"These are the Laws that You Shall Before Them"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"These are the Laws that You Shall Place before Them"

Summarized by Ramon Widmonte


"For six days you shall perform your works, and on the seventh day, you shall stop; in order that your ox and donkey will rest, and the son of your maidservant and the stranger will be refreshed." (Shemot 23:12)

This verse is astounding. If we understand the Hebrew word "lema'an" in its plain sense, "in order that" - meaning that the sole purpose of resting on Shabbat is to give a refreshing break to animals and workers - then we are forced to ask ourselves: where is the Shabbat that is so dear to our hearts? Where is the uplifting and uplifted Shabbat? Where is the Shabbat mentioned at the end of the first chapter of Bereishit? Where is the Shabbat mentioned in the Ten Commandments: "You shall do no work, YOU, your son, your daughter..." (Shemot 20:10)?

We can suggest a different explanation of the word "lema'an." It doesn't mean that the ONLY reason for Shabbat is so that your ox and the son of the maidservant will rest, but rather that one of the results of the Shabbat will be that one's workforce will get a chance to recuperate from the week's toil.

The Ramban, however, does not explain the verse thus; he sides with the former interpretation of "lema'an," bringing back all of our unanswered questions.

We must therefore answer that there are indeed two separate facets to the Shabbat. There is the one with which we are most familiar - the spiritualising, uplifting, elevating aspect; and on the other hand, there is the aspect which we encounter here - absolute immobility, passivity and lack of action.

In light of the terrible disaster which struck Am Yisrael this week, it is perhaps difficult for us to sense the first aspect of Shabbat - to be uplifted and sanctified. [This sicha was delivered in the aftermath of the collision of two military helicopters over northern Israel, during which 73 soldiers, may their memory be blessed, lost their lives.] However, the second aspect of Shabbat remains, and perhaps the total immobility to which it gives rise can afford us is a good opportunity to assess our mission and purpose, as both Yeshiva students and soldiers, in the current Israeli and world context.

Our parasha begins with the verse, "And these are the laws that you shall place before THEM" (Shemot 21:1) - before whom? The Ramban here cites two different interpretations of this verse (based on Gittin 88b), both of which assume that the word "them" refers to judges, to the exclusion of another group:

1) "'These are the laws that you shall put before them' - [the phrase] 'before them' [implies that you shall put the laws] before them and not before gentiles."

2) "'These are the laws that you shall put before them' - [the phrase] 'before them' [implies that you shall put the laws] before them and not before a non-ordained judge."

The first interpretation is the source of the law that a gentile judge may not judge a Jew. The second interpretation is the source of the law that an non-ordained Jew may not judge his fellows. Thus, in both cases the verse is understood to mean that Moshe is to place a body of law before a specific group of judges who are to use them to judge Am Yisrael.

The Ramban explains that even though both interpretations exclude certain people from eligibility as judges, there is a difference between the two exclusions. If two Jews decide to accept the judgement of a third non-ordained Jew, they are permitted to do so, and his judgement is valid. However, they cannot accept upon themselves a gentile judge, even if the ruling would be exactly the same as a Jewish court. [See Rashi on this verse.]

Let us try to understand these two interpretations of the verse and the Ramban's comment on them.

1) "Before them - and not before gentiles."

The Ramban (Shemot 21:1 s.v. ve-eileh) writes that all the laws following the Ten Commandments are in fact expansions thereof; the Ten Commandments are a sort of synopsis, and afterwards (mainly in our parasha) we see each commandment expanded and explained. According to his theory, the laws in parashat Mishpatim are an expansion of the tenth commandment, "Thou shalt not covet." The Torah needed to delineate the laws of property ownership, torts and other monetary matters so that we will know what is ours, and will not covet that which isn't ours.

The idea behind this is clear. Even the social laws found in our parasha, which seem to resemble the basic practical laws governing any civilization, are in actuality a direct extension of the experience of Sinai. So much so, that the final covenant between God and Am Yisrael is made only in our parasha (Shemot 24) in the midst of all these social laws, and not in Parashat Yitro, in the midst of the pomp and splendor of Har Sinai.

The Torah, at some level, is thus seen as above and beyond mere practical, social law. Therefore, if a gentile judge were to render a judgement - even one based on moral or practical reasoning - it would not be on the level of a Torah judgement, and thus would lack that qualitative dimension required for a judgement to bind a Jew: the element of Sinai.

