Moses’ Code of Law – What’s New

parshat mishpatim (exodus 21- 24)

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz for a live discussion recorded on Clubhouse on January 27th 2022. Moses places twelve stone slabs (stelas) engraved with a code of law before his people. We take a look at the similarities and differences with other ancient Near Eastern Codes such as Eshnunna and Hammurabi and ask: What’s new with Moses’ Code of the Covenant?

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Geoffrey Stern  00:03 Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish text or traditional. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz we host Madlik disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern. In this week’s portion Moses wakes up early in the morning, and places 12 stones engraved with a code of law before his people. Hammurabi also placed his code of law on a stone stela as did a lesser-known Babylonian king named Eshnunna. Join us as we explore any similarities and differences between these codes and ask what’s new with Moses’s code of the covenant?


So Rabbi, I got a notice from clubhouse that we have a year anniversary, it's hard to believe we've been doing this for a year, but we need to pat each other on the shoulder. You said last week that this week, we were going to do the laws, we were going to do Mishpatim. And we certainly are. The name of the Pasha is laws. And as you could tell from the introduction, I want to put it into context of what I believe was the correct context of these laws, and of this this episode. So instead of starting from the beginning of the portion, I'm going to jump to the end, after all these laws that you referred to, are already promulgated, and on the books. So in Exodus 24:4, it says "Moses then wrote down all the commands of the Lord. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with 12 pillars, for the 12 tribes of Israel", it continues, "then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said all that the Lord has spoken, we will faithfully do." Na'aseh v'nishma". And of course, this this concept of we will do, and then we will hear, it could be a segment all in and of itself, because it is iconic. We are going to kind of walk through these 12 pillars as we go through all these laws, but they come in a very rich tradition. Those of you who have ever heard the word Hammurabi know that they found this amazing stela or a stone that contained upon it one of the earliest codes of civil law. As I mentioned in the introduction, they also found in a town called Susa, which otherwise is known to us Jews as Shushan, a stone that was even earlier than Hammurabi and also contained rules such as that. And it's called Eshnunna. But literally, there was a very strong tradition in the ancient Near East, that if you came out with a code of law, you wrote it in stone. You wrote it in stone, and you placed it in front of the people to see. And we will even note that in Joshua, at another milestone of the Jewish people. He does a similar thing. He selected 12 men from among the people, one from each tribe, and I'm reading from Joshua 4 and instructed them as follows pick up 12 stones from the spot exactly in the middle of the Jordan, where the priests’ feet are standing, take them along with you, and deposit them in a place where you will spend the night. And literally he writes the laws of God, the Mishneh Torah, on the stones, and he refers to them as an "Ot" as a sign. He refers to them as "Zichron" as a memorial. This is not an isolated episode. It is a very strong episode that would be recognized by anybody living in the ancient world, especially the Near East. And so I'm going to kind of take, I think, what is a fascinating track, and that we're going to look at these laws from the perspective of OK, so we wake up in the morning, and we see these columns out there with our law. What's different about our law So are you ready to join me on the journey? Rabbi,


Adam Mintz  05:03

I can't wait, take it away.


Geoffrey Stern  05:07

So, you know, as I said, this was a tradition. But I think even if, even at this preliminary perspective, we have to be struck, I think by two things. First of all, they were 12 pillars. You know, that's kind of fascinating. We've talked about the 12 tribes. And of course, the 12 pillars are associated with the 12 tribes. But there's almost a message right from the start, that this belongs to every one of the tribe, that there's almost a tribal Federation. And whereas, when we look at Hammurabi's code, and then Eshnunna, they talk about things such as social stratification, two different classes are in the Eshnunna Code. And in the Hammurabi, code laws are designed to distinguish between, you know, if you hit a slave, or you hit a free man, so I think right from the get-go as they woke up in the morning, and as we wake up and read this parsha, we're struck by something that is kind of unique, these 12 pillars.


Adam Mintz  06:31

Yes, the 12 pillars, I mean, you say it's a 20 of the tribes, but it's the unity of the people, everybody is together. And you know, in the desert, there's a lot of complaining. But this is a good moment, this moment of the 12 tribes, and you know, we will do and we will listen, this might be the best moment in the 40 years in the desert.


