Exodus 21:1–24:18; Jeremiah 34:8–22, 33:25–26; Colossians 3:1–25
Maftir: Exodus 30:11–16
Shabbat Shekalim: 2 Kings 12:1–17
“These are the ordinances [mishpatim הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים] that you are to set before them.” (Exodus 21:1)
In last week’s portion of Scripture, Israel received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
This week, God gives specific legislation—laws called mishpatim, which means judgments. These are intended to guide the daily lives of His holy nation in justice and righteousness.
Once We Were Slaves
“When you acquire a Jewish bondsman, for six years he shall work and in the seventh year he shall go free.” (Exodus 21:2)
Since the Israelites had just been released from slavery, the first of God’s mishpatim deals with servants and slaves.
According to the rabbis, the six years that a slave is obligated to work represent the 6,000 years that we will work to serve the Lord. The seventh year of freedom represents the Messianic age—the thousand years when we will rule and reign from Jerusalem with Messiah, who will sit on the Throne of His earthly father David.
Several verses later in this passage, the painful experiences of the Israelites in Egypt are highlighted again, this time to elicit empathy for the foreigner. God commands the Israelites that foreigners be treated with kindness and respect.
“You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
In total, Parasha Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot (commands)—23 imperative commandments and 30 prohibitions.
This series of laws, also called “The Covenant Code” by some Bible scholars, specify penalties for various violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and assault. Pre-meditated murder, kidnapping, and striking or even cursing a parent all carry the death penalty.
“And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17)
Laws were also given regarding how to make reparation for assault and injuries caused by animals, as well as damage to crops or livestock. They prohibit seduction of virgins, the practice of sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, and mistreating the disadvantaged of society.
Infractions of these laws often carry the severest of penalties—death by stoning, since God wanted to keep peace and order within the camp.
But it is more than that. God has genuine concern for justice and the well-being of the individual. For instance, if a widow or fatherless child is to cry out to God because of someone’s ill treatment of them, God promises He will pour out His fierce wrath upon their oppressor and kill them so that their wives would be widows and their children fatherless (Exodus 22:22–24).
Remember the Sabbath and the Appointed Times
This week’s Parasha also reveals the law of the Sabbath, which is more than a Sabbath rest every seventh day.
Every seven years, the land is to enjoy a Sabbath rest called the Shemitah. Israel ended its last seventh year of letting the land lie fallow in September 2015.
“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat.” (Exodus 23:10–11)
As well, the three pilgrimage festivals are mentioned as a time when all adult Jewish males are to appear before the Lord: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).
“Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” (Exodus 23:17)
In this Parasha, Moses reads before all the people the Book of the Covenant that God has given Israel. After the people commit to keeping God’s law, Moses sprinkles blood upon the altar and on the people as well, since all covenants are formally ratified and are usually sealed with blood.
“Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.’” (Exodus 24:7–8)
Likewise, the New Covenant was sealed with the blood of Messiah, Yeshua, the Lamb of God. At the Passover meal with His disciples, Yeshua held up the cup of redemption and said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20)
The most righteous of all men, Yeshua HaMashiach, became the final atonement for all generations who accept His sacrifice on their behalf.
“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6–7)
This week begins the first of four Parshiot leading up to the festivals of Purim (February 28–March 1) and Passover (March 30–April 7). That’s right! These two holidays are just around the corner!
Because this week’s Shabbat is called Shabbat Shekalim (שבת שקלים / Sabbath of Shekels), a special reading called a maftir is added. Maftir shares the same root as Haftarah — FTR, which means to conclude.
This week’s special reading concludes the Parasha and is taken from Exodus 30:11–16; it pertains to the half-shekel tax for the Tabernacle.
Shekalim is the plural form of the Hebrew word shekel, which was the currency of ancient Israel. It is also used today in the modern state of Israel.
Every Jewish adult male (20 years and older) was required to give half a Biblical shekel toward the building and maintenance of the Tabernacle.
Nationally, rich and poor alike set aside personal interests and united by contributing equally to the goal of building the Tabernacle.
In remembrance of the half shekel, at this time of year, some Jewish people contribute to institutes of Jewish learning.
Shabbat Shekalim is also a good reminder of the importance of financially contributing to the upkeep and operating costs of those who are doing the work of the Lord.
“All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the Lord. The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives. Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.” (Exodus 30:14–16)
During Temple times, the half-shekel tax, called machatzit hashekel, was due yearly on the first of Nissan.
The collection of this tax was significant and practical since Passover occurs from Nissan 14–22, so these extra funds allowed for the purchase of cattle and sheep for the communal sacrifices.
The call for the tax was issued to the people at the start of the previous month, Adar, giving people time to prepare their payment before the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.
Funds also contributed to the upkeep of the Temple and its vessels, the roads and pathways to the Temple, wages, and the maintenance of the ritual baths called mikvot for the customary pre-Passover purification. If a mikvah were not properly maintained, then it would not be kosher and could not be used for ritual purposes.
Shabbat Shekalim, then, is a wonderful time to renew our commitment to be faithful in our support of those places doing the work of the Lord and where we are being spiritually fed.