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    Understanding the law – Mishpatim

    Legal language is a nightmare for the ordinary person.

    So many ifs and buts, wherefores and therefores – jargon at its best (or its worst, depending on your point of view). And so little use of punctuation, with sentences that occupy whole paragraphs and pages.

    Most people, even the university graduates, can hardly make the most rudimentary sense of it all.

    Presumably it would be possible to say the same things in simple language that spoke directly to regular human beings. But that might make the legal draftsmen redundant, and that would never do.

    Turn, however, to the laws that make up the Jewish Scriptural reading this week, beginning with Exodus 21:1, and you see something quite different. “These are the judgments which you shall place before them”, followed by short, sharp rules and regulations for the life of a righteous society.

    The content is fascinating, but so is the rabbinic comment on the words tasim lifneihem – “place before them”.

    Rashi says that the verse applies not only to the judges but to the ordinary people.

    Moses had to go over the laws with the people several times and make sure they understood what they were hearing. It was the people who had to live by the laws, and the people had to grasp the meaning of their duties.

    If the rules had been couched in language that was beyond the capacity of the people to understand, they might not have been able to become Torat Chayyim – a law of life.

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