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University of Colorado Boulder Program in Jewish Studies

Parashat Mishpatim- The Superiority of Jewish Civil Law

This week’s Torah portion is called “Mishpatim” which means rational laws and it contains a large part of Judaism’s civil laws.

Jewish civil law stands out in its sensitivity to the dignity of each person.  There are even laws that govern how to speak about other people.  It also stands out in its wisdom.  For example Jewish law is that if one steals, in most cases the punishment is that the one who stole has to pay back double the amount he stole.  It’s quite a simple law but it has many advantages, firstly the thief receives his punishment without disrupting his life. Also, the victim receives compensation for the grief he had to endure.  This is perhaps the reason why Jewish civil law has contributed greatly to the formation of western civil law.

However, Jewish civil law stands out in yet another way, which is that it is built on principals and tenets and rarely makes exceptions to those principals even in cases where doing so would bring more justice to the case.  The reason for this is that since Jewish law comes from G-d, it reflects a divine order i.e. the law is telling us how G-d wants the situation to be resolved even if we don’t fully understand why it should be so.

This explains the comment of the Zohar (the main books of Jewish mysticism) on the opening verse of our portion regarding civil laws, the Zohar comments; “this is the concept of reincarnation”.  What the Zohar is telling us is that even if sometimes the verdict seems unfair or even untrue, it is following a divine order and perhaps, the reasoning behind the seemingly unfair verdict lies in that it is somehow atoning for something the person did wrong in a previous reincarnation.

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About Rabbi Pesach Scheiner

Rabbi Pesach Scheiner is the Rabbi of Boulder County Center for Judaism. In addition, he teaches extensively throughout Boulder County and is the author of "Finding the Joy in Everyday Living," a book of short chapters explaining the ways to access happiness through appreciation, gratitude, and a sense of purpose.

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