Rabbi Ari Enkin

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

No one should think for a moment that being a good Jew simply means that one must only observe all the ritual laws. Civil law is at least as important.

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18). The word “Mishpatim” means “judgments” or “civil law,” which is the theme of this week’s reading. Our sages actually classified the various commandments of the Torah into three different categories: [1] commandments that are relevant to our relationship with God (i.e. observing Shabbat and holidays), [2] commandments whose purpose and meaning is not readily understood (i.e. the prohibition against wearing a garment containing wool and linen), and [3] “Mishpatim” – civil law, laws that govern our relationship with others. (i.e. laws against murder, theft, and honesty in business.)

Many of our commentators note and ask: In last week’s Torah portion we read about the Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Why does the Torah portion that immediately follows the Ten Commandments contain the civil laws? The answer, our sages teach us, is that no one should think for a moment that being a good Jew simply means that one must only observe all the ritual laws. No! In order to be a good Jew one must observe all the civil and monetary laws, as well! Indeed, our sages continue: just like the Ten Commandments originate at Mount Sinai, all of the Torah’s commandments –including civil and monetary ones – originate at Mount Sinai, as well.

It is interesting to note that throughout the ages, the elementary Yeshiva school curriculum traditionally begins with studies in civil law. Rather than beginning by teaching children the first tractate of the Talmud – Tractate Berachot, which discusses the laws of prayer – students are introduced to Bava Metzia, the tractate which discusses civil law. In fact, more often than not, the first studies in Bava Metzia are from the chapter titled “Eilu Metziot,” which discusses the laws of returning lost objects. As the Mishna teaches, there are times when one is entitled to keep an object one finds, and there are times that one must make an effort to locate the true owner, such as when the object has identifying marks.

Returning to our original point: This is precisely why the Yeshiva educational system begins with “Bava Metzia” – so that young students should not think for a moment that being Jewish simply means strict adherence to ritual laws. Yes, one must observe Shabbat, keep kosher, and pray three times a day, but one must also –and equally so- observe the laws of civil and monetary law in order to ensure that we treat others the way God wants us to. You see, in Jewish Law, there is no such thing as “finders keepers, losers weepers.”

Shabbat Shalom from Israel!