The Rabbi's Study

Construction of a Narrative of Laws

When I was in rabbinical school, I was tasked with engaging in an intensive study not unlike a master’s thesis. My offering was titled When Genres Collide: Literature as Law, Law as Literature. The basic premise of the piece was an analysis of selections from two Talmudic anthologies: Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi‘s (the Rif) Sefer HaHalakhot, the Book of Laws, and Rabbi Yaakov ibn Habib‘s Ein Yaakov, the Wellspring of Yaakov. The goal of the Rif was to codify all practical law from the Talmud, excising all folklore and any laws relevant exclusively to the Land of Israel (i.e., sacrificial laws, agricultural laws, et al). Ibn Habib’s goal was essentially the opposite, to anthologize all of the folklore throughout the Talmud, excising all legal literature. Theoretically, one should be able to rejoin the two texts and have the a rehabilitated text of the Talmud (minus the laws the Rif removed, obviously); however, that is not the case. There are texts which both rabbis included in their works! This means that there is Talmudic literature which the Rif interprets as law, but Ibn Habib interprets as folklore – the purpose of my work was to analyze the texts which appear in both.

Throughout the Talmud, a pattern emerges wherein folklore comes in relationship to law; oftentimes a folklore seemingly comes to help the reader understand the law practically applied, and the benefits and challenges inherent in the law. This tradition of juxtaposing law and lore does not begin in the Talmud. There are some scholars today who are analyzing individual chapters of Mishnah as a narrative unit. One could claim that the main theme of the Prophetic literature is a critique of law through metaphor. Mary Douglas’ Leviticus as Literature is, in my opinion, one of the most important contributions to biblical studies in academic history. And in Parashat Mishpatim we have what seems to be the beginning of legal literature in the Torah, the foundation of Jewish civil law, however within this Torah is a distinct narrative, and the end of the parsha brings us back into the narrative of Sinai, the narrative of revelation and redemption. The Talmud’s juxtaposing law and lore is merely a continuation of a cultural norm established in the text of the Torah itself!

When looking at Parashat Mishpatim from a view from atop the mountain (see what I did there?) a deeper narrative emerges. Much discussion from the commentators and academics has linked Parashat Mishpatim to the Sinai narrative, so I don’t want to spend any time on that specifically. What interests me here is, through an analysis of the laws presented, and understanding its place in the Book of Exodus as sandwiched between the revelation and the incident of the golden calf, we see a narrative constructed from within the arrangement of the laws.

Now, I am personally of the opinion that the first Torah commentary was endeavored by the scribal tradition; that we actually are treated to an exquisite commentary of the Torah through its physical shape on the parchment! This comes in the form the rare occurrences of large letters, small letters, dots over letters, backwards letters, broken letters, but most often this comes in the form of the most basic structure of what a scribed Torah looks like, the ste’umah and piska.

The piska ends a line, and a new line begins below; the ste’umah ends of verse, and the next verse continues on the same line. This essentially divides the text of the Torah into units – text between two piska’ot are an individual unit, ste’umot divide ideas within that unit.

When looking at Parashat Mishpatim through this lens, we see three distinct categories of law followed up by two distinct elements of narrative.

Let’s look…

The first section between two piska’ot brings us from Exodus 21:1-27. Beginning with laws of indentured servants, the text moves through laws of capital punishment, and laws of damages to physical bodies. What do these have in common? They’re about human beings, and we can call this category kavod la’adam – laws focusing on respecting humanity.

The next section between two piska’ot is verses 21:28-22:12. Here we encounter laws of goring oxen, laws of property damage, and laws of misappropriation. These laws are all about property, and we can call this category kavod l’rekhush – laws focusing on respecting property.

In 22:12-23 we see seemingly disparate laws, but there is a connection between the lines. We have laws of hiring livestock, bride prices, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, and protecting the widow and orphan. So what is the connection? These are all about misuse of property by humans, or misuse of humans as property. A perfect mix of kavod la’adam and kavod l’rekhush.

Regarding 22:23-23:19, we have laws of lending, laws of cursing, shabbat, kashrut, perjury, restoring lost property, not to oppress immigrants, the laws of agricultural remission, and holidays. These are laws about human relationships vis a vis God, so we could call these a mix of kavod la’adam and kavod la’makom – respecting the divine. We are, in essence, implicitly taught that the beginning of respecting humanity is respecting God, and vice versa!

Following this, we have a very interesting (and quite strange) narrative about a divine messenger that God is assigning to guide the people through the wilderness and into the land. After that piska, we have the equally interesting (and equally strange) narrative of Moshe being invited up the mountain with the priests and elders where they offer sacrifices and see the “footstool of God” appearing to them as sapphire as if it is the purest of the heavens. After that, Moshe is left alone and he enters the cloud to receive the tablets, and he stays there forty days and forty nights.

So what’s the bigger story here? God’s revelation commands us to be aware of how our actions impact our relationships. Revelation is a product of redemption, redemption is dependent upon equity. If (and that’s a big if) we figure out how to treat one another well, without the hierarchy of servitude and oppression, then we come to experience divine revelation, and that divine revelation is a call to treat one another well, because we are treated well by God and we are to reciprocate both in our relationship to the divine and to humanity.

Parashat Mishpatim is a lesson in how our actions bring us together as humans and bring us together with the Holy One – but if we don’t…. Well, you know how the rest of the story goes.


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