The chapters in Parshat Mishpatim cover a vast array of social rules, moral imperatives, ethical injunctions and civil and criminal laws, all of which are linked to the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) which were read last Shabbat.
Compensation must be made for damages caused by one's animals grazing on another's property or from a fire that one carelessly caused. Responsibilities of guardianship, situations in which someone is guarding that which belongs to someone else, are also discussed. The general principle is that liability increases with the benefit that the one guarding the property receives or expects for his services or that he gains from the entrusted property.
The subject matter moves from "stolen property to the stolen heart" and deals with the man who seduces an unmarried woman and is required to pay punitive damages to her and/or her father and must marry her provided that she consents. Three capital offenses described as "toevot" (abominations) follow -- the prohibition of sorcery, bestiality and apostasy.
This section concludes with laws that express concern for the disadvantaged of society -- the stranger, the widow and orphan, and the poor. The Torah states, for example, that one who lends money to a poor person should not demand repayment when none is reasonably forthcoming. Included in this passage is the prohibition of charging interest on personal loans. Additionally, if one takes a poor person's bedding as security for a loan, it must be returned each evening for his use.
One is forbidden to curse judges, The Judge, God, or leaders of the people. One should not withhold the gifts (e.g., firstlings of the soil, of the human womb and of domesticated animals) from God. While the latter laws deal with animals that are to be dedicated to God, the following law refers to those prohibited for human consumption. A "treifa," literally an animal torn up by a predator and left to die, is forbidden to eat.
This section concludes with laws intended to maintain the integrity of the judicial system and those regulating humane treatment of one's enemy. For example, courts many not hear one side of a dispute without the other party being present. Included in this prohibition is not to be influenced by rumors, Lashon HaRah. Judges may not accept testimony from unworthy witnesses. In their deliberations, judges must be careful not to do anything that might pervert justice or unfairly shift the feelings of the court against the accused. Generally, rules of law are determined by majority vote of the judges. Judges may not show favoritism, even towards the less fortunate.
What follows is a series of miscellaneous laws dealing with the perversion of justice, the taking of bribes, the oppression of strangers. Then, the Torah shifts to laws regulating the agricultural economy. Fields are to be worked for six years and allowed to rest during the seventh so that the poor and even the wildlife will be able to enjoy the land. Similarly, one must abstain from all manner of creative work on Shabbat.
An outline of the religious calendar is given beginning with Pesach in the spring. The calendar is followed by four laws that regulate ritual and ceremonial aspects of these holidays -- the prohibition of slaughtering the paschal lamb on the fourteenth of Nisan while the participant has not yet discarded all leaven products, the requirement that the fatty portions of the paschal sacrifice, those that attach to the stomach and intestines, be burnt before dawn, the requirement to bring the choicest of first fruits to the sanctuary on Shavuot; and the prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother's milk. So begins the need for two sets of dishes, OY!
Special Haftorah: Shabbat Shekalim
This haftorah signals the onrushing of special days on our Luach. It precedes Purim, and this haftorah, along with three others, lead us into the cherished days of Pesach. Despite our reluctance to speak about money on Shabbat, this haftorah emphasizes the monetary donations that ensured the upkeep of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We can perhaps draw from this reference that, since we no longer have a place for sacrificial offerings, our support of worthy, Jewish causes takes the place of lambs and goats on the altar. And it’s so much more streamlined to donate funds rather than lead an animal to Jerusalem for ritual slaughter!