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A Uniquely Jewish Twist (Mishpatim 02/10/24)

A Uniquely Jewish Twist

Parshat Mishpatim is chock full of exciting laws. There are rules on damages, rentals, unfaithful spouses, bearing witness, and much more, as well as ritual decrees for the holidays. The parsha, though, begins with the topic of Jewish slaves.

In ancient times, a Jew could become a slave (to another Jew) in one of two ways:

  1. If a man stole something and could not pay it back, he could be sold in the marketplace, and the payment would go to his victim.
  2. Poverty. If a person could not afford to support himself or his young daughter, they could be sold. The buyer would then have to provide room and board in exchange for the person’s work. In all cases, the buyer did not own the slave, just his or her service for up to six years.

Regarding a young girl, the money paid for her could also be converted into a nuptial payment. Once the girl approached puberty, the buyer could decide to marry the girl himself or give her to his son.

Since polygamy was allowed in the ancient world, the husband might decide to marry another woman. In such a case, the Torah protects the dignity of the first wife:

Exodus 21:10 If he marries another, the husband must not withhold her food, clothing, or onah.

This word, Onah, is a mystery.

One famous commentator says it refers to shelter. Even though he takes another wife, the husband cannot ignore his first wife. Instead, he must continue to provide for her the basic human needs of food, clothes, and shelter.

Although this makes much sense to us, in ancient times, it seems there was a higher marital priority: anointing oil!

The rulings from ancient civilizations at that time state this clearly:

The laws of King Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (20th cent. B.C.E.) legislated:

If a man’s wife does not bear him a child, but a prostitute from the street does bear him a child, he shall provide grain, oil, and clothing rations for the prostitute, and the child shall be his heir…

The Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1770 B.C.E.) state, “If a man gives his child for suckling and for rearing but does not give the food, oil, and clothing rations (to the caregiver) for 3 years, he shall weigh and deliver 10 shekels of silver for the cost of the rearing of his child…

The Egyptian Old Kingdom text, The Instruction of Ptahhotep recommends, “When you prosper and found your house, and love your wife with ardor, fill her belly, clothe her back, ointment soothes her body, gladden her heart as long as you live…”[1]

Most likely, the word “Onah” then refers to anointment oil.

The rabbis, though, break with this mold and say that the third requirement a husband must provide is sex.

According to the rabbis of the Talmud, it’s a Divine command, a mitzvah, to make love to your wife.

Perhaps the rabbis were trying to differentiate Judaism from the monastic religions, especially the celibate practices of the Essenes and the early Christians. However, this decree centralized Judaism around the family. It’s rare to find an unmarried spiritual leader in all of the Bible and Jewish lore. It’s fair to say that Judaism focuses on sanctifying life. If so, nothing offers a more excellent opportunity for personal growth than the challenges of marriage and childrearing.

Therefore, the rabbis decreed that a person is not only obligated to be fruitful and multiply, but sensually satisfying one’s mate is also a mitzvah.

Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, an Italian commentator from the 19th century, says the word “Onah” itself hints at this. He says the root of this word is ענה, which means to answer, to respond. The husband must provide for his wife times to talk, communicate and share intimacy.

Throughout the ages, the rabbis reinterpreted the Torah to make it relevant and unique. With this interpretation, the rabbis emphasized the centrality of the family in Judaism and the family’s core, the love between husband and wife.


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