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Parshas Mishpatim, as its name implies, deals with the civil laws of the Torah. Out of all the civil laws in the Torah, the parshah begins with the laws of the Hebrew slave. Why did the Torah see fit to introduce the Mishpatei Hatorah with this particular set of laws?

  • I am not convinced by the answers found here. If this commandment had been last, they would have argued that it's to teach us that the institution of slavery is not destined to endure. – Maurice Mizrahi Feb 1 at 21:07
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I thought of two possible answers, and am happy to see that they are both supported by Mefarshim here:

  1. Because we were just released from being slaves in Egypt:

    התחיל המשפט הראשון בעבד עברי, מפני שיש בשילוח העבד בשנה השביעית זכר ליציאת מצרים הנזכר בדבור הראשון, כמו שאמר בו: וזכרת כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים ויפדך י״י אלהיך על כן אנכי מצוך את הדבר הזה היום (דברים ט״ו:ט״ו).‏ (Ramban, followed by other meforshim)

    והטעם שהתחיל בשלוח העבדים. לפי שבזה הדבר ראוי לשים לפניהם. אחר שהם היו עבדים במצרים והשם יתברך הוציאם מעבדות לחירות. כאומרו אנכי ה׳ אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך. ראוי להם שישלחו עבדיהם חפשים. ושתהיה זאת המצוה ראשונה להם לרחם על העבדים. (Tzror Hamor)‏

  2. Because this is the best example of respect for other people, which the Aseres Hadibros concluded with:

    והעיקר, שלא יעשה אדם חמס ויכריח מי שהוא מעט ממנו ביכולת. והחל מהאונס שהוא בגוף להעביד העבד, ואחר כן הזכיר האמה.‏ (Ibn Ezra)

    כאן באה חוקת היסוד להסדרת היחסים בין האדם לבין עבדו העברי מבחינת המשפט האלוקי הכללי, והיא מוכתבת גם בויקרא (כה, לט ואילך) וגם בדברים (טו, יב ואילך). בס׳ ויקרא המצוות, שחוקת המדינה הישראלית1 קובעת ביחס לעבד עברי‏ (RDZ Hoffman)

  • Good answer [15] – kouty Jan 27 at 17:42
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Haamek Davar says: Because the recently articulated decalogue says that God released us from servitude [to be his servants], it was obvious to the Jews that they couldn't own one another in the typical master-servant relationship. So the first law taught clarified what they were wondering: what sort of matter-servant relationship could exist, and how it could come about.

  • I think this is different from the צרור המור quoted in the other answer. – msh210 Jan 30 at 19:17
  • it certainly is. Nice find! – רבות מחשבות Jan 30 at 19:27
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Rabbi Hirsch sees a sensible order in beginning Torah Shebichsav with these exceptional cases, being that the source of Jewish laws is really Torah Shebal peh.

Some small excerpts of what he writes on verse 2, just to get the idea:

To the unprejudiced mind, nothing can show so strikingly the truth of the traditional oral-law as the first two paragraphs, V. 2-6 and 7-11, with which this Mosaic Lawgiving starts.

What a mass of laws and principles of jurisprudence must have already been said and fixed, considered, laid down and explained, before the Book of Law could reach these, or even speak of these, which after all, are only quite exceptional cases. And it is with these sentences, the contents of which deny and limit the very holiest personal right of man, the right to personal freedom, that the law begins. But it is quite a different matter if the written word, the "Book" is not the real source of the Jewish conception of Rights, if this source is the traditional law, which was entrusted to the living word to which this "book" is only to be an aid to memory and reference, when doubt arises....

  • Thanks. I was waiting for someone to bring Rav Hirsch's explanation. I think he says another peshat a little further on in the same piece, about the merciful and ethical treatment of slaves setting the tone for the mishpatim in general. Maybe you could post that, too? – shmu Jan 30 at 20:30
  • Possibly. I just wish there was an online resource for Rabbi Hirsch. It's tough having to type word for word! – user6591 Jan 30 at 20:32
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Here's more from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in answer to my question. The gist is that the Torah is highlighting the humane nature of its civil laws.

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