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Have you ever given the “shirt off your back” to someone? The Torah teaches us that this type of self-sacrifice is what it takes to make a marriage strong!

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Mishpatim” (Exodus 21:1-24:8) and it is packed with one mitzvah after the other. Over 50 mitzvot, in fact. This means that about 10% of all the mitzvot of the Torah are found in this week’s reading alone!

Some of the first mitzvot in the reading are the laws related to owning a slave. Among the rules and regulations surrounding the acquisition and release of a slave, the Torah writes: “im b’gapo yavo b’gapo yeitzei” [Ex 21:3]. This would be translated as “if he came to you ‘b’gapo’ then he leaves ‘b’gapo.’” The word “b’gapo” is a very irregular and ambiguous term. Even a native Israeli wouldn’t be sure how to translate it!

So what does “b’gapo” mean? What is the Torah telling us?

The commentators, and most English translations of the Torah, translate “b’gapo” as “single” (as in “unmarried”). Hence, the verse should be read “if he came to you single then he leaves single.” This makes perfect sense as the verse continues “if he is married [when he comes to you] then his wife goes out with him.”

The question is asked. Although we have successfully determined that “b’gapo” means “single” why does the Torah use such an odd word? The word for “single” is “ravak” or “bachur”. The word “b’gapo” is not used anywhere! What is the connection between “b’gapo” and “single”?

It is noted that the word “b’gapo” is suspiciously similar to the word “b’knafo” which means “his garment” or in modern idiom: “the shirt off his back”. With this in mind, perhaps the verse can be read as “if he came to you with just the shirt on his back then he leaves with just the shirt on his back.”

Indeed, it works. “single” and just “the shirt on his back” seem to be interchangeable. What is the connection between a shirt/garment and being single?

It is explained that a single person need not worry about anyone other than himself. He merely worries about the “shirt” on his own back. He need not worry about, nor is he responsible for, anyone else in the world. He is his own unit. Period.

One who is married, however, must worry about “the shirt” of others. He must worry about his wife, and possibly, kids, as well. A married man has responsibilities and obligations. He must worry about others as much as he worries about himself. He cannot be selfish and self-centered. He is not his own unit.

This is why there is a somewhat widespread custom for a groom to spread a garment over his bride at a Jewish wedding. A prayer shawl (tallit) is usually used for this purpose. It is for the groom to demonstrate and declare that he is going to take care of his wife just like he takes care of himself. (See Ruth 3:9 as the likely source for this custom.)

Furthermore, a Jewish marriage contract, the Ketuba, has a clause that says that the groom “promises to care for his wife even if it means taking the shirt off his back!” (You see, we invented the idiom!)

Attention husbands! Perhaps this week’s Torah portion is a mini refresher to teach us that we must care for our wives equally or more than we care for ourselves. If even a slave is expected to do so, then how much more so are we!

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah reading, click on the links below.