Ordinances, justice and sentences

Insights into “Word Concepts” in Torah on the Torah Portion of Mishpatim Exodus 21:1–24:18.

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism Words have power
Words have power
צילום: PR

We read in the Torah portion of Mishpatim the following;

And these are the ordinances ( Mishpatim)  that you shall set before them.( Exodus 21:1)

The Torah then relates a long description of ordinances and laws that would regulate the daily lives of the people. The text offers a stark contrast to the elevated and mysterious encounter of the people with G-d at the foot of Mount Sinai. It also represents a clear change from the sweeping and dramatic events related to their Exodus from Egypt.

What does this shift teach us?

Furthermore the word used for the “ordinances and laws” in the Hebrew text is "Mishpatim". That same Hebrew word is the term used for the word  "Justice " and for the Hebrew word for "sentence".

What connects these definitions and concepts and how does that understanding give us  insight to the dramatic change in the tone  of these Torah portions?

Throughout the Tanach see the use of the Hebrew word Mishpat as defining Justice . The Prophet Isaiah declares that at the end of days ;

 "Zion will be redeemed through mishpat (justice) and those who return to it through tzedaka (righteousness)." (1:27)

The Mispatim, then, are the ordinances by which we are intended to live our lives and thereby  establish true Divine Justice  .

Those commandments of the Torah that relate to our relationship with the Infinite Creator are a tool to reveal His impact and Presence in our reality.

The commandments of the Torah that relate to the relationship with each other, reveals the Divine  Presence in each and every one of His creations.

In that balance true Divine "Mishpat- Justice" in our world is revealed for all .

Yet, as we have noted, the word Mishpatim is also connected  to the Hebrew word for "Sentence( Mishpat)- ". What can we understand from that connection?

The revelation at Mount Sinai was so incredible and other-worldly, that it frightened the people.

"And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar."(Exodus 20:15)

In the book of Deuteronomy we hear of these fears;

“Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of Hashem our G-d any more, then we shall die..... You go near, and hear all that Hashem our G-d may say; and you shall speak unto us all that Hashem our    G-d may speak unto you; and we will hear it and do it.' " (Deuteronomy 5:21-23)

It is then that Hashem tells Moshe the following;   

 “And Hashem heard the voice of your words, when ye spoke unto me; and Hashem said unto me: 'I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee; they have well said all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me, and keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!"( ibid 24-25).



As a result in this week's Torah portion , Hashem moves from the ethereal and dramatic into the minutiae of His ordinances (Mishpatim) .

In describing these ordinances the verse begins with the letter Vav which in Hebrew always declares the word  "and".

Rashi explains that the words ” And these ( Ve-Eileh)” reveal much . He writes “Wherever it says, “these” (Eileh) it is used to separate from what has been stated previously. Yet where it says, “And these,-Ve-Eileh” it is adding to what has been previously stated (Tanchuma Mishpatim 3).



Rashi further explains that” just as what has been previously stated [namely the Ten Commandments,] were from Sinai, these too were from Sinai”. The classical understanding is that just as the commandments that G-d revealed with the ten declarations at Mount Sinai were to be a revelation of G-d in this world, the same would be true of these statutes and ordinances.

The connection of the word Mishpat ( Ordinances) to the Hebrew word Mishpatfor “sentence” is revealing.  It teaches  us that the walk of obedience with G-d's will and His commandments  form the "sentences" of our lives. It frames and defines the narrative of our existence.

The Mishpatim ( Ordinances) of Hashem become the Mishpatim ( Sentences)  of our life narrative. We are commanded in these Mishaptim to  develop life that is focused on  caring for others and about deepening  our relationship with the Creator .

That is the essence of the first word in our Torah portion,”Ve-Eileh”. Just as the commandments that G-d revealed with the Ten Declarations at mount Sinai were to be a revelation of G-d in this world, the same would be true of these statutes and ordinances .

On Mount Sinai Hashem spoke to us. In our lives we become His speech.

LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther