Parshas Mishpatim

Parshas Mishpatim:
The Jewish Idea of Prison:
Teaching the Thief a Thing or Two


 By: Rabbi Yehonoson Dovid Hool


Teaching the Thief a Thing or Two


Surprisingly, though Parshas Mishpatim is devoted almost exclusively to Mishptei HaTorah – the Torah’s laws of money and finance, it opens with the laws of Eved Ivri, the Jewish slave. Rashi points out that this Parshah is discussing the situation in which a thief is caught and no longer has the stolen object, nor does he have enough money to pay for that which he stole. In such a case, the Beis Din has no choice but to sell him into slavery for up to six years, using the money derived from the sale to pay back the thief’s victim.
At first glance this seems an odd choice for an introduction to the Halachos of business and money. Rav Yisroel Salanter explains with a parable. Imagine a father who has five sons, four of whom are fine, honest upstanding members of the community. The fifth, however, has left the path of straight and narrow, is mixing with undesirables and is generally heading in a downward direction. Which of his sons is on the father’s mind continuously? This last son, the one who has gone bad, the father thinks about constantly, worrying and trying to think of a way to bring him back to the right path.
So too, the Almighty opens the Parshah with the thief, the Jew who has gone astray, because he is the one that He is concerned about, who is, so to speak, uppermost in the mind of Hashem. But there is a deeper message here too.
The Talmud (Kiddushin 22a) teaches us that an eved ivri, a Jewish slave, must be treated as an equal to his master, “For it is good for him with you,” (Devorim 15:16) – “With you” implies that he must have the same status as his master. He eats the same quality food as his master, he must be given to drink the same fine wines that his master drinks, and he must be given sleeping accommodations in line with the level of luxury that his master enjoys. If the master wears a rabbinical coat, a Hamburg hat, and sits by the eastern wall in the synagogue, the slave receives the same treatment!
What if there’s not enough for both of them? What if, for example, there is only one pillow available? The master can’t use it because then he would be better off than the slave, which is forbidden. He will have no choice then, but to give the solitary pillow to the slave, and he himself must do without one.

 In honor of the commencement of
Maseches Sanhedrin
 the Bais HaVaad
would like to invite the
Lomdei Daf Yomi
 to partake in a series of practical Choshen Mishpat Shiurim
The Bais Din Process
Delivered by:
Rav Dovid Cohen
Safra DiDayna Bais Din Maysharim

View a fascinating 
Related Video 
From the
 Bais HaVaad’s
Video Series:
in Conjunction with the Orthodox Union


Ponzi Schemes and Clawbacks in Halacha
Delivered by:
Rav Dovid Grossman

Rosh Bais HaVaad

~ Related Shiur ~
Bava Kama,
Perek 9, Daf 94:
The Teshuva Process of a Thief
R’ Yitzchok Silver;
Dayan in Yerushalayim,
Author: Sefer Shaarei Mishpat


Sponsor an Issue of the PARSHA PERSPECTIVES

 What kind of work is the slave expected to perform? Rashi (Vayikra 25:43), quoting Chazal, states that one may only ask him to do things that are really necessary. One may not instruct a Jewish slave to warm up a hot drink, for example, if the master doesn’t actually want the drink. So if the master wants to ensure that he doesn’t transgress this prohibition, he will have to think very carefully if he really needs it before instructing the slave to do something.
All this serves to make life quite difficult for the master, so much so that the Talmud says that whoever buys for himself an eved ivri is actually buying a master over himself! Who would do such a thing? What type of person would undertake the responsibility of taking into his home a convicted thief and then treating him royally? And why on earth does this thief deserve this treatment? True, he will have to work to repay the theft, but why put him on an equal footing with his master, and on occasion, as we have noted, sometimes even above his master? The answer to this question reveals a fundamental insight into the Torah’s justice system
True, a thief must repay the theft, and if there is no other way he must be sold into servitude until the debt is repaid, but this consequence is more than just a punishment and a means of rectifying the wrong that has been done. The Torah enters the felon into a rehabilitation process. Prison protects society from convicts, but when they are released, are they ready to re-enter society or have they learned a few more tricks while in jail that will endanger society even more? The Torah doesn’t want the thief to degenerate further; it wants him to be rehabilitated so that when he has paid his dues it will be safe to release him back into society.
How does one teach a thief how to respect other people’s property, to hold back from taking that which is not rightfully his even when he feels his need is greater? As always, the most effective way to teach is by personal example. This thief will only be bought by someone who is willing to give away his own money at the risk of taking him into his own home. He will then provide the felon with everything that he himself has, ensuring that he receives no less than his master. Certainly, the thief will learn that he must work hard to rectify the wrongs that he has wreaked upon others, but at the same time he will see, day in and day out, the selfless example of a master who ensures that the thief is respected and provided for as much as the master himself. When there is only one pillow in the house, and his master gives it to him, going to sleep himself without a pillow, it will surely cause the slave to pause and reflect upon the altruism that this man who has taken him into his home is demonstrating.
When he finally gets released after six years, having repaid his debt to those from whom he stole, he will hopefully have internalized this message, to the extent that he will have been rehabilitated; he will no longer pose a danger to society, and who knows, he might even go on to prove to be a model of selflessness and dedication to others!
The Torah opens its laws of money and finance with the laws of eved ivri to teach us that the foundation on which all these halachos rests, an appreciation for the property rights of others, is most effectively taught and learned by example. And thus, it is worth bearing in mind that adherence to the halachos of Choshen Mishpat is not just vital for one’s own morals, but is also crucial in order to spread this sensitivity to others.
* * *

To dedicate an issue of the Perspectives, CLICK HERE
or contact the Bais HaVaad at

Join Our Mailing List

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.