Geoffrey Stern  06:55

I like that, I like that. It's, "it's morning in the desert". So the other thing that struck me is I said a second ago from quoting the English translation of Exodus 24. "Then he took the record of the Covenant", in the Hebrew, it's "Vayikach Sefer haBrit". You know, normally, when I compare an English translation to a Hebrew word, I say, you know, the English is probably off it's not striking the right tone or nuance. But in this particular case, it makes us look at the word "sefer" differently, because clearly, there's no book here. I mean, you know, you got a question when sefer is used at all in the Bible, because they had scrolls, they didn't have books. So we already know that our modern conception of "sefer" is probably off. But I think here, maybe "record of the Covenant" gives us an insight into what a "sefer" is more than the other way around. How do you read "sefer"?


Adam Mintz  08:07

It's good. I mean, they didn't have books. The word "sefer". And the words "Sipur" are the same word. Sipur means a story. And so therefore, a sefer is something that tells s sipur. Now today, we have books that tell stories. In those days, they didn't have books that tell stories told stories. They had scrolls, who told stories, so I think that's the English there is playing on that idea, that idea of sipor of a record of what happened. Which is nice. By the way, you know, the word "sefer" is also related to the word "sapar". A sapar is someone who's a barber. And it's interesting what a book has to do with being a barber. The answer is that a book has a beginning and an end, it cuts off at a certain place, just like the sapar cuts off your hair.


Geoffrey Stern  09:10

I like that does sapar or L'saper also mean to count?


Adam Mintz  09:16

Yes, Lispor means to count. It's exactly the same word. Because counting also has a limit if I count, right, so you know, like Sefirat HaOmer is the Torah's used for the word L'spor, Sefirat HaOmer, you count to 49. And that's it the same way you cut your hair. And that's it. Same idea.


Geoffrey Stern  09:39

So I think if you look at the first time that writing is used, the earliest clay shots that we find that have writing, most of them are used in economics, how many bushels are included in this shipment? And so in a sense I'll come back to my first comment, which I think a record a ˈrek(ə)niNG, a cataloging of events is probably pretty close to at least one of the meanings. And so you know, you talk about to cut and to limit. Yes, it means something is finite, it is quantitative. And so I get back to my first word that it becomes an insight to me in what Sapir means and what Safer means. And I think we can we can Oh, that a little bit. to these verses that are obviously talking something written in stone.


Adam Mintz  10:43

Yeah, that's right. That's absolutely right. Now, we understand that in those days, if something was going to remain, it had to be written in stone. Hammurabi's code we have today, because it was written in stone, which is, of course, great, but that's how we have it. Hammurabi code was written in stone, they found the stone, it's not fantastic.


Geoffrey Stern  11:07

I think it is. And I think the adverse is true, that they haven't found these 12 stones that Moses refers to, or that Joshua refers to. But I would argue that more people know what's written on Moses' and Joshua's stone, then Hammurabi [laughs].... and that's maybe an insight we'll take from today.


Adam Mintz  11:35

Why are these stones important? You see, the question really here is, what's the relationship between this story and the story of revelation in last week's portion? Is it the same story? Are they sister stories? Are they unrelated stories? What's the connection? They sound very familiar? They sound very similar. Because you know, God, God says, Will you do? And he will do, I will do and we will listen, it sounds like you're accepting the law, what exactly is going on?


