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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Mishpatim(72)

This week's sedra sets forth many laws between Man and Man and between Man & G-d. The laws show the Torah's appreciation for both law, man's responsibility and unconditional respect for the individual.

Exodus 21:37

When a man will steal an ox or a sheep and slaughter it or sell it, five cattle he must pay in place of the ox and four sheep in place of the sheep.


Five cattle etc: Rashi: Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakai G-d ("Hamakom") respects the honor of the creatures. An ox, which walks on its legs [when it was stolen] and the thief was not demeaned by having to carry it on his shoulders, he pays fivefold; [whereas, if he steals] a sheep, which he has to carry on his shoulders, he pays [only] fourfold, since he was demeaned in the process. Said Rabbi Meir: Come and see how great is the importance of work: [The thief, who by stealing] an ox, which kept it from its work, must pay fivefold. A sheep, whereby he did not keep it from its work, he pays [only] fourfold.


Rashi cites two beautiful and morally educational Midrashim. Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakai teaches us that even thieves deserve consideration. A person may steal out dire need; while this does not absolve him of responsibility for paying the victim, we must still take into account the respect due the individual. In our case, since the thief had to demean himself by having to carry the sheep on his shoulders, this act reduces the amount he must pay the victim. We should note, that the victim is not made to suffer at the expense of the respect we give the thief (as often the case in modern courts) - in any case he receives more than he lost - four times as much. We find a similar approach in the Torah of respecting one who is found guilty and is punished with lashes. Once he has paid his dues, we call him our brother as a way of giving him the respect due him as any other person. (See Rashi Deuter.25:3).


Rabbi Meir stresses another point - the importance of work. Since the ox does work for its owner, while sheep does not, therefore the Torah requires the thief to pay more since he deprived its owner of the work his stolen ox could have done for him.


When Rashi offers two interpretations or two midrashim, the commentators often attempt to understand why he needed both of them. The approach is to see what may be weak about each one that brought Rashi to cite both of them.

Can you see what is weak with each midrash that necessitated Rashi to cite both of them?

Hint: See the verses before and after our verse. For example 21:33& 4. and verse 22:3.

Your Answer:


An Answer: We see that in verses 21:33 & 34 a man who is responsible for loss of life of his neighbor's ox pays the same as when he is responsible for any other animal. (See Rashi on verse 33 that all animals are included in this law). So it does not seem that the loss of a working animal would obligate the person to pay more as Rabbi Meir's drash teaches us.

Regarding Rabbi Yochanon's drash that carry the animal should diminish the debt, we see in verse 22:3 that the Torah does not differentiate between an ox or a sheep. Both pay the same amount - double.

So Rashi possibly cited both Midrashim because each one alone had a question that could be asked on it.


The simplest explanation for Rashi citing both of these midrashim is that Rashi thought both were important lessons to teach. Certainly that is true.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.

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