Weekly Torah Reading

Liberating the slaves and the Seven Ascents that Moses made.

by Yizhaq Hayut-Man & Tirzah Arzi Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18) contains two seemingly different issues: a system of Miẓvot (commands, laws) for right judgment and the ascent f Moshe to the mountain.


Let us try to figure out, as the saying says, “What has Shemitah to do with Mount Sinai?”

The giving of these Miẓvot issues from the former Parashah – Yitro (Jethro). Yitro advised to assemble a judicial system with a staff of just over 13% of the total population. Such a public ordering requires an expressed system of laws and statutes Miẓvot between person to person – Miẓvot for action called Mishpatim.

Many (forty) Miẓvot are detailed at the beginning of the Parashah, and the reader discovers that that the whole astounding act of Mount Sinai came just for the purpose of giving the Miẓvot , most of which deal with the rectification of the social life. The entire Sinai Theophany was needed for strengthening belief, so that it would be more difficult for those under judgment to announce the Name of the Lord in vain or false swearing.

Let’s mention just the first of the Mishpatim, the rule of the Ẹved Ịvri (Hebrew Slave), which marks a revolution for social justice in a world whose economy was based on slave labor. The Ẹved Ịvri Rule is understandable when considering the background of the slavery in Egypt and the liberation from it. No Hebrew person should be a slave for life – “six years shall he work, and on the seventh will be set free” (21:2), unless he expressly asks to remain a slave at his master’s house. In this case the master is commanded to put the reluctant slave under the door post, which was a witness to the liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt, the House of Slavery, and to pierce his ear.

The pattern of the six years of toil and the seventh of liberation derives from the Genesis account of the six days of creation and the rest from toil on the seventh. The following Miẓvot in Parashat Mishpatim include the Mitzvah of observing the Shabbat.

The Miẓvah of liberating the slaves is so important, that chapter 34 of Jeremiah, which serves as the supplement (Haftarah) for Parashat Mishpatim, describes the divine punishment of the leaders of Israel and of Jerusalem who set free their slaves only in appearance and immediately captured them again: “Therefore thus saith the LORD: Ye have not hearkened unto Me, to proclaim liberty, every man to his brother, and every man to his neighbour; behold, I proclaim for you a liberty, saith the LORD, unto the sword, unto the pestilence, and unto the famine; and I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth” (Jer. 34:17).


The Seven Ascents of Mosheh

“And unto Moses He said: ‘Come up unto the LORD…” (24:1) – after giving 40 instructions (Torot) and Miẓvot, the Lord personally addressed Moshe and invited him to “second round” of the Sinai Theophany.

Interpreters were generally divided on the question whether Moshe stayed on the mountain twice – or perhaps three. In fact, Moshe made seven ascents of the mountain, and the stays of forty days and forty nights were the acme and the completion of the seven ascents of Mount Ḥorev.

1.  The first ascent was Burning Bush, when Mosheh received his mission – (Parashat Shemot Ex. 2:1-6).

2.  The first ascent of Moshe on Mount Sinai to receive instructions (components of Torah) – in Parashat Yitro (Ex. 19:3).

3.  “And all the people answered together, and said: ‘All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.’ And Moses reported the words of the people unto the Lord”, which reporting apparently meant ascent, because in the sequel is written: “And Mosheh went down from the mount unto the people” (idem. 19:14).

4.  Before the giving of the ten commandments: “And the Lord came down upon mount Sinai, to the top of the mount; and the Lord called Mosheh to the top of the mount; and Mosheh went up.  And the Lord said unto Mosheh: ‘Go down, charge the people…” (19:20) “So Mosheh went down unto the people…”  (19:25).

5.  At the end of the Ten Commandments,  “And the people stood afar off; but Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” (20:17).

6.  Towards the next ascent, Mosheh had to write, apparently in one night, the 40 Miẓvot that have just been transmitted: “And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel” (24:4). After which Mosheh “And the Lord said unto Mosheh: ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there… And Moses went up into the mount, and the cloud covered the mount.  And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights” (24:12-18). This first stay was terminated only by the command “Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly” (ki tisa, Ex. 32:7), “And Moses turned, and went down from the mount” (32:15).

7.   After the events of the Golden Calf and its atonement and towards the second Tablets, “Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him” (34:4), then another stay of forty days and nights until “And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai… when he came down from the mount, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while He talked …” (34:29).

And until these e days we observe the Miẓvot of the Shabbat and the acceptance of the Torah by keeping seven ascents to the Torah during Shabbat, an echo to the seven struggles of the aging Mosheh to return and climb like a message boy up the Mountain of God.


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