Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:8)

Chaos and legal systems are intimately linked, and not (just) because the latter are designed to eliminate the former.

This week, after three humdinger, action-filled portions, our Torah reading is about the foundations of the society the Israelites are in the process of forming.  By some accountings, Mishpatim contains 53 laws.  There are laws about: Hebrew slaves; selling a daughter as a bondswoman (I’m using ArtScroll’s Stone edition translation); manslaughter; murder; striking or cursing one’s parents; kidnapping; injuring another; accidentally causing a woman to miscarry or die (if she dies, see 21:23-25, “a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” Ditto for hand, foot, burn, wound, bruise); goring oxen; negligent pit digging (21:33-35); theft; permitting one’s livestock to devour another’s produce; negligent fire-setting; responsibility for items put in one’s care; giving and buying defective property (22:9-14); seduction of virgins; sorceresses; bestiality; offerings to other gods; oppressing strangers, widows, or orphans; money lending; reviling the Lord and cursing leaders; delaying certain offerings; accepting or providing false reports; going along with the majority for evil; glorifying the poor; returning lost property; helping someone you hate; perversion of justice (e.g., bias, bribery); the sabbatical year; and the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot).  This is followed by a list of everything good that will happen to the Israelites if they follow all of that and do not adopt native practices.  Punishments for infractions vary, including, for example: restoration or restitution, plus a penalty; fines; compensation (e.g., for lost work time); and death.

I’ve begun watching a DVD course (put out by The Teaching Company) on chaos theory, by Professor Steven Strogatz of Cornell University.  “Chaos” denotes a kind of unpredictable behavior occurring in a deterministic system.  But in a deterministic system, the present determines the future.  Period.  So this sounds like a paradox.  Rather, chaos is “a subtle mix of order and randomness; it is predictable in the short run (because of determinism) but unpredictable in the long run (because of sensitivity to initial conditions.” (Strogatz’s course transcript, vol. 1, p. 205, glossary).  Chaos theory focuses on the nature of the process, not the specific material (a beating heart, a growing tree, a coastline) undergoing the process; that is, given the laws, what are the consequences?  Chaos theory includes the study of fractals, and I’ve been interested in fractals for a while, especially those in nature (see, e.g., http://classes.yale.edu/fractals/panorama/nature/natfracgallery/natfracgallery.html ) like branching fractals in trees (especially when they’re bare):


“A fractal is a pattern that repeats at different scales, and examples are all around us. Technically, we call shapes like this “Self-Similar” because a little piece of the shape looks similar to itself.

TPH fractal elmtrees

Elm trees. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wolfe. 

“There are a few things to notice about the fractal structure of a tree. First of all, a tree is approximately self-similar. That is, a small piece of the tree looks somewhat like an entire tree. Secondly, while a tree is a large, complex object, it is formed by repeating a simple process over and over again. This is a basic principle that we will see over and over again in all the various fractals we’ll encounter, whether in nature, on paper, or in a computer.”

Anyhow, the fractal nature of trees reminded me of the nature of law.  Laws beget laws which beget still more laws, pretty much by the same process whence the link in my mind to a growing tree.  A law is enacted.  It has unintended consequences.  Other laws are enacted to deal with each of those consequences.  Then still more laws are enacted to deal with each of the unintended consequences of the laws enacted to deal with the unintended consequences of the first law. And so on.  We certainly see that in Jewish law, Mishpatim being a good example, certainly expanding on the parts explicitly expanding on the Ten Commandments.  Can chaos theory thus be related to legal systems?  I thought I was on to something.  I apparently was, since I quickly found others who have considered this. One example: D. M. Mitrović (Faculty of Law, University of Belgrade) in his “The New Path of Law: From Theory of Chaos to Theory of Law,” available online at http://facta.junis.ni.ac.rs/lap/lap2001/lap2001-04.pdf .  I’ll have to look into this more.  I’m only a few lectures into the course.

Shabbat shalom,


A young lawyer, starting up his private practice, was very anxious to impress potential clients. When he saw the first visitor to his office come through the door, he immediately picked up his phone and spoke into it,” I’m sorry, but my caseload is so tremendous that I’m not going to be able to look into your problem for at least a month. I’ll have to get back to you then.” He then turned to the man who had just walked in, and said, “Now, what can I do for you?”

“Nothing,” replied the man. “I’m here to hook up your phone.”


Quotes on Chaos

“There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns.
If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself.
What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can’t decipher. What we can’t understand we call nonsense. What we can’t read we call gibberish.
There is no free will.
There are no variables.”
― Chuck PalahniukSurvivor

“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”
― W. Somerset MaughamThe Painted Veil

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”
― Mary Shelley

Selected Murphy’s and Others’ Laws


Every solution breeds new problems.

New systems generate new problems

Faber’s Laws:

1. If there isn’t a law, there will be.

2. The number of errors in any piece of writing rises in proportion to the writer’s reliance on secondary sources.

Cohen’s Laws of Politics:

Law of Inside Dope: There are many inside dopes in politics and government.

Law of Lawmaking: Those who express random thoughts to legislative committees are often surprised and appalled to find themselves the instigators of law.

Cooper’s Metalaw: A proliferation of new laws creates a proliferation of new loopholes.

Optimum Optimorum Principle: There comes a time when one must stop suggesting and evaluating new solutions, and get on with the job of analyzing and finally implementing one pretty good solution.

Zymurgy’s First Law of Evolving System Dynamics: Once you open a can of worms, the only way to recan them is to use a larger can. (Old worms never die, they just worm their way into larger cans.).



tph Meyer-DeathPenalty-0409-300x226



Eye Test Chart

When his eyes began to give him trouble, a man went to an ophthalmologist in Prague.

The doctor showed the patient the eye chart, displaying the letters CVKPNWXSCZ.

“Can you read that?” the doctor asked.

“Can I read it?” the Czech replied. “I dated his sister!”


Choosing the Right Dental Filling

A little boy called Josh was taken to the dentist.  Examination revealed that Josh had a cavity, which needed filling.

‘Now, young man,’ asked the dentist, ‘what kind of filling would you like for that tooth, amalgam or composite?’

‘I would prefer chocolate, please,’ replied Josh.


From The Best Ever Book of Good Clean Jokes

By Bob Phillips

p. 56  I once saw a movie so bad six states use it in place of capital punishment.

p. 130  Mrs. Franklin had been called for jury duty.  She declined to serve because, she said, she did not believe in capital punishment.  The judge tried to persuade her to stay.  “Madam,” he said, “this is not a murder case.  It is merely a case in which a wife is suing her husband because she gave him $4000 to buy her a new fur coat and he lost it all at the race track instead.”

“I’ll serve,” agreed Mrs. Franklin.  “I could be wrong about capital punishment.”

p. 215  The little young lady of the house, by way of punishment for some minor misdemeanor, was compelled to eat her dinner alone at a little table in a corner of the dining room.  The rest of the family paid no attention to her presence until they heard her audibly praying over her repast with the words: “I thank thee, Lord, for preparing a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

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2 Responses to Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:8)

  1. Pingback: Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:8), Shabbat Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16) | Torah Portion Humor Weekly

  2. Pingback: Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:8), Shabbat Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16) | Torah Portion Humor Weekly

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