April 8, 2024
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Where Were the Mishpatim Taught?

The fourth stop the Children of Israel made after leaving Egypt was Marah (Shemos 15:23, Bamidbar 33:8). “There (in Marah), [God] placed [before them] decrees and laws” (Shemos 15:25). Which “laws” were “placed” before them in Marah? Well, since our parsha starts with God telling Moshe “and these are the laws which you shall place before them” (21:1), followed by the civil laws, it would seem that the “laws” taught in Marah were the civil laws. And this is how most commentators (e.g. Rashi on 15:25, based on Seder Olam Zuta) and Midrashim (e.g. Sanhedrin 56b and Midrash HaGadol on Shemos 15:25) explain it. However, Rashi also tells us (Shemos 21:1 and 31:18) that the laws taught in our parsha were taught on Mt. Sinai, during Moshe’s first set of 40 days there. So which one was it? Were the civil laws taught in Marah, or on Mt. Sinai (which was seven stops later)?

[Adding to the confusion is that at Mt. Sinai, before those first 40 days, Moshe relayed the civil laws to the nation (24:3). But this was part of the preparation for agreeing to enter into a covenant with God, so “all the laws” that had already been given were included there, not just the civil laws, as a refresher about what the obligations under this covenant would be, based on what had already been commanded.]

When Rashi tells us that the laws in our parsha were taught at Sinai, he doesn’t provide the full context. All he shares is that the “vav” of “and these are” (21:1) teaches us that just as the previous laws were taught at Sinai, so too were these laws taught there. Rashi’s source is the Mechilta, which brings two opinions, Rav Yishmael and Rav Yehuda. (In Midrash HaGadol the order is reversed, first quoting Rav Yehuda—more extensively—then Rav Yishmael. Although Rav Yehuda’s opinion, as quoted there, is self-explanatory, I will explain Rav Yishmael the way Malbim does.) Both say that the “vav” teaches us that these laws were taught at Sinai, but they differ as to what we would have thought had there been no “vav.”

Rav Yehuda tells us that the civil laws taught in our parsha had already been taught in Marah. Because we might have thought they were only taught in Marah, the connecting “vav” teaches us that they were also taught at Sinai.

Rav Yishmael (see Zevachim 115b) is of the opinion that, generally speaking, only the general principles of the mitzvos were taught at Sinai; their full details were taught later, in the Mishkan. Therefore, if there was no connecting “vav,” we would have assumed that the detailed laws taught in Parshas Mishpatim were not taught at Sinai. Because of the connecting “vav,”we know that—like the previous laws—these were also taught at Sinai, and are an exception, with even their details taught there.

[From Rashi’s perspective, it didn’t really matter what we would have otherwise thought; he just wanted us to know that these laws were taught at Sinai. True, we know from Vayikra 25:1 that Rashi followed Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, that even the details of every mitzvah were taught at Sinai, so the connecting “vav” would only be needed to tell us that the civil laws were repeated at Sinai, not that for this mitzvah even the details were taught there. But Rashi’s point was made without getting into this dispute, since according to both opinions these laws were taught at Sinai. Why Rashi limits what was taught during Moshe’s first 40 days on Mt. Sinai is not clear; perhaps he was just excluding the details of the Mishkan, or perhaps he thought the details of the other mitzvos were taught during the third set of 40 days. Whether Rashi is consistent throughout his entire commentary is a matter of discussion. If he isn’t, he could just be quoting Toras Kohanim in his commentary on Vayikra 25:1, while avoiding getting involved in the dispute between Rav Yishmael and Rav Akiva in his commentary on Shemos 31:18, just as he avoided the dispute between Rav Yishmael and Rav Yehuda on Shemos 21:1.]

Our original question may have been answered—the civil laws were taught both in Marah and at Sinai—but not all of the laws taught in our parsha are civil laws. If, as Rav Yehuda posits, our parsha is a repetition of the laws taught in Marah, how are these other laws, which were taught only at Sinai—some interspersed within the civil laws (e.g. 22:27-30), others at the end, albeit without any break or demarcation (see 23:6-19)—included in this repetition? Although it could be suggested that our parsha only consists of the laws as they were taught at Sinai, the wording (“these are the laws that you shall place”) matching the wording at Marah (“there laws were placed”) precludes this. [As does the “hint” mentioned by Paanayach Raza—that the end-letters of the first three words of our parsha (“ואלה המשפטים אשר”) spell out “מרה.”] If our parsha consists of the laws as they were taught in Marah, how does it morph into the laws as they were taught at Sinai?

As I have previously alluded to, the Torah sometimes layers multiple messages within the same words. Included in this mechanism is layering multiple instances of something that occurred more than once within a single narrative or teaching. [Another example of this is Shemos 34:6-7, where first God called to Moshe and taught him His 13 attributes, and then Moshe called to God using His 13 attributes to ask for forgiveness for the nation’s sin, with both being portrayed within the same words; see page 2 of AishDas.org/ta/5766/kiSisa.pdf.] The civil laws were taught at Marah, which is how our parsha begins (adding the connecting “vav” so that we know they were taught at Sinai too). But as the laws themselves are taught, it isn’t only what was taught at Marah that is being communicated, but also—at the very same time, within the very same words—what was taught at Sinai. Therefore, the additional laws that were only taught at Sinai were included too, without any noticeable demarcation.


Rabbi Dov Kramer’s favorite parsha is Parshas Mishpatim. Not because he wishes he was a lawyer (although his K-12 teachers might disagree). Not even because it was his bar mitzvah parsha. But because the narrative at the end teaches us about the inner workings of our covenant with the Creator.

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