It has been borrowed to denote Jewish civil and criminal law; the well-known phrase Mishpat Ivri, literally “Hebrew justice”, probably derives from the first two sentences of the portion – mishpat from Ex. 21:1 and ivri from 22:2, which reads ki tikneh eved ivri, “If you acquire a Hebrew servant…”.
The term was first used in this sense in Zechariah Frankel’s Darkei HaMishnah, published in 1859.
It is not identical with halachah, the term for traditional Jewish law. Halachah has a theological connotation; it indicates the law which comes from God and is obeyed out of trust in the Lawgiver.
Mishpat Ivri is a legal system which derives its authority from its inner logic and its national-cultural ethos. One can study, apply and promote Mishpat Ivri without even believing in God, regarding it as a national legal system comparable with Roman law, American law, Spanish law, etc.
The believer respects the proponents of Mishpat Ivri but feels sad that they have secularised Jewish identity and removed God from the reckoning.
As far as believers are concerned, the rabbinic commentators had the right idea when they pointed out that the portion begins with a vav, “and”, explaining it as linking Mishpatim with last week’s reading, Yitro, which centres on the Ten Commandments.
The sages – as quoted by Rashi – said, “Just as these (the Ten Commandments) are from Sinai, so are these (the laws of Mishpatim) from Sinai”.