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Thread: Beyond the Letter of the Law?

  1. #1
    tWebber
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    Beyond the Letter of the Law?

    Beyond the Letter of the Law?

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    Q. I have an employee who is quitting to look for a better job. In my jurisdiction I only have to pay severance pay if the worker is fired. Should I perhaps pay anyway to go “beyond the letter of the law”?

    A. I want to clarify the very important concept “beyond the letter of the law”. This concept is a very basic principle of Jewish ethics. It is fair to say that acting “beyond the letter of the law” is in fact part of the law. The Torah tells us (Exodus 18:20):


    And you shall advise them regarding the laws and the instructions, and inform them of the way they should go and the deed they should perform.

    The Talmud learns that the phrase “the deed they should perform”, coming after the laws, the instructions, and the way, tells us that we should go beyond the letter of the law. It then continues:


    Rebbe Yochanan stated, Jerusalem was only destroyed because they judged according to the law of the Torah. [The students objected] Should then they have judged according to the laws of the sorcerers?! Rather, they insisted narrowly on the strict Torah law, and didn’t go beyond the letter of the law. (1)

    So your desire to go “beyond the letter of the law” is certainly praiseworthy.

    However, going beyond the letter of the law does not refer to any good or charitable deed. It refers to a particular character of ethical act: acting according to the spirit of the law even when we would be exempt from action according to the strict letter of the law. If we look at the many Talmudic cases of the principle of “beyond the letter of the law”, we find that in almost all cases they involve fulfilling an obligation despite some kind of legal technicality or loophole that creates a legal exemption.

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    Beyond the Letter of the Law

    Parshas Mishpatim

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    "There is a concept in Jewish law and life that is called “lifnim meshurat hadin” – to enter an area beyond the letter of the law. In old English Common Law, there was a parallel legal system to the English courts known as “equity.” It was meant to correct the sometimes-unavoidable moral injustices that could be caused by the strict application and narrow construction of the rules of traditional law and justice. In the Torah reading of Mishpatim we are told the laws and the legal system of Israel. But in ‘Parshat Yitro’ we were first commanded to do “observe the laws and the teachings (of the Torah) and to be taught the path upon which to walk and the behavior that they should follow.” The Midrash states that the phrase “the behavior that they should follow” refers to this concept of “lifnim meshurat hadin” – doing more than what one may be held strictly, legally, liable to do. Even though, at first glance, this concept appears to be one of super-righteousness, the Talmud defines this concept as one of legal and societal necessity and not solely one of piety and saintliness."

  2. #2
    tWebber
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    pikuah nefesh - The general principle of the obligation to save and preserve life is called pikuah nefesh (cf. Leviticus 18:5 and Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a).

    Whoever Saves a Soul Saves an Entire World”
    Pikuah Nefesh

    in Rabbinic Literature: the word “soul,” nefesh in Hebrew, and specifically the expression pikuach nefesh. This is the standard usage in Jewish ethical and halakhic (i.e. legal) texts for stating that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration.

    Another example is listed in scripture: (NT) James 5:19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

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