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The Law and its Spirit

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Parashah this week is the primary source of Jewish civil law. I pose the following two questions: Firstly, Does Judaism recognize the notion of ‘the spirit of the law’? Secondly, if Judaism does indeed recognize the concept of ‘the spirit of the law,’ then what is the character of ‘the spirit of Jewish law’?

The Torah states in the sixth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy verses 17 and 18: “And you shall surely guard the commandments of Hashem your God, and the laws and statutes which He commands you. And you shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God, so that it will be good for you and so that you will come and inherit the land which God has promised to your forefathers.”

The Torah states here that one should keep the laws of God and then subsequently states that one should do what is upright and good in the eyes of God. Surely the latter statement is redundant. If one is keeping the laws of God, then surely one is also doing what is upright and good in the eyes of God?

The great 13th century scholar, the Ramban, sheds a fantastic light upon these verses. He explains that it would be impossible for the Torah to detail every civil law that may arise amongst individuals or every law with regards to state governance etc. The Torah therefore lists many laws and summarizes for us ‘the spirit of all the laws’ that have been explicitly mentioned which is ‘doing what is good and upright in God’s eyes’ so that we may apply this broad concept when adjudicating Torah law. In other words, the spirit of the law is justice and goodness.

The Ramban then cites an example in Jewish law where this principle can be applied. Let me begin by asking how you would adjudicate the following case if you were a judge. Chaim, a field owner sells his field to Moshe. The contract is concluded and signed and Moshe pays Chaim in cash. David, who owns the field next to Chaim’s field, protests the sale. He claims that he wants to buy the field and will match the purchase price. He explains that if he buys a field elsewhere he has to buy new farm equipment and hire new workers, whereas if he buys the field next to his he can pool his resources. Moshe claims that he purchased the field legally and that he does not want to bother looking for another field to purchase. How would you judge this case?”

Most of us would say that it is unfortunate that Chaim did not offer the field to David first, but now the new legal owner is Moshe and the field remains his. The Talmud in tractate Baba Batra sites our verse ‘you shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God’ as a source that allows David to take possession of Moshe’s field against Moshe’s will. Naturally David would have to pay Moshe the purchase price.

We learn from the above civil law that the spirit of the law is not just a nice philosophical idea but actually has profound legal ramifications. When our sages say ‘lifnim mishurat hadin’ (usually understood as ‘above the letter of the law’) it seems the Ramban understands this as ‘within the line of the law’, or perhaps the inner lining of the law, its very essence.

The above explains the Gemarah in tractate Baba Metziah on page 30b. The Gemarah states that the temple was destroyed because people did everything exactly according to the letter of the law and did not practice ‘lifnim mishurat hadin’. If the people were fulfilling Torah law and merely not rising above the letter of the law then why should they deserve such a harsh consequence. The Talmud is teaching us that the generation of the destruction of the temple practiced the letter of the law but ignored the essence of the law which is ‘goodness and justice’. The essence of the law is what Hashem truly wants from us. Keeping the letter of the law and ignoring its essence is repulsive to God. It seems that as a nation we are repeating the mistake of the generation of the destruction of the temple. We so easily get so fixated on the details of the law and lose sight of the broader intention of the law.

Observing Torah law is of course extremely important, however this must be done keeping in mind the spirit and purpose of the law, in ‘doing what is upright and good’. As the prophet Micha states ‘And now man what does Hashem ask you, except to do justice, love loving kindness and to walk modestly with your God.’