Parashat Mishpatim--Exodus 21:1-24:18
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Questions for Young Children

• What rules do your parents make for you?
• Why do moms and dads make rules?
• What’s a good rule your mom and dad made for you?
• What’s one rule God gives in this parasha that helps other people?

Questions for Older Children
• Why is it a good idea to have rules?
• What do you imagine would happen if there were no laws or rules?
• Why do you think God gives B’nei Yisrael so many rules so soon after freeing them from slavery?
• God talks about punishment for a crime by saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” What do you think God means by this?

Questions for Teens and Adults
• Scan the laws in this parasha—what types of laws are here? Any surprises for you?
• Do Jews still follow all the commandments in this parasha as they are written in the parasha? (If you need help with this question, take a look at the commentary).
• How do you understand the punishment in Exodus 21:24—an eye for an eye? Do you think it’s meant to be literal? Are there any countries you can name where this is carried out literally?
• Do you think society would function better with fewer laws? More laws?

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Create an auditory meal

This parasha includes some interesting conjunctions between ears and hearing.  There's a commandment in Exodus 21:5-6 to pierce the ear of a slave with an awl if the slave declares he doesn't want to be released after his maximum six year term of service.  Contrast this with the Israelites' response "We will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:7b) and the beginning of the verse:  He [Moshe] read it [Book of the Covenant] in the ears of the people."  Usually the text is translated less literally as "he read it aloud." A mean with distinctive crunch can evoke a discussion over some of the issues the commentators raise.  Why pierce the ear of the slave and not use some other symbol of lifetime servitude?  Why do the Israelites respond "we will do and we will hear" in that order?  Why was it important to read the Book of the Covenant aloud to all the people? 

Create an alternative Mishmish dish

If you jump into Purim baking early, you could bake Aznei Haman--Haman' ears in Hebrew, hamentaschen in Yiddish, with apricot filling to prompt your discussion.  I've included a Mishmish (Apricot)-Chocolate Bar recipe under the dessert tab of the recipe section on the website.  Despite the long list of directions, it's a very simple bar recipe and will please all who believe if it's not chocolate, it's not dessert.

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Following Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Commandments) in Parashat Yitro is a barrage of laws of all stripes in Mishpatim. The first law mentioned concerns the treatment of slaves. Maybe that’s to grab the interest of the former slaves who are listening. When analyzing Aseret haDibrot, we can break up the commandments into groups and generate midrashim based on the ordering of Aseret haDibrot. A question that always occurs to me when reading this parasha is how are laws organized? They cover a miscellany of topics. Some examples include a law about proper behavior toward judges, creating a sabbatical year for crops, and the institution of new holidays. There are also laws that promote business ethics and family purity. The injunction not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk sets the stage for a discussion of kashrut. Fortunately, Yosef Caro created a Shulhan Arukh (ca. 1565) that organizes the laws and he had to work with the 613 Biblical mitzvot as well as the rabbinic literature. He was the original West Law.  

Find the food connection

וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, לִפְנֵיהֶם

These are the laws which you will set before them.
--Exodus 21:1

Mishmish! (apricots)
This is a pun on the Hebrew word Mishpatim and a stretch. You may have a recipe with a clearer connection to laws and legal codes. Attorney turnovers anyone?

In honor of the shnei luhot habrit (the two tablets of the covenant), you'll find a second mishmish(apricot) dessert recipe with chocolate in the recipe section of the website.


The Side Dish

A few months ago my son mentioned to me that most of his bunkmates from Camp Ramah are attorneys as is he. Aside from the fact that we cultivate discussion aka argument in our homes and classrooms, I think there are deeper reasons that Jews have such respect for the law and feel comfortable navigating its complexities. As parents we know that much as our children balk at rules, they also appreciate limits and feel most comfortable when they know the rules. We don't expect our children to guess how they should behave.  We tell them and we model the behavior we want to see.

In Mishpatim, it’s clear that God isn’t taking any chances B’nei Yisrael will intuit the right way to behave. God clearly believes in the power of being explicit. These laws were first heard by B'nei Yisrael accompanied by the theophany, God's revelation of God's self. This is the time to deploy the adjective, "Awesome." Although we are removed by many generations from Sinai, midrash reminds us we were all there, we're all a part of the brit (covenant). From our 5777 (2017) eyes, some of the laws seem reasonable for all times like "You shall not subvery the rights of the needy in their disputes (Exodus 23:6).  Some laws are easily understood in context like "When a man ioens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or ass falls into it, tjhe opne responsible for the pit must make restitution...(Exodus 21:33-34).  Few of us are own an ox or ass or dig pits, but we understand shoveling a sidewalk so no one slips in front of our homes or building a fence around a swimming pool to protect neighbors and pets.  But there are some troublesome verses.  The oral tradition doesn't turn away from those disturbing laws and those discussions to me are the most revealing about Jewish values and ethics.

A verse that is particularly ripe for discussion is Exodus 21:24--- “An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

This very ancient law was also part of Hammurabi's Code (law 196 and law 200). Interesting historical parallels aside, many would like to skip over this verse. Some literalists point Exodus 21:24 to indicate the primitive nature of the Bible. Rabbinic interpretation has understood this verse to be about just compensation for damages. One of the joys of discussing Torah at the family table is watching your children develop a sense of metaphor and symbolism as they mature from literal readers to sophisticated readers. A verse like this can hasten that growth through discussion.  A moment that always draws a big laugh in the musical RoFiddler on the Rooffollows Tevye's dialogue with another man that goes like this:

FIRST MAN: "We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
TEVYE: "Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless." 

