Parshat Mishpatim is the biggest source for mishpat Ivri—Jewish law—the ancient legal system developed throughout thousands of years of Halacha. In modern use, the term refers mostly to the parts of Halacha that regulate social behavior: the court systems, monetary issues, markets, torts, employment, social rights and obligations, neighbors, etc.
Amongst the many mitzvot in the parsha is “hashev tashiveno,” the obligation to return lost items. Together with the prohibition on ignoring lost livestock or property in Parshat Ki Teitzei, they create mitzvat hashavat aveida. This mitzvah often brings with it a taste of childhood—the sweet experience of finding someone’s wallet, locating the owner’s name on a document within and returning it, with all the joy and gratitude that comes with that experience.
As one learns more about this mitzvah from the Tannaitic and Amoraic sources, one gains a growing recognition that hashavat aveida goes way beyond that sweet moment.
Hashavat aveida does not constitute only returning property once it is lost; it includes any prevention of monetary damage. If one walks down the block and sees a pipe burst and start gushing onto a neighbor’s property, the phone call he makes to let them know, or the choice to get wet putting the pipe back together, are part of the fulfillment of hashavat aveida. The Gemara continues and learns further from the Torah verses that returning a person, as it were, “to himself” physically is also part of the mitzvah. In other words, any situation where one can prevent physical or monetary damage from happening to another is part of the positive commandment of hashavat aveida and the explicit prohibition to ignore such situations.
The practical implication is dramatic. From a chance mitzvah that one might stumble upon, it turns into a state of mind: One is expected to shed the blinders and take interest in one’s surroundings, sharing the responsibility for what is going on.
In so many instances we would rather look away and “unsee” what we saw, forget what we just noticed... but the Torah commands “lo titalam,” do not ignore. This commandment to help stave off any material harm you are capable of preventing is often coupled with lo ta’amod al dam re’echa (do not stand passively by your neighbor’s blood) and is quoted by halachic authorities as the halachic reason for the obligation to intervene, the prohibition to conceal problematic information and the general instruction to help your fellow Jew circumvent harm coming his way.
As mentioned, our parsha teaches the basics of Jewish law. Interestingly, hashavat aveida stood in the center of one of the fundamental legal discussions (Hendels vs. Kupat Ha’am) determining the standing of Jewish law in Israeli courts. The final Supreme Court verdict, in that case, resulted in a limiting of mishpat Ivri’s weight when interpreting the law, and a narrowing of its influence in Israeli courts. But the culture itself affected the Israeli legal system: the demand to actively get involved, when possible, to save another (halachically embodied in hashavat aveda and extended by lo ta’amod) was legislated in 1998.
While many countries have Good Samaritan laws—protecting bystanders who choose to assist from future liability—the Israeli law carries the Torah name “the law of lo taamod al dam re’echa” and is part of the legal doctrine “Duty to Assist”; in face of serious danger, one must assist whenever possible and might face charges if he fails to do so.
Though the law has minor practical implications and is one of the few achievements of the effort to blend some Jewish law into the modern Israeli legal system, it reflects a deep cultural and religious stand: the demand to stay involved, to walk the streets of one’s society with one’s eyes peeled and ears wide open, ready to head off damage and lend a helping hand whenever needed. It is a wide call for involvement and responsibility. One can no longer “mind their own business” once they realize that my brethren’s wellbeing is my business!
Rabbanit Rachelle Fraenkel teaches at midrashoth in Israel. She is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).