Breaking the Rules by Chanan Strassman


If Moshe Rabbeinu were to hand in Parshat Mishpatim to his high school English teacher, it would certainly not receive an ‘A.’  Now Moshe was a brilliant scholar (not to mention that his words came directly from God), and Parshat Mishpatim is a thought-provoking work filled with depth and substance.  What could Moshe have done to merit a poor grade on his work?  The problem lies in the first letter of Parshat Mishpatim.  When Moshe wrote “Ve’eileh Hamishpatim,” “And these are the ordinances,” he violated a cardinal rule of writing: NEVER begin a sentence with “and.”  It is true that there are certain situations where the use of “and” in the beginning of a sentence is permissible; the beginning of an entire Parsha, however, is certainly not one of these rare exceptions.  What could the significance of this violation be?  Why did Moshe begin Parshat Mishpatim with “and?”

Moshe did not write each Parsha as a single essay, but rather as a part of a larger continuous unit.  Rashi writes that Moshe began Parshat Mishpatim with “and” in order to connect it to the previous Parsha, Parshat Yitro.  According to Rashi, the “and” connects the ordinances of Mishpatim to the laws regarding the Mizbeach in the conclusion of Yitro.  Thus, Moshe is justified in breaking the rules of good writing.

Rashi explains Moshe’s seemingly inexcusable writing error wonderfully.  However, one cannot help but wonder what the link between Parshat Mishpatim and the Mizbeach could possibly mean.  What is the reason for their connection?

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch answers this perplexing question.  When the Torah discusses the construction of the Mizbeach, it prohibits the use of metal utensils, showing that the Mizbeach and Hashem are not affiliated with tools of violence, such as (metal) swords.  Rav Hirsch explains that when Moshe connected the “Mishpatim” to the laws regarding the Mizbeach, he was teaching us that just as the Mizbeach is not affiliated with violence, the Mishpatim should be followed in a civil and reasonable manner, not a harsh or cruel one.

Although Rav Hirsch answers the question on Rashi’s explanation, there is still a problem.  Later in Parshat Mishpatim, we are told to “award a life for a life; an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; a hand for a hand; a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn; a wound for a wound; a bruise for a bruise” (21:23-25).  The Torah appears to be commanding us to do exactly the opposite of what Rav Hirsch said.  According to Rav Hirsch, the word “and” was teaching us not to follow the Mishpatim harshly, but all of this “eye for an eye” business sounds extremely harsh and violent!  It seems more like revenge than reasonable justice!

The Ibn Ezra resolves our contradiction through logical thinking.  He reasons that the Torah could not have intended for us to follow the literal meaning of “an eye for an eye,” because there is no way to know the exact amount of the “eye” that was lost.  If Reuven damages Shimon’s eye, Shimon has no precise method by which to measure the damage he must inflict upon Reuven’s eye in order to repay exactly “an eye for an eye.”  Instead of following this literal explanation of “an eye for an eye,” Rashi cites Bava Kamma 84a.  There, the Gemara teaches that “One who blinds another’s eye pays the damaged person money in proportion to the damage done.”  In other words, an “eye for an eye” is monetary compensation in proportion to the amount of damage that was inflicted.

To prove beyond all doubt that “an eye for an eye” refers to monetary compensation, the Vilna Gaon makes an interesting observation.  The Pasuk of “an eye for an eye” is written in Hebrew as “Ayin Tachat Ayin.”  The Hebrew word for “eye” used in the Pasuk is “Ayin,” consisting of the letters “Ayin,” “Yud,” and “Nun.”  The next word in the Pasuk, “Tachat,” can mean “under,” which alludes to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet that directly follow the letters used in the word “Ayin.”  The letter “Pey” comes after, or is “under,” the letter “Ayin,” just as the letter “Kaf” is “under” the letter “Yud” and “Samach” is “under” the letter “Ayin.”  These 3 under-letters to which “tachat” alludes spell the word “Kesef” (Chaf-Samach-Pey), meaning “money.”  Thus, the letters of “Ayin Tachat Ayin” allude to monetary compensation.

No author can produce a perfect piece of work in only one try.  However, we know as Jews that Moshe is an exception.  There are no mistakes in our Torah because Hashem told Moshe exactly what to write in it.  Each and every line is true, and as we have just seen, all of the words and even the letters have their own purpose for appearing in our weekly Parshiot.  So if Moshe wants to begin a Parsha with “and,” don’t hand him over to your English teacher.

--Based on a Dvar Torah by Avi Wagner (

Synthesis by David Gross

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