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   by Jacob Solomon

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These are the ordinances you shall put before them. If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for you for six years. And in the seventh, he will go free (21:1-2).

It is in this Parasha that details of G-d's civil laws, whose content Moses was to duly present to the Israelites. Rashi explains that words asher tasim lifneihem - "that you shall put before them" means that the code of law shall not be taught parrot-fashion as something to be memorized, but conveyed in such a way that is easily understood by all, as "a ready-laid table with food fully-prepared food to eat".

Many commentators ask why the Torah has to open the civil law with the unpalatable notion of slavery. The Ohr HaChayim places it in the context of helping a fellow-Israelite. Slavery was a means that the totally destitute might be given a livelihood. By the Torah's opening this section with the Hebrew rather than the Gentile slave, it is implying that he should be bought in preference to a gentile, in the spirit of "charity begins at home".

It may be suggested, in addition, that "a ready-laid table with food fully-prepared to eat" refers to the importane of addressing the specific mindset of the newly-freed Israelites. The Israelites had lived in Egypt for generations, and were no doubt familiar with their legal system. Evidence from surviving documents, funerary texts, and inscriptions suggest that their system was partly codified and partly run according to the principle of ma'at - the Egyptian concept of what they saw as true, orderly, balanced, and just within the universe. Thus there was equality before the law, irrespective of wealth and social position - with the exception of slaves. The families of the guilty were punished as well as the criminal. Penalties included cutting off the hand, tongue, nose, or ears. And sometimes judgments were made by Egyptian gods through consultation with their oracles, rather than by human judges.

In sharp contrast, the Torah presented the eternal G-d-determined absolute code of conduct to the Israelites in the context of what they already knew; namely the way things were done in Egypt. As every effective teacher and tour-guide knows, you have to know your group properly and present the experience in the context of what the audience already knows, and readily relates to.

Thus the Revelation of Mount Sinai built up on - and sharply contrasted with - the Egyptian experience. It enabled the Israelites to experience the whole context of Torah Law. In contrast with the moral relativism of the ma'at that underpinned Egyptian law, the Israelites "met the Creator" (c.f. 19:17) the Absolute source connecting the Ten Commandments - the underpinnings of the legal system, with the essence of the Creation (c.f. 20:11). There was no moral relativism, every now and then decided by the oracle, but the system was personally experienced as legal absolutism, conveying the message that Torah law and Creation are one. Where the law is kept, people live in harmony with the Creator and the Creation. Where the Torah law is violated, people live in discord with the Creator and Creation - and its associated consequences.

Once that absolute legal framework was experienced at first hand - as recounted in the previous parasha, the Israelites were ready for the details. But G-d implicitly emphasized with asher tasim lifneihem that the Israelites were newly freed Egyptian slaves, and the details of the law (as opposed to the authority of the law) was to be taught to them in the context of what they already - a lesson that teachers, instructors, lectures, and tour-guides have to constantly bear in mind. Thus it opens with the laws of slavery because they had been slaves in Egypt, and emphasizes that although slavery continued, there was a right and duty relationship between slave-owner and slave. Violent behavior resulting in death or injury was indeed punishable, but in ways that sharply contrasted with what they knew in Egypt. A murderer faced the death penalty (21:12), but there were to be no sanctions against the family. Violence-caused personal injury was punishable by monetary compensation; "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" meant paying compensation as assessed by the judges (see Rashi to 21:24)

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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