The religious side of civil law

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By Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz

Special to WJW


This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18.

Parshat Mishpatim seems to mark a transition in the Torah. Whereas up to this point the Torah has followed a narrative arc — with certain ritual laws interspersed — Parshat Mishpatim is best described as a legal text focused on civil laws. However, it is wrong to see it as a break from that which comes before it.

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Rashi notes that the parshah opens with the phrase “ve-eleh ha-mishpatim” (“and these are the statutes”). He explains that the conjunctive “vav” shows that the Torah’s list of statutes is actually a continuation of the previous topic addressed in the Torah at the end of Parshat Yitro.

After describing the revelation at Sinai, Parshat Yitro concludes with a list of requirements for the altar. Rashi says that the vav teaches that just as the Ten Commandments and requirements of the altar were given at Sinai, so were the statutes of civil law listed in Mishpatim. He further explains that there is an important lesson to be learned in the fact that the section of laws and statutes immediately follows the description of the altar: “Why was the section of laws juxtaposed to that of the altar? To teach that the Sanhedrin should be located next to the Temple.”


Rabbi Avishai David, based on the teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik, expands on this idea. He writes that many of the laws listed in our parshah are technical laws of business and commerce — how to effect a kinyan (acquisition of property) or how to properly write a business contract.

“These monetary issues,” he writes, “have no place in a moral code. The conclusion, then, is that civil laws carry religious significance. Destruction of property and trespassing are not merely violations of civil law but moral transgressions.”

The point that emerges is that we cannot distinguish between civil, commercial and religious law. Everything is connected and is all part of our general religious outlook. Our relationship to money, business dealings and civil law greatly informs and influences our religious and spiritual well-being.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that this Shabbat also marks Shabbat Shekalim, where we read a special maftir describing the requirement of every Jewish male to bring a half-shekel. The half-shekel served as both an atonement and a way for Moshe to take a census of the people. In the Temple, the half-shekel contribution funded the communal offerings that were brought as part of the Temple service.

The question is often asked: Why did Hashem command us to contribute a half-shekel and not a full shekel?

One beautiful explanation is that one can never fulfill one’s obligations only with monetary contributions; it is too often the case that people think they can fulfill their obligations of tzedakah and contributions to the community by writing a check.

A corollary to this explanation is that the half-shekel serves as a powerful reminder that our relationship to money is part of our total religious experience and outlook. If we focus only on our money and business transactions without considering how these dealings affect us as religious people, then we are missing the point.

At the same time, we would be remiss to think that we can be good Jews without considering our business conduct and how we use our money in the service of God.

Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz leads Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore. 

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