Geoffrey Stern  12:12

So I would almost argue, and you kind of intimated it last week, this is where the rubber hits the road. We had the revelation at Sinai. And one of the things that I'd love to talk about tonight, is that when that rubber hits the road, it's about inter human societal relationships. Let me let me segue into this slightly differently. While she says about writing these words, he says, From Bereshit (Genesis), up to, but not including the account of the giving of the Torah. When it says I'm writing these words, he's looking at a finished Torah scroll, he's looking at a finished five books of Moses. And he's saying, you know, this was a first cut, so to speak, a "daily", we got everything from Bereshit until here, my buddy ShDaL, Shmuel David Luzzatto says what I think is probably closer to the truth now that we know about Hammurabi and Eshnunna. he says, "it seems to be from the 10 commandments, until verse 33", which is the end of the Parsha in terms of the legal code that's given. So in a sense, this legal code that we might see, and if we don't get to it, you'll look in the show notes, parallels in terms of its content, and in terms of its subject matter, so much Hammurabi and Eshnuna, in terms of how do you deal with an ox that gores, How do you deal with something that you find how do you deal with people that fight and kill each other inadvertently or advertently? This was classic. This was right after the giving of the Torah and now it says, Okay, and here's the rules. And here are the laws that you expect to hear, in terms of you know, and I'd like to say we talk about Hammurabi code. I'd like to say it's Moses' Code, but we all know that unlike Hammurabi who might have emphasized himself, it's not Moses' code, it's God's code. But the point is that I think that this is a like ShaDaL says and like we would if we compare it to these other stelas... this is the beginning of civil law, this is how you're going to have to get along. This is how you're going to have to run your society. And it's almost one piece .... starting with Jethro, who talks about how to set up the courts, all the way to how to deal with all of these very social, civic, societal regulations.


Adam Mintz  15:29

I like that a lot. I like the idea of a line from Jethro through the social law, the civil law. My question is, what's the role of the 10 commandments in all of this? Like, they almost seem like who needs them? Jethro says, this is the way you set up the court. This week, we have all of the civil law. What do the 10 commandments do for us? Exactly? Every law of the 10 commandments, is somewhere else in the Torah. Shabbat somewhere else in the Torah. Honoring parents, somewhere else in the Torah.  Believe in God somewhere else in the Torah? What's the point of the 10 commandments?


Geoffrey Stern  16:10

So I think that's a great question. And it's a wonderful segue into how our laws are laid out, again, comparing them to these other texts, they all contain similar provisions, but ours begins Exodus 21. "These are the rules that you shall set before you, when you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years in the seventh year, he shall go free without pay payment." You cannot, but, focus on the fact that these laws are given to ex-slaves, these laws are given to people who have just exited from Egypt. And just as those 10 commandments that you refer, begin with "Anochi", I am the God who brought you out of Egypt.....  One of the major differences, I think, between this formulation of the Civic laws, and the others in the ancient Near East, is this ties into a narrative much more. And this ties into our narrative much more. And there's kind of, and maybe this will ech out why our laws are still being learned today. And Hammurabi’s are not. These are part of our journey as a people and of the human journey. And I think that ties them into the 10 commandments to a large degree, because the 10 commandments are built on this prologue of I am the Lord who took you out of Egypt, therefore, you shall rest. I mean, you can struggle with how all of the nine other commandments relate. I know Nachmanides, and I have I haven't put it in the source sheet says that all of these laws were late to "kina" to, to being jealous of somebody else (Thou shalt not covet"). I don't know how that works out. But I do think that the basis of his question is your question, how does it relate to the 10 commandments? How does it become one piece?


Adam Mintz  18:25

I think it is an interesting question. I mean, you could say that every religion needs a moment of revelation. Right? Christianity has, you know, the resurrection. Islam has Mohammed, every religion needs a moment of revelation, .... if you're allowed to say it, it's not heresy, .... it gives credibility to the religion. God spoke to us. Therefore, we're a real religion. And you need that. And so therefore, maybe the 10 commandments is not so much about the content of the commandments. Maybe it's more about the experience of Sinai. And that's why I think, Geoffrey, that this chapter about the about the Jews receiving the covenant is also a lot about the experience, the drama of the moment.


Geoffrey Stern  19:22

Well, I mean, you know, the revelation at Sinai was dramatic. I love the fact that Moses set this up in the morning, like the morning after....  the Big Thunder, the big lightning, and then the morning after, here are the laws...


Adam Mintz  19:38

tell you that Rashi says in this chapter 24, he says chapter 24 actually happens before the receiving of the Torah. It happens on the fourth day of Sivan, and we received the Torah on the sixteenth.  That is interesting. Rashi has a different image of the whole thing that this was after the receiving of the law. This was preparation for receiving of the law. And the Jews only received the law after they said we will do and we will listen. That's also interesting.


