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Shabbat and the “Motive Clause” (Mishpatim)

We have now completed roughly one quarter of the weekly Torah readings, yet only in this week’s Torah portion, for the first time since we began the yearly cycle anew, does our focus shift decisively from narrative to legislation: from studying stories to studying laws. This puts us in a unique position. In the first place, most people, unless they’re judges or lawyers, don’t study law in-depth like we’ll be doing this week. In the second place, even those who do study law generally study contemporary law, not ancient law.

For traditional Jews, of course, the laws recorded in this week’s Torah portion, though ancient, are not antiquated – in each generation we apply firm Halakhic principles to ever-evolving realities, producing a living law flexible enough to adapt to modernity yet durable enough to link us to our earliest ancestors in an unbroken chain of observance. Still, the thought of studying a law which governed the lives of men, women and children over three thousand years ago baffles the mind, no matter how vibrant that law has remained. When we think about it that way, we’re left in awe at the opportunity which we’ve been given.   

The Stela of Ur-Nammu, a Sumerian ruler who authored the world's oldest (known) surviving law code.

The Stela of Ur-Nammu, a Sumerian ruler who authored the world’s oldest (known) surviving law code.

Needless to say, the Mosaic Law was not the only law code to come out of the Ancient Near East. Nor was it the first. Thanks to the work of archaeologists, historians interested in studying the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, or Hittite civilizations have, among other primary resources, several detailed law codes at their disposal: the codes of Ur-Nammu, Eshnunna, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and Nesilim, to name a few. Needless to say, most of us have probably never studied these other texts; we rightly choose to focus on our own law code, because it is the one which addresses us directly, and which we regard as obligatory. The downside of this arrangement, though it is justified, is that we often overlook or take for granted some of the Torah’s most revolutionary ideas or principles, failing to appreciate their historical novelty because we don’t have a legal context in which to place them.

Perhaps the best example of a phenomenon which is particular to the Bible yet whose significance eludes most Biblical students is one which Biblical scholars term the “motive clause.” Simply stated, “motive clauses” are explanatory clauses within the Biblical text which offer explicit reasons, justifications, or motivations for performing given commandments. We find many such clauses in this week’s Torah portion. “Do not oppress the stranger,” the text warns us, “for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “Do not take your neighbor’s garment as collateral for a loan,” we are instructed, “for it is his only covering, the only protection for his skin.” “Do not accept bribes,” judges are told, “for bribes blind the clear-sighted and corrupt the words of the just.” “Do not allow idol worshippers to reside in your land,” God admonishes, “lest they cause you to sin against Me.”

The list goes on and on. What’s fascinating is that among Ancient Near Eastern law codes (and probably among modern law codes too?), the Torah is the only one in which scholars have found these “motive clauses” appended to individual laws. Our tradition places unusual emphasis, it seems, on elucidating itself, inviting us to contemplate why it is that we do what we do.

With this background in mind, let’s consider one specific law listed in our Torah portion. Though most of the laws documented in this week’s Torah portion are introduced this week for the first time, one commandment, in particular – the commandment to observe the Sabbath – appears to be a repeat. In last week’s Torah portion, during which the Israelites received the Ten Commandments, the commandment to observe Sabbath was recorded as well. These two commandments seem like the same commandment, but there’s one important difference: their motive clauses.

In last week’s Torah portion we read:

Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days may you work and perform all your labor, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities. For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

In this week’s Torah portion, by contrast, we read:

Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and your maidservant’s son and the stranger shall be refreshed. (Exodus 23:11-12)

So which is it: do we keep Shabbat because God rested, as last week’s Torah portion suggests, or because we want the members of our household to rest, as this week’s Torah portion suggests?

It’s both, of course.

“In order that your ox and your donkey may rest:” an Egyptian depiction of back-breaking field labor, c. 1200 BC

Last week’s Torah portion is of a more religious nature: we enter into a covenant with God, witness His revelation at Mount Sinai, and receive commandments which lay the groundwork for our monotheistic belief system. In that context, Shabbat, too, is presented in spiritual terms: we keep Shabbat because God rested when creating the world. This week’s Torah portion, meanwhile, is of a more civil nature: we establish the rules which govern cases of murder and manslaughter, theft and property damage, and loaning and borrowing – along with the procedures which regulate our judicial system. Here it makes sense, when speaking of Shabbat, to focus on its social benefits: by ceasing economic activity, we obligate employers to grant vacations to their employees. Like every commandment in the Torah, Shabbat means different things to different people in different circumstances. The Torah legitimates – indeed, encourages – this expansive perspective, inviting us to relate to, and draw meaning from, each of its commandments on multiple dimensions.

But there’s another element here, because Shabbat doesn’t just call on us to approach it from different directions: it also sends us in different directions. When we keep Shabbat because “God rested on the seventh day,” we are moving backwards in history, trying to recapture the splendor of an era simpler and purer than the current one. To keep Shabbat because we want to let the “donkey, ox, and servant,” on the other hand, is to move forwards in history: it is to transform religious abstractions into tangible socioeconomic progress. With the first motive clause, God informs us of a pre-existing reality (His rest) with which we must align ourselves; with the second, He shares his vision for a not-yet-actualized, ideal reality (the rest of man and beast), which we are tasked with creating and instituting. Spiritual nature – God’s rest – must be brought to bear upon social nature – man’s tendency to serve time, instead of placing time in his service.

“Rest since I did:” that’s the etiology of Shabbat – its point of origin. “Rest since you should:” that’s the teleology of Shabbat – its purpose, or intended outcome.  Not by accident is the first motive clause introduced with the word כי: “because.” God’s rest is the cause of Shabbat – the source which gets it moving. By contrast, the second motive clause is introduced with the word למען: “in order that.” Man’s rest is the goal of Shabbat – the place that Shabbat is meant to lead us.

This is the dialectic of Shabbat. On the one hand, God is informing us of a reality to which we must accommodate ourselves: His rest. On the other, He is inviting us to create a reality which would not exist were we not to insist upon it: the rest of man and animal. It is a day for God and a day for man – a day of the Creator and yet of the created – all at once.

Shabbat shalom! 


2 Comments

  1. Eliezer H Schnall says:

    Alex,

    How do you know that the Torah is the only one from the ancient Near East to have a motive clause, no other? What is the source for that?

    Thanks ________________________________________

    • alexmaged says:

      Good question! See “David Weiss Halivni’s book “Midrash, Mishna and Gemara.” I came across it in Alan Dershowitz’s “The Genesis of Justice,” where he writes:

      “Some biblical scholars and historians of ancient law have noted the uniqueness of the Bible in justifying its laws. They note the prevalence in the Bible of “clauses” that give reasons for the laws… Deuteronomy contains more than one hundred of these ‘motive clauses,’ as these forms of justificatory language are called. Professor David Weiss Halivni, a leading contemporary Jewish scholar, explained that the prevalence of motive clauses demonstrates that ‘biblical law is not categorically imperative, that it [generally] seeks to justify itself.’ He cites research contrasting these motive clauses with other law books of the ancient Near East and concludes, ‘The motive clause is clearly and definitely a peculiarity of Israel’s or Old Testament law.'”

      See ch. 13 in Dershowitz’s book, “Why Does the Bible Begin at the Beginning?” for more, or Halivni’s book, somewhere in the first dozen or so pages.

      Shabbat shalom!!

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