2) "Before them - and not before an non-ordained judge."

Here we find a slightly different focus. The gemara (Sanhedrin 7b) asks:

"'[These are the laws] that you shall place before them' - [Why does the verse say, 'That you shall PLACE before them?'] It should say, 'that you shall TEACH them!'

Rabbi Yirmiya said (some say it was Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba): This [i.e. the phrase 'you shall PLACE'] refers to the accoutrements of the judges.

When Rabbi Huna would go to judge a case, he would say: Bring me the vessels of my trade - a staff, a whip, a shofar and a sandal..."


According to Rabbi Yirmiya, the verb "PLACE" refers to the means by which judgements, and particularly punishments, are enforced. The staff and the whip are used for lashing, and Rashi (ibid.) explains that the shofar was used to excommunicate people while the sandal was used in the yibbum ritual (refusal to perform levirate marriage). Rabbi Yirmiya and Rav Huna reflect a very assertive understanding of the law. "You shall PLACE before them" - by force if necessary. The law is something above the people, to be handed down without question to them. It is to be "PLACED" upon them. The law comes before the people arrayed as a staff, whip, shofar and sandal, and the people accept it meekly.

This, then, is why a non-ordained person may not judge: he is not empowered with the coercive aspect of the law. He cannot come before the litigants arrayed in all this splendour; he lacks the authority.

There are, however, other, dissenting interpretations of this verse. Rashi on this verse quotes a beautiful midrash from the Mekhilta. He states,

"'These are the laws that you shall place before them:' God said to Moshe, Do not even think that you can say, 'I will teach them the chapter and the law two or three times until they know it by heart and I need not bother myself to teach them the reasons of the thing and its explanation.' This is why it says, 'place BEFORE THEM' - [the law should be as] a table arranged and set, ready for eating, before a human being."

This interpretation sees the law not as a yoke imposed unwillingly from above, but as the inheritance of every person. God, in all His glory, warns Moshe lest he entertain some warped idea of the law, lest he think to himself, "'Moshe received the Torah from Sinai' (Avot 1:1) - so it is MY torah, my own private fiefdom. 'And he [Moshe] transmitted it to the Yehoshua...' (ibid.), so the Torah must be the property of the judges, of the elite; what have these rabble to do with it?" Unlike other religions, where the spiritual is the legacy of the few, in Judaism it is the legacy of the many.

The above-mentioned gemara (Sanhedrin 7b) expresses similar sentiment (see aShemot Rabba 30:2):

"'And these are the laws...' Rabbi Elazar said, Whence do we know that a judge should not step on the heads of the holy people? [We learn this from the fact that the verse] 'You shall not ascend steps to My altar' (Shemot 20:23) is juxtaposed with [the verse], 'And these are the laws which you shall place before them.'"

The idea here is very clear - woe to the judge who believes that he is doing God's will by dispensing a law which "steps on the heads" of the common man. No person may approach God's altar, no person may serve God by ascending above other people, and viewing himself as superior.

Thus, we learn two opposing ideas from this verse. We learn of the forceful aspect of the law, the facet that brooks no opposition, that "levels the mountain." On the other hand, from the self-same verse we learn that the law is the domain of the people as well; they do not merely wait, hat in hand, for the law to descend upon them as a yoke, but rather, they are to take an active, equal part in its formulation and interpretation. Furthermore, no judge may ever trample upon them, as human beings, even when there is a need for the coercive side of the law to take its place. Why are both of these messages presented? Obviously, because both are necessary, and more importantly, a balance is needed between them.

From all that we have said above, we may also gain some insight into our own place in society.

Firstly, we are to uphold the simple, mundane, "practical" laws of society with the consciousness that we were commanded at Sinai to do so; the most utilitarian-seeming law is as binding, and should be upheld with as much fervour, as Shabbat - were not both stamped with the mark of Sinai? Moreover, woe to us if, as bearers of the ideals, of the law, we view ourselves as aloof and separate from the "holy people." Let us not step upon their heads in the zeal of self-righteousness, and let us remember that it is our duty to "place the laws before them," to present them with the Torah, as it was placed before us, as a table, ready and set from which to partake.

(Delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim 5757 [1997].)


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