This past week’s parashah, Mishpatim, contains many of the Torah’s monetary laws. It begins with a verse that seems to be a mere introductory statement (Shemos [Exodus] 21:1), “And these are the laws that you shall place before them.” However, despite its inconspicuous appearance, the language of this passuk in fact hints to three fundamental principles of Jewish civil law.
- The verse begins with the word “Ve’eileh,” which, due to the letter vav added as a prefix, literally means “and these,” connoting a connection between the following laws (the mishpatim – civil laws) and the laws stated above (the Ten Commandments). As Rashi points out (based on the Mechilta), this is intended to emphasize to us that just as the Ten Commandment were transmitted at Sinai, so too were the mishpatim. In other words, even the “civil laws” of the Torah were given by God; they were not man-made.
- In this passuk Hashem tells Moshe to “place” these laws in front of the Jewish people. Why was Moshe not commanded to “tell” or “teach” the nation the mishpatim? What does it mean to “place” laws in front of someone? Rashi explains (based on Eruvin 54b) that it would not be sufficient to merely “teach” the mishpatim to the people. Rather, he must put in effort to carefully explain the underlying rationale of these mitzvos in order that everyone will understand their correct applications and relation to each other. Monetary law in particular needs to be applied very carefully, for any mistake will take money away from its rightful owner and place it, unfairly, in the hands of another. Thus, just as one sets a table and puts every utensil in its proper location, so to Moshe was required to carefully “place” these laws in front of the Jewish people.
- The passuk ends with the word “lifneihem,” “before them,” implying that these laws are to be placed before a specific group of individuals, to the exclusion of others. Tosfos (Gittin 88b) explains that the individuals referred are qualified Jewish judges, and thus, as the Gemara explains (id.) Jews may not have their matters adjudicated before non-Jewish courts, even if they will apply the same law as Jewish courts (see Rashi, Shemos 21:1).
These three ideas are as significant today as they were when the Torah was written. Particularly in a country such as America, whose legal system prides itself on being fair and just, Jews must realize that despite any similarity to monetary halacha, secular civil laws and courts cannot be utilized to resolve disputes between two Jewish litigants. Instead, we must understand that even the “civil laws” of the Torah are God-given, and we must put in every effort to carefully comprehend and correctly apply them.