, but whether that reason affects the application of the law. A chok does not have a taam,
meaning it is an absolute rule.
Indubitably, it has a reason, but it does have a reason that can limit its
expression and parameters. A
mishpat, on the other hand, is the exact opposite: the definition of the
mishpat is the taam. The
very same act in one case will be a mitzva, and in another case, it will be
sinful. Being kind and considerate
of others by definition requires understanding whom one is dealing with: what
they need and how one can help. Any
attempt to create broad legal interpersonal demands is doomed to failure. The Torah seeks to inculcate the
proper principles; the variables of each situation will determine the exact
action. This is also reflected by
the view (see lesson #06) that interpersonal mitzvot are oriented towards
results, not actions; only an action that upholds the Torah’s principle is
In short, a mishpat is a principle and a chok is a rule. This allows us to explain Rashi’s
comment regarding the necessity of teaching the reasoning behind the
mishpatim; Rashi explains the Torah’s directive (Shemot 21:1) to
place the mishpatim “before them,” as an indication of how these
mishpatim should be taught:
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moshe: “Do not
think of saying, ‘I will teach them the chapter or the law two or three times
until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to
enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.’”
Therefore, it is said: “You
shall place before them,” like a table, set and
prepared to eat from, before the person.
The implications of this approach are far-reaching. It is insufficient to learn the laws,
even to memorize them; rather, one must develop an understanding of the taam
of each law, the principle behind it, by which every individual, every judge of
his fellow man, must live. In these
lessons, we are trying to develop an understanding of these principles.
It is these principles which should be
our guiding light in creating a society based on God’s system and code of
behavior. Hopefully, this community
will not need a beit din, as each person will infuse society with
Godliness. Certainly, this is why
the idea of mishpat is so complicated. It is not enough to know the
rules. One must learn how to apply them
and how to make judgment calls.
Moreover, one must be sensitized and transform oneself. One must also realize, at the same
time, that mishpatim are divine, absolute rights and wrongs, just like
chukkim. Mishpatim are
equally full of detail. It is not
enough to love one’s neighbor; one must learn the principles of how to do so,
and one must acquire the precision to apply them.