The Splendor of a Set Table


It occurred to me, as I was setting the table for Shabbat, that arranging candlesticks, kiddush cups and soup bowls is a mundane example of imitatio dei, an act that imitates God’s example. How so? In Hebrew, the words for a set table are shulchan aruch. This expression is familiar to many, as “Shulchan Aruch” is also the title of the enduring 16th-century work by Joseph Karo that lays out the Jewish Code of Law. Every law is organized by category, easy to access, like a set table. Karo said he wrote it as a tool for his students.

The basis for the Shulchan Aruch lies in this week’s Parashat Mishpatim. In fact, our understanding of Jewish law is framed by a joint reading of this week’s parsha and the Ten Commandments in last week’s reading [Exodus 20:2-17].

Our parasha begins with the words “V’eleh ha-mishpatim” (“And these are the laws”) that God is directing Moses to set before the Children of Israel [Ex. 21:1].  Rashi focuses on that first letter, vav — the “and” conjunction that joins the Revelation at Sinai with the seeming minutiae of Mishpatim. Rashi famously likens the detailed laws of our parasha to the set table: “k’shulchan he-aruch.” Everything is laid out, ready to eat [Talmud Eruvin 54b]. 

Our parasha, in prolix distinction to the spare Ten Commandments, lays out in detail the civil laws that God requires the Israelites to follow as they set up a just and moral society. Fifty-three of the 613 mitzvot — 23 do’s and 30 don’ts — are found in Mishpatim.

Why is Rashi so emphatic about the connecting “vav”? Why should we read the Ten Commandments as Part 1, and Mishpatim as Part 2, of God’s law code?

Reading Mishpatim nonstop after Yitro is dizzying. In Yitro we are at the heights, with God’s fiery breath uttering the Ten Commandments, punctuated by thunderclaps and lightning [Ex.19:16-19, 20:15; Avivah Zornberg]. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Honor your father and your mother. You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal…” [Ex. 20:2-14]. We know these commandments by heart, and we have sworn to keep them. They constitute a brit, or covenant, between us and God. 

But don’t stop reading. Almost immediately, in Mishpatim, we are dunked, metaphorically, into a cold-water bath of details. God is still speaking! “And these are the laws you shall set before them. If you buy a Hebrew slave … He who curses his father or his mother … If a man strikes a servant and he dies … An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” [Ex. 21:1, et seq.]

Note the parallels between the Ten Commandments and these laws in our parasha: Because we were slaves in Egypt and God set us free, we must treat servants evenhandedly and with compassion. Because we are commanded to honor our parents, there is a dire penalty if we do not. Because we are commanded not to kill, there are laws dealing with accidental and deliberate killings and injuries.

Part 1 of the brit lays out the broad principles; Part 2 takes the law into the everyday. Mishpatim, referred to as Sefer HaBrit, the Covenant Code, is the essential companion to the Ten Commandments. God is laying out the blueprint — the two-part brit — for a just and moral society.

Take, for example, this directive: “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset. For what else will he sleep in?” [Ex. 22:26-27]. God is saying, I am compassionate; you must be, too. Imitatio dei. Jonathan Sacks calls this “God’s law with a human face.” Look closely and we can see that God reveals His face to us via the laws He lays down!

The very first cluster of laws laid out in Mishpatim, known as Mishpat Eved, laws governing the Hebrew slave—how he is treated, how he can marry, how and when he is set free — is considered a litmus test of us as a people [Binyamin Lau]. Every person is important to God, so they should be important to us.

Empathy is legislated. We are commanded — 36 times in the Torah (some count 46), more times than any other mitzvah, says Rabbi Eliezer the Great in Talmud Bava Metzia 59b — not to oppress the ger, the stranger, because we were strangers, too [Ex. 22:20]. Ramban, Nachmanides, considers this the paradigm of imitatio dei.

This, then, is the price of having been freed from slavery. We must imitate the God who liberated us, and we must follow God’s two-part Covenant. And we must do it, says Professor Yochanan Muffs, willingly and with joy.

Sandra E. Rapoport is an attorney, Bible teacher and award-winning author. Her fourth book, “The Queen & The Spymaster” (KTAV), is a novel based on the story of Esther.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 5:19 p.m.

Torah: Ex. 21:1-24:18

Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26

Havdalah: 6:20 p.m.