Geoffrey Stern  20:09

Yep. And we saw a little bit of that last week how the poetic license that we who study the Torah given by the rabbi saying "Eyn Mukdam u'me'char baTorah" there's no chronological order enables us to do that. I think last week, I had an insight into why she might have done that I'm not too sure why he would have done it this time. But I focused a little bit on the differences already, I want to stress because you know, maybe none of us have read the Hammurabi code, or we haven't read it lately about how similar they can be. So I said a second ago, that Exodus begins by saying, when you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years in the seventh year, he shall go free without payment. And then it goes on about how they leave. And then it says, and if one of those Jewish slaves who is basically an indentured servant, I mean, this was the problem with social stratification. You would go into debt, you might go into debt with interest, we might get into interest later on. And now you're done. You're gone, this is how castes are made. And the Bible says, we always say speak so strongly about No, there's a reset button. Every seven years, we have our wonderful Shmita, which is actually what we're going through this year, there's this reset button that you come back. And we think that's very unique. So let me read from Hammurabi’s code. 117. It doesn't begin by talking about slaves. We begin by talking about slaves, because it's very important to us. But he says, "If anyone fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son and his daughter for money, or give them away to forced labor, they shall work for three years in the House of the man who bought them, or the proprietor. And in the fourth year, they shall be set free." So he even does us better. He doesn't say seven years, he says three years. My point is that not everything about our is totally unique, is totally radical. And, you know, there was a great scholar named Harry Austern Wolfson at Harvard. And he would wait two volumes on a guy like Spinoza. And at the end, he would say, So what's new about Spinoza. And the reason he would say that is because his Derech halimud was, the way he studied was, you can't understand somebody unless you put him into the context of his time, (you read) everything that he read, and I think we do the Torah a disservice if we tried to isolate it, or if we blind ourselves to what else was going on. I think reading things like Hammurabi code, and Eshnunna and seeing that other people were struggling with similar situations and stuff, does us a disservice. On the other hand, it enables us as we educate ourselves to say what's new. And that's clearly one of the messages one of the takeaways that I have today, which is that we can look at the Torah at the Bible in the context of the world that was given, whether it's looking at Jethro, whether it's looking at Hammurabi and still be able to come out with insights into where we are different, but not take all the credit for every single different aspect. You know, kind of saying, it's all created here.


Adam Mintz  23:55

So that's really interesting. First of all, we need to date Hammurabi, when exactly was Hammurabi. So I think most scholars think that Hammurabi was not at the time of Mount Sinai, but Hammurabi's code actually goes back to the time of Abraham. So it might be ..... this is exactly to your point, actually,..... it may be that there was a Hammurabi code before there was a Torah code. And, you know, that's interesting. That's number one. That's interesting. Number two, in this week's parsha, we have a description of somebody who's building and he and he kills a boy. And the Torah says that you put the person to death who kills the boy, but you don't kill his son. That's a funny thing for the Torah to say, you don't kill his son. You know why the Torah says that? The Torah says that because in Hammurabi code you kill the son. Hammurabi says, really an eye for an eye. And therefore if you kill somebody's son, your son dies. He takes Hammurabi to that level. So the Torah actually, here's responding to Hammurabi.


Geoffrey Stern  25:21

I think that, you know, again, I would love to see I only prepare for these during the week before. And I started in my, in my show notes, I quote the verse and then I put Hammurabi underneath it, and Ashnuna underneath it, and [it would be amazing if someone could index the verses with associated provisions in the other codes and)  actually track the differences between them. And whether you free a slave after seven years, or after three years, it's a coin toss. I think the fact is that they were addressing very similar issues. I mean, you talk about not making the son of suffer. There's, in Exodus 21, which is part of our portion, it talks about a :Shor She'nigach"  If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and the owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death." Hammurabi 251 says, "If a man's ox be a gorer, and has revealed its evil propensity as a gorer, and he has not blunted its horn, or shut up the ox, and then that ox has gored a free man, and caused his death, the owner shall pay half a mina of silver." So again, we get in the Hammurabi code, that there's stratification because if you kill a free man, there's one payment if you kill a not so free, man, there's another payment. But I think that becomes something that's so fascinating. And again, it enables us to kind of see the differences. You know, there's part of the laws that we read it this week has to do with" if you find a lost object.... in 23. It says, When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him "Hashev Tashivenu", you shall return the lost object, and Hammurabi has his own reference to returning a lost object. But as someone who studied in a academy or Jewish Academy, or yeshiva, I don't know about your experience, Rabbi. But the first pieces of Talmud that I ever studied were from the Seder of Nezikin, which is Damages. It's a bunch of tractates in the Talmud, that deal with exactly these laws. And we spent a semester dealing with "elu Metziot shelo v'elu tzarich l'hachriz" "these are lost objects that you can keep, and these you must return". We dealt with two people fighting over a garment. And I think that most people who look at traditional Jews who are studying in a kolel, and studying Torah, they probably think that they're studying laws of ritual about Tefillin and about Shabbat. But my experience especially the early years of my study, we were studying commentaries and insights into exactly these types of (civil) laws. And that is absolutely fascinating to me. And that gets back to how we started where we talked about, yes, they might have both been written in stone, but we call them a sefer and that sefer engendered this lively discussion that has lived on through the generations, what was your experience as a yeshiva student?


