Lifnim Mishurat Hadin / Beyond the letter of the law
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Some people see Judaism as a religion of precise law. However, the Jewish ideal is always to act beyond the letter of the law, or lifnim mishurat hadin in Hebrew, literally meaning, inside the line of law. Let’s see an example from our parasha, Ki Tetze.
It is written, “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.” (Deuteronomy 22:1). This is part of a broader mitzvah called hashavat aveda, returning lost items. Basically, this mitzvah says that if we find something that does not belong to us, we have to return it to its owner.
Our sages interpreted that this mitzvah falls only on property that belongs to a person that is considered an Israelite. They learned this from the expression, “you must take it back to your fellow,” meaning only to your fellow person (literally, “your brother”). This regulation might look awkward to us in our time, but it was much more reasonable in ancient times, when people who were not “your fellow people” were often your enemies, or simply didn’t care about you or your property.
In any case, our sages recommended to behave lifnim Mishurat Hadin, beyond the letter of the law. Regarding the specific law we are dealing with in this “Torah Thoughts,” many of the greatest sages used to indeed behave beyond the letter of the law, as the following Midrash illustrates. “Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach purchased a donkey from an Ishmaelite. A precious stone was later found hanging on the donkey’s neck and people ascribed to this verse, “The blessing of God makes one rich” (Prov. 10:22). But the Rabbi responded, “A donkey I purchased, a precious stone I did not!” So, he went and returned the gem to the Ishmaelite who exclaimed, “Blessed is the Lord, the God of Shimon ben Shetach!” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3).
With his example, Shimon ben Shetach showed his disciples (and us too!) that we should act beyond the letter of the law, especially when dealing with other human beings, independently of who they are.
During this month of Elul, in which we prepare for the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashanah, we are worried about what could be the consequences if God were to judge us with precise and cold justice. Our Rabbis teach us that if we behave towards others lifnim mishurat hadin, with generosity and kindness beyond what is strictly required by the law, we might hope that God will act beyond the letter of the law with us too, and hence refrain from the rigorous application of justice, which would certainly diminish our chances of getting a favorable divine verdict. May we take advantage of this month to act generously and compassionately toward our fellows.