Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Jewish Law on the Breakdown Lane

The Torah records two similar verses, one of which can be found in this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, regarding helping travelers with animals and burdens. In parashat Mishpatim (Exodus (23:5), it proclaims, “If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving it with him, you shall help him to lift it up.” Later on, (Deuteronomy 22:4), we read: “You shall not watch your brother’s donkey or his ox fall down by the way, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely help him to lift them up again.”

Maimonides (Laws of Murderers and Maintaining Safety 13:1-2) delineates two different laws based on the two above-mentioned verses. First, if one encounters his friend on the way whose animal is struggling with its cargo, whether it was carrying a load appropriate for it, or too heavy for it, one fulfils a mitzvah by unloading the animal and relieving it of its load (Exodus). However, it is not enough to simply unload the burden from the animal. One must also help re-pack the burden on the animal (Deuteronomy).

While some could view these laws as statutes that are intended to protect the dignity of animals and avoid undue pain to all creatures, known in Hebrew as tzaar ba’alei chayim, based on the placement of these laws, Maimonides views these mandates as responsibilities to one’s fellow human. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a leading halachic decisor, derives from the juxtaposition of these verses in Maimonides, the obligation that if one sees another person on a road unable to move his or her automobile, he or she is required to stop and help them. An earlier halakhist, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, writes similarly in his legal code Aruch Hashulchan, that if one sees someone traveling in a horse-and-buggy with a broken wheel, one must help in any way possible until the buggy is ready to continue its journey.

While the Torah often involves itself with areas of ritual, the focus of parashat Mishpatim, addresses our responsibilities to one another. These too were revolutionary at the time the Torah was given.

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