“Now these are the statutes which you shall set before them.”
This section pertains to Jewish law, a cornerstone of Judaism. Let us provide a brief introduction to this
all-important subject. The Torah has three distinct categories of commandments or mitzvot. At present,
we are only interested in statutes or mishpatim, divine laws which comprise Jewish jurisprudence. At
root is what is commonly referred to as civil law, rules that govern the relations between a man and his
Does Jewish law or mishpatim hold advantages over other systems of civil justice? Some say no. They
contend that Jewish jurisprudence is typical in the sense that it resembles all other people’s legal
systems. This position flies in the face of Scripture: “He declares His word to Yaakov, His statutes and His
ordinances unto Israel. He has not dealt so with any nation, and as for His statutes, they have not known
them.” Of course, from time immemorial societies have promulgated laws and conferred upon courts
the authority to adjudicate.
How do mishpatim stand apart? The Midrash quotes from Psalms: “The strength also of the king who
loves statutes” (read: justice). Moshe addresses, the Midrash continues, the Jewish people, explaining
that the Almighty has transmitted the Torah to them. If, however, the nation rejects mishpatim, their
negligence will result in the entire Torah being taken away from them.
Why should this be so? The Midrash concludes that the transmission of the Torah was predicated upon
the observance of the statutes, as supported by a verse: “The strength of the king who loves statutes” –
The message conveyed by the Midrash begs another question: Is praise of mishpatim excessive,
exaggerated? After all, the corpus of mishpatim discusses the mundane. How ho-hum to legislate the
consequences of a fellow’s ox goring another guy’s mule! How underwhelming are court cases
presented by someone who claims his garment had been damaged by another? On topic, the psalmist
pens: “Surely for vanity they are in turmoil. He heaps up riches, and knows not who shall gather them.”
King David calls out the superficiality of material pursuit and possessions. Given the transitory nature of
man’s tangible holdings or other commercial interests and dealings, why does the Midrash place such
sky-high value on the observance of mishpatim, stating that failure to heed them results in forfeiting
Furthermore, given that this area of the Torah deals with the ordinary, how should we understand
Judaism’s position that mishpatim rank superior to other systems (like the Noachide Code or any other
one), when on the face of it, we do not find glaring distinctions between how a Jewish versus non-Jewish
court would adjudicate torts?
And yet, the assertion is a serious one. Really, what was lacking with the code of law devised by the sons
of Noach, or Hammurabi? In short, how should we understand our section’s lead verse: “Now these are
the statutes which you shall set before them?” Assuredly, the Maker vested divine wisdom solely in
mishpatim. To paraphrase the Talumudic sages on our verse: “Before them” – the Hebrews – and not
before the Gentiles. Furthermore, the sages stressed “Before them” – and not before the illiterates.
Understand this. Divine mishpatim stand unmistakably distinct from all other legal codes, such as the
one created by Noach or successive civilizations. Here are two major differences that show Jewish
jurisprudence’s decisive edge over the rest.
One has to do with the intrinsic nature of mishpatim: They are abundantly rich, encompassing much.
That is, statutes sub-divide and pullulate, giving rise to more and more legal refinement or categories.
Some of these divine laws relate to individuals, others communal. Together, they endure far beyond
societal conventions that people devise for purposes of maintaining civil order.
We must especially consider the vast body of Jewish law which stems from the Ten Commandments.
Not surprisingly, Gentiles hold a vastly different and narrower view of the interpretation of them (“You
shall not murder” or “You shall not steal” etc.).
Two deals with the consequence of compliance. For mishpatim, God rewards handsomely. In contrast,
governments do not compensate the law abiding. To be sure, compliance for the Gentiles does ensure a
smooth, orderly community. The Creator, too, does not pay the nations for good conduct. But, as stated,
compliance does promote neighborliness.
God broadcasted the Ten Commandments on Sinai to the Hebrews. They were delivered in fantastic
shorthand (“You shall not…”). The game-changing, mountain-desert event staggered huddled masses. In
unison, the people told Moshe that they had had enough direct communication with God. From here on
out, Moshe would be their go-between. Subsequently, the exceedingly fine details of the Ten
Commandments, including Heaven’s renumeration for observance, came to the Jews via Moshe.
This preface provides proper context for our lead verse: “Now these are the statutes which you shall set