I was going to give you a discourse about the roles of law in society, the tension between law and justice, laws as living things that are allowed to wither away – even without formal repeal – as society finds them increasingly unacceptable, abuse of power via enforcement of laws without allowing prosecutorial discretion,” zero tolerance” rules and laws that do not allow for even judicial discretion, and probably a few other legal issues as well. But I don’t feel like writing, or subjecting you to, a book. There will be plenty of opportunities in the rest of the Torah to discuss law. I like my 2016 comments, so I’ll rerun (recycle, repurpose, reuse) those with newly selected jokes and comments from 2012 on Shabbat Shekalim. I’m also fond of what I wrote last year and in 2014, each of which includes a bit of chaos theory as applied to legal systems, but I think we have enough chaos in our lives today already.
2012: This is the first of the four special Sabbaths (Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, and HaChodesh) that each require a second scroll reading and special haftarah and are intended to lead up to Passover. The special reading for Shabbat Shekalim is Exodus 30:11-16 about the census that was taken of the adult (20 and up) Israelites by means of a half-shekel donation. We’ll read that again in a few weeks, in Parashat Ki Tissa. The special haftarah is II Kings 11:17-12:17 (Ashkenazim, 12:1-17), concerning money donated to the priests for Temple maintenance.
2014: I just had lunch with a scientist who wants to be a patent agent (or thinks he wants to be), and I was reminded how boring it can be to read a patent straight through from start to finish. Reading sections is OK, say, if you’re hunting for something specific. But it’s not meant to be literature. It is supposed to teach how to use the claimed invention.
I felt my eyes similarly start to glaze over as I looked at this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. You thought there were only ten commandments? This portion contains 53, distributed among 118 verses. However, the great teacher Nechama Leibowitz appreciatively sums up Mishpatim in New Studies in Shemot, Part 2, page 379 as “…governing every facet of human existence. This comprehensive legislation covers relations between man and society, between members of the same community and between peoples, between man and man, man and his enemy, between man and plant and animal. The Torah herein regulates the life of the Jew at work and at leisure, at Sabbath and festivals and relations between man and his Maker.”
First, in 21:2-22:16, we read laws concerning slaves; penalties for assault, homicide, and kidnapping; theft; and restitution for stolen, damaged, or lost property. There follows a section (22:17-23:19) that codifies general moral behavior: provide for the poor and the widow and the orphan, return lost property, do not mistreat strangers (you should know better, having been strangers in Egypt). There is some text concerning the laws of the firstborn, the three harvest festivals, and the sabbatical (“shmitta”) year, with details to follow later. The final group of laws (23:20-33) reiterates what the Lord has promised and strong warnings against adopting Canaanite ways.
What is law for? It is a means of organizing a group of people into a stable society. Laws define what is good and what is bad. They are tools of behavior modification and control. Laws beget laws for many reasons. A situation may arise that doesn’t fall under existing laws. An existing law may generate an undesirable unforeseen consequence. A system of law, like a tree, is a living entity and needs judicious (pun intended) pruning, lest it collapse.
The overall aims of the laws in Mishpatim are fairness and honesty. One example is 21:23-25: 23 But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. This is always interpreted in the Talmud and later writings, not literally, but as “just compensation,” usually financial. The very next two verses prescribe that if a master strikes a slave resulting in the loss of an eye or tooth, the slave goes free.
Many centuries later, in early medieval Anglo-Saxon England, a system of financial compensation for damage done to a person (including homicide) or property existed at least as early as the 6th century. According to Anthony Musson in “Crime and the Compensation Culture in Medieval England,” “The compensation or ‘bot’ for injuries to different parts of the body depended upon their importance and the degree of injury itself: 50s was payable for a severed foot, but 10s for a big toe, piercing of the nose was 9s, mutilation of an ear 6s, striking out an eye, a hefty 50s; the level of payment for bruising depended upon whether the spot hit had been clothed or not, while there were also special provisions for teeth, fingers and the level of damage to one’s genitals. Compensation for killing a person or ‘wer’ was available in what some historians term ‘bloodmoney’ (weregild), and represented the price or worth of the man slain depending upon his social status.”
By the 12th century or so, capital punishment had replaced the system for serious crimes. We’ll see later in the Torah how valuation of individuals was made based on age and sex, but not social status.
In the last section of the portion (24:1-18), the Israelites enthusiastically accept all these (uh huh). And Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and nights to get the divinely inscribed stone tablets of the Law (the hard copy, heh heh), leaving Aaron and Hur in charge. Not that anything is going to happen while Moses is away, of course…
This lawyer is thorough
The attorney tells the accused, “I have some good news and some bad news.”
“What’s the bad news?” asks the accused.
“The bad news is, your blood is all over the crime scene, and the DNA tests prove you did it.”
“What’s the good news?”
“Your cholesterol is 130.”
Guilty as Charged
In Fort Worth, Texas, I was hauled before the judge for driving with expired license plates. The judge listened attentively while I gave him a long, plausible explanation.
Then he said with great courtesy, “My dear sir, we are not blaming you—we’re just fining you.”
Phil was driving down a country road late one night when he felt a big thud. He got out of the car and looked around, but the road was empty. Since there was nothing else to be done, Phil drove on home. In the morning the sheriff was standing at his doorstep. “You’re under arrest for hitting a pig and leaving the scene,” the lawman told him with a frown. “Please come with me.”
Phil couldn’t believe his ears. “But how could you possibly know that’s what happened?” he asked.
“It wasn’t hard,” the sheriff replied. “The pig squealed.”
“I’ve just discovered a 3,000 year old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!” the excited scientist exclaimed.
To which the curator replied, “Bring him in. We’ll check it out.”
A week later, the amazed curator called the archaeologist. “You were right
about both the mummy’s age and cause of death. How in the world did you
“Easy. There was a piece of paper in his hand that said, ‘10,000 Shekels
Funny Legal Headlines (selections)
- Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
- Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons
- Statistics Show That Teen Pregnancy Drops Off Significantly After Age 25
- Marijuana Issue Sent to a Joint Committee(Toronto Star, June 14, 1996)
- Homicide Victims Rarely Talk to Police(Express-Times, February 2004)
- State Prison To Replace Easy-Open Locks
- City Council Runs Out of Time to Discuss Shorter Meetings
- Midget Sues Grocer, Cites Belittling Remarks
- Man Shoots Neighbor With Machete
- Bar Trying to Help Alcoholic Lawyers
REFERENCES: PlainLanguage.gov [http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/humor/headlines.cfm]
Published: Saturday, September 29, 2012
By: Lloyd Duhaime Permalink
Quotes about Fairness and Justice
To threaten the institution is to threaten fair administration of justice and protection of liberty. Stephen Breyer
That is the definition of equal justice under law: everyone gets a fair shot, everyone pays their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. Eric Schneiderman
Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Congress is so beholden to the money that any solution in the general interest will be frustrated and subverted by the corporate interests who feel they will be damaged by progress, fair play and justice. E. L. Doctorow
For me, human rights simply endorse a view of life and a set of moral values that are perfectly clear to an eight-year-old child. A child knows what is fair and isn’t fair, and justice derives from that knowledge. Tom Stoppard
There is an insuperable problem about introducing immigrants to British values. There are no British values. Nor are there any Serbian or Peruvian values. No nation has a monopoly on fairness and decency, justice and humanity. Terry Eagleton