Laws are promulgated today with the intention that they will be binding on all people, irrespective of their social and economic position in society. In the past, however, most of the law collections were wisdom texts that were compiled by sages and attributed to the rulers of their time. These “laws” were not used in the courts. We do not have a single legal case that was resolved according to them. People simply followed local custom. The same applies to biblical laws. We do not know to what extent biblical laws guided local judges in their daily cases, if ever, but, as wisdom sayings, they do display certain characteristics that are unique within the context of the ancient Near Eastern traditions.
Take, for example, the first statement of the so-called Covenant Code in the Book of Exodus: “These are the mishpatim that you shall place before them “(Ex. 21: 1).
We have two major issues with this text:
1. What are mishpatim? We don’t know exactly what they were. Originally, they seem to refer to court rulings. Most people now translate them as rules, regulations, judgments or statutes. The Aramaic translations of the Bible render them as “laws.” The Septuagint calls them “ordinances.”
2. The “laws” are to be placed “before them.” Who are “them”? According to a late rabbinic text, the Tanhuma (9th cent. CE?), this meant “before the Israelites but not the idolaters” (Mishpatim, 3). A 13th cent. Spanish-Jewish scholar, Nahmanides, understood it as “before the judges” who will implement the laws. A straight reading of the text, however, implies that “them” are all the Israelites. In other words, the laws have to be placed before the entire people for study and practice. Now, this is unparalleled in the past.
In the ancient Near East, law collections, such as the one by Hammurabi (17th cent. BCE) or Lipit Ishtar (19th cent. BCE), were primarily put together by wisdom teachers on behalf of the rulers, to indicate that they, the kings, were carrying out their civic responsibilities to the gods of administering justice in society, and thus deserving of divine favors. Laws were carved on stones and placed before the statues of the gods, and studied primarily by scholars in scribal schools. Most people were not even aware of these regulations and followed customary law. Furthermore, whereas in the Bible, the mishpatim are meant for all the Israelites, the laws of Hammurabi, for example, were restricted to those aggrieved parties who needed to know what the gods had revealed to the king and, by reading them, each victim could “set his mind at ease” (see, CH, Epilogue, lines 10-19).
The biblical injunction to place the regulations before the entire people of Israel made possible to establish general education for all; everyone is entitled to know and follow the laws diligently. In biblical Judaism, and later on in rabbinic Judaism, no individual has an exclusive on the Torah. Anyone can access it freely. Education is not limited to a few individuals, but is available to all Jews willing to learn. Torah is for all.
Now, that is remarkable.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Framingham State University, Boston, MA