“From Seemingly Obscure Laws, the Torah Teaches the Ultimate Value of the Sanctity of Human Life(Revised and updated from Mishpatim 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, which means “laws,” the Al-mighty instructs Moses to set before the People of Israel the entire structure of civil jurisprudence. Parashat Mishpatim contains a total of 53 of the 613 commandments in the Torah–-23 positive and 30 negative commandments.

Given the Torah’s antiquity, the extent and breadth of these laws and its contemporary relevance, is quite remarkable.

The parasha opens with laws concerning the rights of persons, the Hebrew manservant and maidservant, and continues with laws concerning murder, kidnaping, personal injuries, injuries by beasts, offenses against property, theft, damage by cattle, fire, laws of safe-keeping, moral offenses, seduction, witchcraft, sodomy, polytheism, oppression of the weak, loans and pledges, truth and impartiality in justice, love of enemy–quite an impressive list for a very ancient people. While some of these laws seem to be well ahead of their time, like oppression of the weak and impartiality in justice, others seem to be quite primitive, which of course raises the question of the “eternal” relevance of the Torah.

In this discussion, I focus on only a single law found in this week’s parasha–death caused by an animal, a pretty rare occurrence in contemporary life–and attempt to explain its profound modern day relevance.

In Exodus 21:28, we read, וְכִי יִגַּח שׁוֹר אֶת אִישׁ אוֹ אֶת אִשָּׁה וָמֵת, סָקוֹל יִסָּקֵל הַשּׁוֹר וְלֹא יֵאָכֵל אֶת בְּשָׂרוֹ, וּבַעַל הַשּׁוֹר נָקִי If an ox shall gore a man or a woman, and that person shall die, the ox shall surely be stoned, its flesh may not be eaten and the owner of the ox shall be innocent. The Torah, in this instance, is referring to a case of a domesticated animal that kills. Being that the animal has no prior history of violence, the owner could not be expected to be particularly vigilant. Nevertheless, the Torah maintains, that because there is a very distinct hierarchy in life, the animal must be put to death even if the death of the human being was accidental.

I recall reading, many years ago, an editorial in the New York Times that condemned the owner of an alligator farm in Florida who shot an alligator that had mauled and killed a child. The editorial argued that the alligator did what was expected of an alligator. The child’s parents, on the other hand, were negligent for not keeping the child away from the alligator pit. From the Torah’s perspective, as articulated in our case of the ox that gored and killed, since a human life was lost, the owner of the alligator farm had taken the correct action, even if the parents were negligent.

I didn’t always fully appreciate this law, until many years later. My aunt and uncle had retired to Miami. One day, while crossing a street, my aunt was run over by a laundry truck. She was in a coma for six months before she succumbed. Every time my uncle saw a laundry truck, he would say: “That’s the truck that killed my wife!”

The rabbis suggest that an animal that kills a human being be put to death to spare the sensitivities of the deceased’s family, so they would not be able to point to an animal on the street and say: “That is the ox that trampled my child.” Perhaps a contemporary implementation of this law would be that any vehicle involved in a lethal accident be junked and removed from the road, or left on the roadside as a warning to others that this vehicle killed a human being or was involved in a lethal accident. All this goes to underscore the sanctity of human life, which is, after all, the bottom line of all of Judaism, and to heighten our sensitivity towards negligent behavior that may result in injury or death.

The above-cited law regarding injuries by animals continues with Exodus 21:29, וְאִם שׁוֹר נַגָּח הוּא מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם, וְהוּעַד בִּבְעָלָיו, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְרֶנּוּ, וְהֵמִית אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה, הַשּׁוֹר יִסָּקֵל, וְגַם בְּעָלָיו יוּמָת , But if it was an ox that gores habitually from yesterday and the day before, and its owners had been warned but did not guard it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and even its owner shall die. The Torah equates a vicious animal to a lethal weapon. In addition, the owner of such an animal who is negligent, may be regarded as a potential murderer.

The very next verse, however, Exodus 21:30, includes an unusual clause which allows for the exoneration of the violent animal’s owner. אִם כֹּפֶר יוּשַׁת עָלָיו, וְנָתַן פִּדְיֹן נַפְשׁוֹ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוּשַׁת עָלָיו , When an atonement payment shall be assessed against him, [the owner of the animal] shall pay as redemption for his life, whatever shall be assessed against him.

Perhaps, because the Torah realized that the death occurred indirectly, through an ox, and not as a result of the owner’s personal actions, this death cannot be considered premeditated and deserving of the death penalty, even though the owner’s negligence resulted in a human’s tragic death. Rather, Jewish law allows the owner of the vicious animal to pay a fine, imposed by the court, freeing him from the death penalty.

The expressions brought down in Exodus 20:30, of כֹּפֶר kofer, an atonement, and פִּדְיֹן נַפְשׁוֹ pid’yon nafsho, redemption of his soul, appear again a few chapters later in parashat Ki TisahThe army of Israel is counted through donations of a half shekel.The Torah, in Exodus 30:12, states: כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם , When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַהשׁם בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם , And every man shall give to G-d an atonement for his soul when counting them.

Why is a soldier required to give an atonement for his soul? Perhaps we can learn why from the laws of the vicious animal. Just as the owner of a vicious animal that kills deserves to die, but may redeem his soul through paying a so-called “ransom,” so perhaps the Torah is teaching, that a soldier, no matter how justified the cause for which he battles, whether in self-defense or not, is a potential killer, and therefore needs to pay a “redemption for his soul” before he goes out to war.

3,300 years ago, the Torah taught the world about the ultimate value of the sanctity of human life. No document before the Torah, nor any document since, expresses such profound reverence for the ultimate value of human life, and demands unstinting respect for human life–-the greatest of G-d’s gifts.
While Judaism absolutely justifies both soldiers and battles, the Torah clearly reflects, at least in this instance, a palpable sentiment toward pacifism. “You may go out to war,” says the Torah to the Jewish soldier, “However, beware never to exult in war; always recognize the tremendous cost of battle to both the aggressor and defender.”

Judaism mandates that every soldier who goes out to battle must do so with a profound sense of humility, knowing that he is a potential killer who deserves to be punished, and must pay a ransom for his soul to G-d.

Our Torah, though very ancient, contains many very modern, indeed, avant-garde insights into life and living.

May you be blessed.