Parashat Mishpatim (Judgments) Exodus 21:1-24:18


Shabbat Sh’kalim

Parashat Mishpatim (Judgments) Exodus 21:1-24:18

Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16; Haftarah: 2 Kings 11:17-12:17

(Some Communities add I Samuel 20:18, 42 because this Shabbat is also Erev Rosh Chodesh)

Why do people marry today? Probably the most frequent answer is because of love. What does that really mean to most individuals? The answer is that the other person makes them happy. All too often when the individual no longer feels that the other person makes them happy, it results in divorce. I would like to suggest that the vast majority of people pursue marriage with a highly unscriptural objective— happiness. I do not know of a verse that states, “Thou shall marry and be in thy bliss”. Marriage is a covenant that has as its primary purpose manifesting HaShem’s glory. Hence, believers should marry because of strong shared Biblical convictions.

It is wise for parents to introduce their children (of dating age) to the children of families which they know who have the same Biblical values. Dating is not for fun or for experience; rather it is for discerning whether the individual could be an appropriate spouse.  Once the determination is made, either a marriage should take place or the dating is terminated. As a father with three children who are either at this age or close to it, I can attest it is difficult for children today to accept such a view. This does not mean that the parents cease to suggest potential spouses nor remain silent. My wife and I look continuously for opportunities to influence our children in seeing marriage from a Scriptural position.

In this week’s Torah portion one reads a few difficult verses. These verses are in regard to a man who sells his daughter to another man. This of course sounds criminal to us, but nevertheless the Bible speaks to it. What is being said in this passage? The text begins,

And because a man will sell his daughter as a maidservant…” Exodus 21:7

The rabbinical commentary is most clear that a father may only do this if it is for the betterment of the daughter. In other words, there were no adoption agencies 3,500 years ago. Therefore if a father believed that he could not provide for his daughter he could sell her to another man as a maidservant. Why does the Torah use the word “maidservant”? There were strict rules in the Scripture concerning how a man had to treat his servants. The girl would not have the legal status as a daughter, i.e. heir; but she must be provided for by the man at a level not lower than any member of the family. Next the reader is told that,

“…she shall not go forth as the servants go forth.” Exodus 21:7

There is much debate over the intent of this phrase, but certainly once again it is not saying that she should be thought less than other servants. Whereas there was a time frame for Jewish servants to end their service and terms for their departure, here the context seems to be saying that she is owed greater consideration.

In the next verse a clearer picture begins to emerge. In this verse one learns that the daughter was sold and the price the father received should be viewed as a “dowry” that the grooms paid the father of the bride. In this case it would seem that the girl was too young to marry when the transaction occurred and she would be thought of as a maidservant until the man who provided the “dowry” would marry her. The verse states,

If she is ‘bad’ in the eyes of her master, so that he did not designate her…”

Exodus 21:8

The word which I translated as “bad” means idiomatically, “not according to G-d’s will”. Hence, if after a given amount of time the man determines it is not HaShem’s will for him to marry her there are restrictions on what he may do with her. The same verse continues with the words,

“…nor may he sell (literally ‘redeem’) to a foreign people…” Exodus 21:8

From this verse one learns he cannot simply sell her to Gentiles. Why not? The reason being is that Gentiles do not have Torah law incumbently placed upon them. Hence, those who are not related by the commandments of G-d could conceivably treat this woman in a way that would be outside the restrictions that the Torah demanded. The verse concludes by stating that

“…he shall not rule over her to sell her when he has betrayed her.” Exodus 21:8

Since it has already been determined that he does not think she is worthy to marry, it would be wrong for one who holds a negative impression of her to sell her not only to a foreign people, but to anyone at all. The Torah is stating that he may not sell her at all, not to a Gentile or even to a fellow Jew. Please notice that the end of the verse states, “…when he has betrayed her“. These words have to do with a broken agreement. This lends credence to the rabbinical view that she was all along designated to be his wife, but she was simply too young to marry.

In the next verse there is an additional reason why the man acquired the girl. This reason is as a bride for his son. Once again, she apparently was too young to immediately marry. At the end of the time when she ceases being thought of as a maidservant and is to become the man’s daughter-in-law, he must then deal with her as any other young woman who is betrothed to one’s son.

If the man should take another maidservant, in addition to the first, he may not give her less food or clothing. The text also states he may not reduce her “season” (see verse 10). There is a tendency for Judaism to understand the phrase “her season” as referring to the frequency of marital relationships. This is clearly a wrong interpretation of the word “season”. The previous verses engage with situations where the female in question does not become a wife. It is wrong then to interpret this verse as relating to the additional maidservant with the first one as women to whom he has marital relations.

The term “season” should be understood as the period of time she serves as a maidservant. One must remember that the purpose of the father selling his daughter in the first place was for her betterment and wellbeing. If the man who acquired her fails in any of these three obligations, food, clothing or time; then she may leave at once. The verse reads, “Without payment”. This means that she can terminate the agreement and she may leave without compensating him for the money which was given to her father, because he had violated the terms, not the female.

This Torah portion has numerous laws, i.e. commandments, which must be studied very carefully in order to arrive at the proper intent of the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom






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