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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Mishpatim(69)

This week's sedra relates that after the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, Moses taught the nation many laws, most of them relating to behavior between man and man. Laws of damages are also discussed. The verse below refers to a case when a man's animal injures a person, it tells us what are the responsibilities of the owner of the animal.

Exodus 21: 30

If (Hebrew: 'Im') a ransom is imposed on him then he should give the redemption of his soul whatever is decreed on him.


If (Hebrew: 'Im') a ransom is imposed on him: Rashi: This word 'Im' is not conditional (as if it meant "if' ) rather it is similar to (verse 22:24): "When (Im) you lend money to My people…". Where it has the meaning of "when": This is the law regarding him when the court shall impose on him a ransom.


Rashi's comment comes to clarify the meaning of the word 'Im'. It cannot mean, as it often does: 'if', as in (verse 32): "If the ox gored a servant" etc. then such and such is the law. But Rashi realizes that if we translate 'im' to mean 'if", it doesn't fit our verse. The Torah does not mean: "If man must pay the ransom." Because there are no 'if' 'ands' or 'buts' in this case: The law is clear and not conditional - the man must pay the ransom. So we must translate 'im' some other way.

To fully understand Rashi we need to read verses 21:28 & 29, which precede our verse. There it tells us of a particular kind of damaging ox: It refers to first and second time offenders where the law is less severe. The law is that the ox must be killed while its owner is acquitted of all wrongdoing. Verse 28 & our verse speak of an ox that already has a history of three killings. Here the law is more severe. The ox is killed and the owner, rightfully, should also be killed. But, instead the Torah imposes on him payment as atonement.


Rashi has found another meaning of the word 'im'. It can mean 'when', as in verse 22:24, which Rashi cites. Now our verse makes sense and Rashi, at the end of his comment explains how it makes sense. When ransom is imposed, (as opposed to the 'rightful' death penalty) then he must pay whatever the courts imposes. So while paying the ransom is not an "iffy" matter - he must pay: but the circumstances of paying are "iffy", that is, they are conditional. He only pays if his ox was a third time offender. So the word 'im' is not totally out of order.

If you look at the Rashi in last week's sedra on verse 20:22, you should have question. In that comment Rashi quotes Rav Yishmael who lists the exceptions when the word 'im' does not mean 'if'.

Hint: Look at the three cases he cites.

Now what is your question?

Your Question:


A Question: Why doesn't Rav Yishmael also list our case of 'im' as one where 'im' does not mean 'if'? Why does he leave it out?


Your Answer:


An Answer: The three cases cited by Rav Yishmael as exceptions to the rule that 'im' means 'if' are all cases that that must come about, even though the verse uses the word 'im'. We must build an altar of stone; we must lend to the needy; and we must offer the bikurim sacrifice. So in these obligatory cases, the word 'im' (if) is totally inappropriate.

However, our case is somewhat different. No one is obligated to pay a ransom for the damage done by one's ox - unless he owns an ox and his ox does damage! Obviously! Many Jews can live long lives without ever fulfilling this command. So Rav Yishmael could not bring our verse as an example of an obligatory mitzvah even though the word 'im' is used. The cases he does cite are obligatory mitzvos, thus he brings them, to show that 'im' cannot mean 'if.' Nevertheless, the 'im' in our verse also does not mean 'if' as Rashi tells us, because, while it is not a certain obligation, under certain conditions (his ox gores someone) it is and he must pay. So it's not 'if', it's 'when'.

Shabbat Shalom,
Avigdor Bonchek

What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

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