(Chapters 21:1–24:18)


                                        Was the entire Torah revealed at Sinai?


In the Torah portion of Mishpatim, we find the beginning of the unfolding of an intricate and complex set of social regulations called civil laws in most societies. Civil laws place God outside of the public arena and replaces divine mandates with human legislation.[1]


What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in a society in which God is the legislator? Think about the laws in many Muslim countries, which are based on what the clerics believe Allah wants. Does it make sense to require women to cover their faces or to prohibit men from wearing short pants? The vast majority of Israelis in Israel are not observant Jews; they do not keep and do not want to keep the laws of Judaism. Should Israel require all Israelis to observe religious laws, just as Muslim countries do? What about marriages and divorces? Israel currently requires that marriages and divorces should be handled by rabbis in accordance with rabbinical laws. Should Israel allow civil marriages and civil divorces?


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The opening verse of Mishpatim states: “And these are the ordinances that you should set before them.” Based on Midrash Mekhilta, Rashi wrote that the conjunction “and” that introduces this verse connects the civil laws that follow with those that preceded them, the Decalogue revealed at Sinai. The fourth century Midrash and the eleventh century Bible commentator Rashi contend that the revelation at Sinai was not restricted to the Decalogue. All Torah laws, they contend, were promulgated there. “And,” according to their view, links the Decalogue with the civil laws in this portion.


Other Midrashim and Rashi are consistent and interpret other verses as indicators that all Torah commandments are Sinaitic in origin. The notion is found, for example, in their interpretation of Leviticus 25:1. Rashi explains why, in his opinion, the section of the Torah dealing with the sabbatical year informs us that “God spoke with Moses on the mountain of Sinai.” Based on the fourth century Midrash Sifra, Rashi ignores the fact that 25:1 is only speaking about the sabbatical year and states that the Torah mentions Sinai in its discussion of the sabbatical year to indicate that just as the sabbatical laws were revealed by God at Sinai, so too, every biblical command was revealed at Sinai.


Why then does the Torah state that some laws were given at Sinai, some at the Tent of Meeting, and some in the desert of Moab? Rashi and many Midrashim ignore the plain meaning of the biblical passages which state that the Torah was revealed part by part as needed. They contend that all the laws were given at Sinai and were repeated twice more, at the Tent of Meeting and in the desert of Moab. Maimonides (1138-1204) disagreed. He stated that the biblical laws were not delivered at a single time at Mount Sinai; some were given at Sinai, some at assemblies at the Tent of Meeting, and others in the desert of Moab.[2] Thus, for example, the laws of the Tabernacle and sacrifices were only issued after the Israelites’ behavior with the golden calf demonstrated the Israelite’s need for a tangible place of worship. Maimonides also recognized that virtually all the Oral Laws were later developments instituted by rabbis to meet the changed needs of later times.


Does it seem strange that the Midrashim and Rashi’s principle that all the biblical commands were revealed by God at Sinai is derived from an interpretation of the letter vav, “and,” in the biblical book Exodus[3] as well as the insertion of “Mount Sinai” in an innocuous verse in Leviticus that is not discussing the revelation of the entire Torah? If it is true that God revealed the entire Torah at Mount Sinai, why couldn’t the Torah teach this idea explicitly?[4] And if this query is justified with regard to the Torah itself, how much more so with regard to the Oral Law that many traditional Jews feel was also revealed at Sinai and is as binding upon Jews as the Written Law?


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Many Jews are convinced that the “Oral Law” is comprised of interpretations and additions to what is written in the Torah and that both were revealed by God to the Israelites at Mount Sinai through Moses. Numbers 15:32–36 as well as many other biblical sources show that this is not true. This section tells that the Israelites found “a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.” Moses had to enquire of God “because it had not been declared (when the Sabbath laws were promulgated) what should be done to him.”[5] Rashi quotes the Babylonian Talmud:[6] they knew that he should be punished by death but didn’t know “by which kind of death he should die.” This shows that not all laws and details about laws were mentioned at Sinai. What then is the meaning of “the oral law was given at Sinai”? The oral law is so important that it is as if it had been revealed at Sinai.[7]



[1] However, many religious Jews say that civil laws are divine ordinances addressing social issues.

[2] Actually, the Torah only states that the Decalogue was revealed at Mount Sinai.

[3] This is especially questionable since most biblical portions begin with the letter vav, “and.”

[4] Another problem with the view that the entire Torah was revealed at Mount Sinai is the fact that the Torah relates many events that occurred after the revelation of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai, including such things as various rebellions of the Israelites against Moses and Moses’ death.

[5] This is one of three instances where the Bible states that Moses had to ask God what the law is. See also Numbers 27:5 and the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 119a-120 a, and Shabbat 96b, about whether the daughters of Zelophehad could inherit. See Numbers 9:8 where Moses needs to ask God how to treat the men who could not observe the Pascal sacrifice on time.

[6] Sanhedrin 40a.

[7] Oral laws are additions to and modifications of Torah laws that were developed during the post-biblical period by the rabbis at different times to address the changed needs of the post-biblical periods. The oral law is the basis of rabbinic Judaism and is in contrast to Torah Judaism, which takes the Bible literally. Sadducees during the second temple period and Karaites that began in the Middle Ages took the Bible literally. Pharisees and later rabbis did not. An example is “eye for an eye” which literally means that if a person took out an eye of another person he is punished by losing an eye. The rabbis changed the law to monetary compensation which is the value of the injured eye. Another example of oral law is “prozbul.” The Torah states that all debts are canceled during the Sabbatical year that occurs every seventh year. Noticing that the debt cancellation had a detrimental effect upon commerce, the sage Hillel developed a procedure during the beginning of the Common Era that debts symbolically assigned to a court would not be cancelled.