Parshas Mishpatim and Sh'kalim 5758 - '98

Outline Vol. 2, # 17

by Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein

This issue has been dedicated by Dr. Lewis Eisner

The Yahrzeit of Rav Yisrael Salanter

Rav Yisrael Salanter is the founder of the modern Mussar Movement, a system which focuses on ethical responsibilities.

Rav Yisrael's yahrzeit always occurs during Parshas Mishpatim. His students explained the significance: Mishpatim deals with civil laws, which point to the obligation of each person towards another. Rav Yisrael's yahrzeit occurs now, because he devoted his life to clarifying social responsibilities. (Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos 41.)


The Torah’s goal is for man to strive for perfection. The many aspects of Torah study and Jewish practice are designed for this end. (T'nuas HaMussar part 1.)

Is the Torah chiefly legal, or ethical? Is there a discrepancy between the Torah’s handling of these areas?

Rambam composed the most complete legal code. There are chapters devoted to character development; and there are chapters devoted to fundamental beliefs of Judaism. Rambam incorporated moral development as a legal issue, and philosophic doctrine as a legal issue. (ibid.)

In modern times, the Chafetz Chayim wrote laws about slander and pure speech -- areas usually regulated to the realm of moral and ethical, but not necessarily legal, exhortations. (ibid.)

The Talmud often shows that apparently moral issues override legal ones; but the Shulchan Orech (code of law) incorporates these overriding issues within the confines of Halacha (law). (ibid.)

In the past, we have discussed Emunah Ubitachon of the Chazon Ish, which demonstrates that the Halacha contains within itself a complete ethical system.

If so, why is Mussar, according to Rav Yisrael and his students, a separate study? The study of the Halacha, alone, should suffice!

The modern classic, T'nuas HaMussar (translated in part as The Mussar Movement), claims that, although Halacha and Mussar are part and parcel of the same entity, focus in Torah studies became narrowed in scope over the generations, until the traditions regarding ethical attitudes and essential beliefs were all but lost. (T'nuas HaMussar part 1.)

For this reason, we often find major controversies regarding the fundamentals of Judaism. For example, the debates regarding the study of philosophy, the controversy over Kabbalah study, the debates between the Chasidim and the opposition (the Misnagdim). The reason that such debates specifically touched fundamental Jewish belief was due to the fact that the rich traditions of ethical teaching had been forgotten, and needed to be reclaimed. (ibid.)

Although there are laws codified, that are based on the ethical traditions of Judaism, Rav Yisrael used to say that there is a fifth section of Shulchan Orech (code of law) -- the laws of proper conduct. Well, our editions only have four. Apparently, the underlying morality of the laws is not readily perceived by the average student. The Mussar teaching brings to the forefront the fundamental attitude of responsibility inherent in the Torah.

All that we have explained, however, is seen by the author of Pachad Yitzchok as being superficial. Rav Yisrael’s role was deeper than this, and his connection to Parshas Mishpatim is deeper.

Parshas Mishpatim (Based on Rav Yitzchok Hutner, Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos 41, chapter 1) The Bris

Besides the laws in the parsha, there is a description of events that occured about the time of the Receiving of the Torah. (There is a dispute as to whether it occured in the days before, or after, the Receiving of the Torah. See Ramban, Shmos 24:1)

A Bris (covenant, agreement) was made between the people and Hashem. Moshe made an altar, and sacrifices were offered; half of the blood was sprinkled on the altar. (Shmos 24:4-6)

Moshe read the “Book of the Bris,” then he sprinkled half of the blood on the people. He called this the “Blood of the Bris.” (Shmos 24:8) Half for Heaven, and half for the people: This division into halves, established the Sealing of the Bris. All of this is included in the events of Mount Sinai.

A few verses later, Moshe is told that he will receive the tablets (Shmos 24:12), which are elsewhere referred to as “Tablets of the Bris.” (Devorim 9:11)

The Two Tablets

Many times in the Torah, ‘tablets’ is spelled as if it were singular. Rashi asked: Why is the word 'tablets' spelled as if it were a singular word -- tablet? The Torah -- Rashi answered -- is trying to tell us that the two tablets are of equal importance. Therefore, the two tablets constitute one inseparable entity. (Shmos 31:18)

Many people are familiar with the idea that there were five expressions on one tablet, and five on the other. Five are concerned with social obligations; five are concerned with our relationship to Hashem. Rashi is then telling us that our social obligations are on an equal plane to our purely religious duites.

There is a difference between the terms “Book of the Bris,” and “Tablets of the Bris.” The torah is called the “Book of the Bris,” because it has in it the words of the Bris. However, the expression “Tablets of the Bris” has a different connotation. The Tablets were, themselves, the Bris. (Moshe’s breaking the tablets, after the incident of the Golden Calf, had the effect of nullifying the agreement.)

The Tablets, which constituted the Bris Hatorah, equated communal responsibilities to purely religious ones. Now, we can have an appreciation of Rav Yisrael’s role in history.

It seems that Rav Yisrael came to arouse attention and interest for ethical character development. This is true, but only a superficial explanation, without looking at the source. In reality, Rav Yisrael was attempting to renew the Crown of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan’s 'Chofetz Chayim' and 'Ahavas Chesed', show Rav Yisrael Salanter's influence, for they are legal works based on ethical issues. But more: the 'Mishnah B'rurah' -- a basic legal text, dealing with religious law -- comes from the same author as the 'Chofetz Chayim' -- the laws of slander and pure speech! Here, truly, we see the influence of Rav Yisrael Salanter. (Pachad Yitzchok, ibid.)

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
Kollel of Kiryas Radin
11 Kiryas Radin
Spring Valley, NY 10977
Phone: (914) 362-5156
E-mail: [email protected]

Good Shabbos!

Text Copyright © '98 Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Project Genesis, Inc.

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