Adam Mintz  29:14

My experience was exactly the same. And I like parshat Mishpatim, because it reminds me of those days. You know, there's been so many books written about the civil laws about you know, finding one. What's amazing is you have one verse in the Torah that tells you about lost objects. And there are three tractates about lost objects. Isn't that unbelievable? It really makes the Torah come to life. I'll just say .... we're kind of coming to the end of the time, but I'll say the following. It's interesting the way that the Torah describes laws, as opposed to last week. In the 10 commandments, the laws are very absolute. don't kill, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't don't, don't don't. In this week's portion, many of the laws are introduced with the word "if" "Im b'machteret timaze haganav" If you find a criminal, crawling in your basement to get up to your house "im", why does it say that "im"? Why does it just day? When you find a criminal Who's climbing up through your house? You see, I think the answer probably is that "im" means if it happens, I don't know if it's gonna happen. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn't happen. In the 10 commandments laws given in a very kind of God centered way. It's not about people don't do this. Don't do this. Don't do this. In Mishpatim, the civil law is very personal. Here's what might happen. These are real people. Sometimes these things happen. Sometimes they don't happen "im" everything is introduced with the word "im". And that's what it comes to tell you about the law. There's an amazing Midrash. The Midrash says that the angel said to God, you should give the Torah to us. And Moses said to the angels, give it to the angel.... Angels do you have a Yetzer hara"? Do you have an inclination to kill? Do you have an inclination to commit adultery, to steal? They say no, we don't have an inclination for any of that. He says no, the Torah is not for you. The Torah is for real people. The terrorists are people who struggle to keep the laws of the Torah And I think that's really a beautiful idea.


Geoffrey Stern  31:52

I love it. I love the contingency of it. The "im" almost presupposes a discussion. And if I had to conclude with my takeaway, because I do feel like you when I read these laws, it takes me back to the discussions that I had in my youth about these issues, that Hammurabi's code and Eshnunnah's code. The biggest difference between them and the Tora and Moses code, God's code is they came to us because they happen to be written in stone, and we happen to find them. And these 12 tablets, these 12 pillars that are both Moses and in Joshua set up, we don't have in stone, but we have them in this living discussion that we have this sefer, this sipur that has kept them alive. And it's fascinating. It's fascinating that up until today, these discussions have molded I would, I would argue our ethos, and it is something that has so profoundly affected the Jewish psyche in terms of questioning and taking the highest intellect down to the most trivial and material and social level. And I think that to me is the real gift of mishpatim.


Adam Mintz  33:29

Beautiful Shabbat Shalom, everybody. Enjoy a great parsha. Enjoy the week. We'll see you next week. Geoffrey. As we build the Mishkan ...we build the tabernacle.


Geoffrey Stern  33:39

Oh fantastic. So Shabbat Shalom to everybody. See you all next week. Shabbat shalom.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Moses’ Code of Law – What’s New | Sefaria

Parshat Mishpatim – Moses places stone slabs (stelas) engraved with a code of law before his people. We take a look at the similarities and differences with other ancient Near Eastern Codes such as Eshnunna and Hammurabi and ask: What is new with Moses’ Code of the Covenant?

Listen to last week’s Episode: Is Judaism Exclusive or Inclusive?

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