Mishpatim: Language and Translation

In Exodus/Shemot 22:20-23, God commands the people not to “wrong* or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Plaut/Stern translation**). adding a note about also caring for widows and orphans and concluding with one of those dire warnings that is apparently so unspeakable, the text breaks off, causing some translators to resort to ellipsis, before presenting a very specific threat:

Oh, if you afflict, afflict them…
For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,
and I will hearken, hearken to their cry,
my anger will flare up
and I will kill you with the sword,
so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!– Fox**

If you [dare to] cause him pain…! for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry. My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans. — Stone**


While the consequences for failing to honor the stranger are dire, there is no motive offered. In verse 23:9, we are told that we “know the [nefesh] of a stranger.”

Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings [nefesh] of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. — Stone**

A sojourner, you are not to oppress:
you yourselves know (well) the feelings of the sojourner,
for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt. — Fox**

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” — TWC (Plaut/Stern)**

“No sojourner shall you oppress, for you know the sojourner’s heart [nefesh] , since you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
the sojourner’s heart. the Hebrew is nefesh, “life,” “inner nature,” “essential being,” “breath.”
— Alter**



There is some disagreement among commentators about the meaning of Hebrew “ger” — rendered “stranger” or “sojourner” above. Some argue that “ger” meant a convert living among the Israelites; others believe the term had wider application. Cassuto** offers the following:

Since the preceding paragraph (in chapter 22) contained drastic laws against alien customs, the Bible wishes to indicate that this opposition is directed only against the customs, and not against the foreigner. On the contrary, it is forbidden to wrong or oppress the stranger.



* Plaut/Stern renders the Hebrew toneh as “wrong.” Alter has “cheat”; Stone uses “taunt”; Fox, “maltreat.”

** For complete citations of Torah commentaries, please see Source Materials.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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