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I was wondering how Jewish people understand this word with a specific interest in how it is best translated into English. In case it’s context specific here’s an example from Ezekiel (5:7) I was looking at today:

לָכֵן כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה יַעַן הֲמָנְכֶם מִן-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבוֹתֵיכֶם בְּחֻקּוֹתַי לֹא הֲלַכְתֶּם וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי לֹא עֲשִׂיתֶם וּכְמִשְׁפְּטֵי הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבוֹתֵיכֶם לֹא עֲשִׂיתֶם׃

The word, ordinances conjures up in my head council regulatoins. The word decrees conjures up thoughts of special one off documents stamped by kings, and the word, law, conjures up in my mind, the Torah. How do Jews understand this word in this context.


For reference, I am interested in the Jewish understanding. Christian commentaries interpret it as a reference to Leviticius 26. i.e. From the Word Biblical Commentary:

The mention of Yahweh’s “standards” (משׁפטים) and “rules” (חקות) corresponds to the regular phraseology in the Priestly source of the Pentateuch, as the list of OT comparative usage in M. Weinfeld’s Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972) 337 shows. More specifically, the clause “they have rejected my standards” seems to be an allusion to Lev 26:3, 15, which speak of the Israelites, in the second plural, as rejecting, rather than walking in, God’s rules. The abrupt change to a plural verb reflects lack of adjustment of the literary reference (cf Reventlow, Wächter 7–9; Greenberg 111; Rooker, Transition 62; see the Excursus following 6:1–14). The implicit understanding of Jerusalem in terms of its citizens underlies the survival of the plural form.

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    Why wouldn't it be "law", and referring to the Torah?
    – user9643
    Aug 24, 2017 at 1:04
  • So you are suggesting that משׁפטים and חקות are just plain references to 'law' in the sense that its all of the rules outlined in the Torah itself? Why are both words needed? Whats the difference between משׁפטים and חקות then?
    – Jay
    Aug 25, 2017 at 0:39
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    They refer to the different types of laws found in the Torah. חקות generally refers to laws which have no reason known to mankind (e.g. kosher). משׁפטים generally refers to laws which are logical (e.g. not to murder, steal, etc.). There's actually another type, עדות, which are laws which commemorate something (e.g. shabbos).
    – user9643
    Aug 25, 2017 at 2:31
  • @Ploni Thats really interesting, I am glad I asked. I wonder where I can read more about this?
    – Jay
    Aug 26, 2017 at 2:51
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    I don't know. That is what I was taught in school. (That's why it's in a comment. If I had a source I would post an answer).
    – user9643
    Aug 27, 2017 at 3:28

1 Answer 1

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Our sages usually divide mitzvos, G-dly commands found in the Torah, into three categories (see for example Ramban on Devarim 6:20 and Sforno ad. loc):

  1. Eidut (testimonies)
  2. Mishpatim (practical laws)
  3. Chukim (ordinances/decrees; It is an enactment from before Me; you have no right to criticize it)

The Mishpatim, e.g. the practical laws, are laws that are rational laws. It is moral behaviour. The Talmud says that if the Torah wouldn't be given, we would've learn how to behave in a modest way from a cat:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement, and that stealing is objectionable from the ant, which does not take grain from another ant, and forbidden relations from the dove, which is faithful to its partner, and proper relations from the rooster, which first appeases the hen and then mates with it.

Sforno (see list above) explains in his commentary that Eidut - testimonies - are mitzvos that are a reference to the philosophical, theological aspects of the Torah. These invariably relate to the supernatural matters described in the Torah. Examples of these mitzvos ares: Shabbos, or eating matzah on Pesach etc...

The Kos Shel Eliyahu, a commentary on the Pesach Haggadah written by Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Harush gives us another explanation of what Eidut are:

Testimonies (edut) are those practices which testify to the haste with which the redemption took place, such as the matzah which did not have time to rise because the Israelites left so quickly from Egypt.

Thus, Eidut - Testimonies - are mitzvos that remind us of what G-d did for us (mostly in Egypt) (see: Maarechet Heidenheim by Rabbi Tevele Bondi).

Mishpatim are laws that can also be found in nations. The Midrash says that a king will uphold laws in his nation. These laws are commonly known as "Civil Laws" - these are the Mishpatim of a nation.

Mishpatim convey the message that we need to behave like how we want to be treated by others. We don't want to be robbed, so we cannot steal. If some of our objects are lost, we expect, and truly wish that other people will bring back that objects to us.

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