Parshat Mishpatim – “Ready-to-Eat” Judaism

Over the past few weeks, the Torah portions focused on God punishing Egypt with a series of horrifying plagues, leading to the recalcitrant Pharaoh’s release of B’nai Yisrael. After he changes his mind again, B’nai Yisrael find themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s chariots and the Reed Sea. Then God, with the assistance of Moses, parts the Reed Sea. B’nai Yisrael pass through and the chariots, mired in the muck, are drowned as the sea crashes back in on them. Less than two months later, with B’nai Yisrael camped around Mount Sinai, God comes down and reveals the Ten Utterances (or Commandments, if you prefer). A masterful narrative about the power of God, the potential arrogance of human kings and the beginning of a covenant that exists up to today and forever. Then the Torah’s style completely changes.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is almost nothing but a list of case laws that read like a legal textbook, which essentially is what it is. The laws in Mishpatim cover a wide range of domains, including slavery, interpersonal ethics, property, capital punishment, ritual law, and the treatment of the powerless in society. One puzzling thing is the verse that begins this week’s Torah portion:

“And these are the rules that you shall set before them.” (Shemot 21:1)

This verse seems innocent enough. One could read it as a brief introduction to this set of laws. Many rabbinic commentators understand that the “And” at the beginning of the verse links the revelation on Mount Sinai to the laws that follow. It could just be a literary technique to help the reader/listener shift from one genre of literature to the next. Rashi, the great French Torah commentator, thinks it is more:

 The Holy One told Moses: Do not think, “I will simply repeat the rules two or three times until they have them memorized, and not trouble myself to explain the reasons for them,” You must set the rules before them as one sets a table: ready to eat.

Imagine God and Moses on Mount Sinai, and God is about the give Moses all of the laws. Before God does that, God takes a moment to explain to Moses what he needs to do with these laws. He cannot simply post them on the outside of his tent, or read them aloud in public a few times. Rote learning of these laws alone will not be enough to help B’nai Yisrael live up to their end of the newly formed covenant. In this one verse, according to Rashi, God tells Moses how to teach the people so that they can live up to these laws and practices and do them. In short, this is a lesson in education using the metaphor comparing teaching to setting a table with food ready to eat.

What is the process by which one prepares a meal and sets the table? One needs to know how many people are coming, their ages, their food preferences, their list of foods they avoid due to principle or allergy, and how much they might want to eat. One must find recipes, make lists, go shopping, prepare and cook all the dishes and then lay them on the table attractively. You would never have a dinner party where once the guests have arrived, simply announce that everyone is welcome to look around the kitchen and make themselves dinner. Knowing about ingredients, equipment and technique can never substitute for actual culinary skill.

Teaching Torah involves a similar process. One needs to know who the learners are, what their background is, what they like to do, how they speak and relate to each other, how open they are to learning, and, most importantly, how to make the learning appealing to them. How “hungry” are they? Is this “foreign food” to them, or is this “comfort food”? This process is the sacred task of all those who teach Torah: rabbis, cantors, educators and parents, and anyone who has Torah to teach (which could be almost anyone). In the educational word, this is called Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK for short), and it is the ability to take a body of knowledge and skills and to transmit it effectively to a particular learner. Effective teaching is being a bridge between a body of knowledge and the learner. If you do not know how to connect those two appropriately, the learning will be difficult if not impossible. God invites Moses to become a teacher who can serve as the bridge between the Torah and Israel. Any one who strives to be that kind of teacher is emulating nothing less than the way that God taught Moses who taught B’nai Yisrael.

As a family:

  • Plan your weekly family menu together as family, including finding recipes, doing the shopping, and as much of the preparation and cooking as is appropriate. It’s good to show our children the complexities of feeding your family well, and to involve them in the process.
  • Take a look at some of the laws in this week’s Torah portion in the questions below. Imagine that you are the judge in these cases. How would you rule in those cases? What questions might you ask about those cases to make a better decision? How do your decisions compare wit those in the Torah portion?


  1. How many years was a Hebrew slave (better: servant) required to serve and when did he go free?
  2. If the slave did not want to go free, what were the two things the master was to do?
  3. What was the penalty for a man who hit or cursed either his mother or father?
  4. If two men got into a fight, and one was hurt so badly that he had to stay in bed, but recovered later, what was the penalty for the one who hurt him?
  5. If a man hit his male or female slave and the result was a lost tooth or eye, what was the penalty?
  6. If an ox gored a person to death, what was the penalty for the owner? What if the owner had been warned that the ox had gored in the past and the owner had let the ox loose?
  7. If a man stole an ox or a sheep, killed it, or sold it, what did he have to pay (if he was caught)?
  8. What was the penalty for a person who stole an ox, an ass, or a sheep, and was caught with it alive?
  9. If a person treated a widow or fatherless child badly, and they cried out to God, what would God do to the persecutor?
  10. If you lend someone money, and take their (only) garment as a pledge, by when must the garment be returned and why?