5770 - #18

Mishpatim / Shekalim


     The distinction between chukim and mishpatim is one that is well known even to the most casual student of Torah. The former reflects the mitzvot whose purpose seems to be outside our realm of reason. While attempting to explain the purpose of these mitzvot is, still, a significant endeavour within Torah study, within this realm we are always aware of our limitations in understanding God’s command. The latter, in contradistinction, reflects the mitzvot whose purpose seems to be totally understandable within our realm of reason. The question even emerges, in regard to many of these mitzvot, as to the very need for a command from God of this nature; would we not know this anyway?1 If we undertook these actions simply as a result of our reason, though, would we not lose their value as a commandment from God? The true value of a mitzvah would seem to be in its very essence as a mitzvah, a command of Hashem, irrespective of whether it is a chok or a mishpat. While it is obviously true that the mitzvot can be categorized in this manner, the question actually emerges as to the very significance of this distinction.  
    The challenge is that the Torah itself uses these terms in referring to different mitzvot. If chok and mishpat were terms used by human beings solely to assist them in their reference to the Divine command, we could easily understand this use of these terms as a tool. The fact that the Torah uses these terms, though, would seem to indicate that they, and the ensuing categorization, is of importance in regard to our overall understanding of Torah. This is doubly implied in the various discussions concerning the specific order applied by the Torah in its variant references to mitzvot using these terms. Why, Ramban, Shemot 21:1, for example, asks, is it, specifically mishpatim that follow so closely the Asseret HaDibrot, especially when one considers, in contradistinction, that in regard to the presentation of certain commands at Marah, the term chok preceded mishpat?2 The very concept of a chok and a mishpat would seem to be an important part of the true, accurate lesson of Torah.
    Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Perek 6 presents what may be the most famous teaching in this regard. He contends that this distinction between chukim and, what he terms, mitzvot sichliyot reflects the need for two different processes on the road to perfection. Some of a human being’s actions must reflect that person’s own understanding and an inner moral perspective and being. This is the case with mishpatim, or applying Rambam’s term mitzvot sichliyot; the fact that one does not commit murder should also reflect a personal abhorrence towards this behaviour. Other human actions, however, should totally reflect one’s subservience to God and His dominance over a person’s actions; the fact that one refrains from eating pork should not reflect any personal abhorrence towards this action but, rather, that one is, simply obligated to follow the command of God. The focus of the chok is thus on the action itself without consideration of further moral teachings as the reason for the performance of this action is, simply, that it is the Will of God. The focus of the mitzvah sichliya, however, is not to be solely on the action but on the reasons and values connected to and implied by this action. It is not that the action does not reflect the Will of God but rather that the Will of God is more encompassing; it is also the Will of God that these moral values within a person be reinforced and strengthened. The distinction in categorization between the chok and the mishpat is thus to indicate to us a two-fold further obligation in the thought process that must accompany us in our performance of mitzvot. .
    In using the term mitzvah sichliya to indicate this category of commandments, Rambam is, indeed, focusing on the reasoned character of these mitzvot. The more common term used to indicate this category of mitzvot is still, however, mishpatim. Mishpat represents justice and the use of this term actually reflects the ethical nature of this category of commandments. Ethics and reason are really inherently intertwined. We can understand these mitzvot precisely because we understand the effective language of ethics that is applied in explaining their essence. Nevertheless, when we use the term mishpatim we are focusing on the ethic. This category of mitzvot is not only intended to provide a realm within Torah where thought and action can connect but also, specifically, to develop our sense of ethics highlighted by the concept of justice. The world, as Shemot Rabbah 30:15 declares, depends on justice – and thus we need mitzvot that can teach us this ethic. There are mitzvot whose focus is to further our duty, commitment and obligation to God. These are the chukim. There are other mitzvot whose focus is to further our understanding of and commitment to ethical principles. These are the mishpatim.
    The recognition of the mutual significance of both categories is the overall necessity. There are people, though, who attempt to define one category as the more significant one and then try to explain the value of the other category in its service of the first category. For example, there are those, pointing to the mishpatim, who maintain that justice is the real ultimate goal of Torah; to such individuals, the value of the chukim is explained in how they also really further serve this goal of justice. Similarly, there are those, pointing to the chukim and perceiving them as stressing our relationship with God, who contend that they reflect the real ultimate goal of Torah and that the mishpatim must also be seen in how they further serve this goal of dveikut, cleaving to the Almighty.3 The order of the presentation in a verse is further used to support a view. If the category that is perceived to have the dominant purpose is presented first, this is deemed to show its overriding significance. If, though, it is mentioned second, this shows how that which was mentioned first is a necessary lead into the greater purpose reflected in what was mentioned second. The fact, though, that the Torah changes its order of the presentation of chukim and mishpatim may actually show their significant independence and dependence. They both reflect equally significant, independent purposes of Torah. We are to learn a certain concept from the mishpatim and a certain concept from the chukim. They are, though, also connected. How we develop ethically should play a role in advancing our relationship with God and how we develop in regard to the latter should positively also affect the former. Yet it is important for us to see the distinctive and defining nature of the two goals.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


1 Further on this topic, see my The Cloud of Revelation, Nishma Introspection 5763-1.

2 See Shemot 15:25.

3 In a similar vein, I am reminded of the many times whereby I heard someone try to explain that the ultimate value of the mitzvot bein adam l’Makom, commandments relating to Man and God, was found in how they also furthered the ethic embodied in the mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro, commandments between Man and Man. I have also heard people attempt the opposite, advancing the position that the ultimate value of the latter was in how they also furthered the goal of the former, namely a relationship with God.  .            

Nishma 2010


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