The humor, of course, comes from Tevye's ostensibly arguing on the literal level but in reality challenging the literalness of the law.  The rabbis' approach was to understand the underlying principle -- fair compensation. You can debate at your own table and then examine the rabbis' discussion which is found in Baba Kamma 8 ( This law is frequently referred to as the talionic law (lex talionis in Latin). My thoughts often wander to contemporary governments that still carry out this kind of measure for measure punishment--when will they develop a less literal rule of fair compensation for damages? 

Although there are those who feel with Parashat Mishpatim we're entering the story drought and the less interesting sections of the Torah, I've always found law codes fascinating.  Laws open a window onto civilizations. Laws tell us volumes about a society.  Laws expose a people's fears and reveal their values. From the mix of laws in this parasha emerges the portrait of hope that once in Eretz Yisrael a society will emerge that sets aside time for holy-days and Shabbat, practices compassion towards the powerless, renders just and fair judgements to all, caretakes the emvironment, and keeps themselves apart from abhorrent practices of the neighboring tribes. What other hopes do you see embedded in the laws?  And, it's a good week to skip the lawyer jokes.




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A Big Dash of Halakha
As society changes, what happens to laws? In our American system, the legislative branch can change the law with relative ease by voting. But what if the Legislator is God as in Parashat Mishpatim? This might be an evening to discuss the Sanhedrin and the rabbinic process of addressing those issues from the time of the Exodus to today. Today the Conservative Movement includes a Law Committee that wrestles with contemporary issues. For more information on the Law Committee, see For a more extensive look at the process of halakha, see Joel Roth’s book, The Halakhic Process: A Systematic Analysis.

A Dash of Scholarship

Yehezkel Kaufmann(1889-1963), renowned professor of Bible at the Hebrew University,  asked the question in The Religion of Israel, what was so unique about the Israelites' law codes.  Here's a section from his work that includes both his question and response.

"The cultures which teh Israleite tribes had absorbed and out of which they had emerged had highly developed notions of law and morality. What innovation was it, centuries after Hammurabi, to ban murder, theft, adultery or false witness?  The Bible itself recognizes the existernce of a universal moral law from primeval times, to which alCrel men are subject...What point was there to YHWH's giving such ancient and elementary commands to Israel in an awful theophany at Sinai?  The novelty was in the very giving.  For the first time morality was represented as a prophetic revelation, an expression of the supreme moral will of God...All the laws of the Torah are given to the nation, and the nation as a whole is answerable for their violation...The Sinaitic covenant superimposes upon the ancient individual obligation a new, national one.  Morality ceases being a private matter."  (Kaufmann, Yehezkel.  The Religion of Israel.  Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1969.  pp. 233-234).

A Dash of Poetry

Avigail Antman calls her poem a Midrashir—the word is a combination of midrash (interpretation) + shir (poem). Each week she composes a midrashir inspired by the parasha as part of Kolech, the Orthodox feminist group based in Israel. She is also a member of the board of Women of the Wall. 

The Parashat Mishpatim Poem by Avigail Antman, translated by Judith Green

“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall pay the bride price for her to be his wife.” Ex. 22:15

The field and the vineyard, the fire and thorns, the stacked and standing corn,
The money and the vessels, the ox and ass, the garment and the damages,
And the virgin.
The burnt field, the consumed corn, the money which was stolen,
The ox and the ass and the lamb that died or were injured or taken or stolen or preyed upon,
The slave who was lent and injured or died.
The virgin who was seduced.
The father who refuses,
The sorceress who was put to death
The stranger who was cheated
The widow and the orphan who were harmed
The garment which was pawned
The virgin who was not betrothed.
The virgin who was burned and consumed
Stolen, injured, taken captive, preyed upon.
Lent, refused and cheated.
Who was harmed and wounded.
Who was not betrothed,
But seduced and dead.

To read the poem in its original Hebrew, see

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Mishmish (Apricot) Pie
Pareve-serves 8


  • 1 graham cracker crust (pareve ready-made are available or make your own)   rsz 06 mishpatim apricot pie copy copy
  • 11 oz. dried apricots (about 2 cups)
  • juice of 1 orange
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 envelope gelatin
  • 1-¾ cups cold water
  • 2 egg whites, beaten until stiff
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • ½ cup Richwhip or other pareve whipping cream whipped
  • More pareve whipped cream


  1. Dissolve the gelatin in cold water while the apricots are simmering.
  2. Simmer the apricots, lemon and orange juices and cinnamon stick in a saucepan for about 20 min. until the apricots are tender.
  3. Remove the cinnamon stick.
  4. Purée the mixture in a food processor or blender.
  5. Stir the dissolved gelatin into the apricot mixture. If you’re using a food processor, just add to the pureé and pulse quickly to mix.
  6. Chill until just beginning to set.
  7. Beat egg whites with the sugar and then fold in the whipped topping.
  8. Add to the almost set apricot mixture and pour into the pie shell.
  9. Chill and serve with remainder of the whipped topping.

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