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Hirsch At Your Table

Foreign Practices

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם אני ד’ אלוקיכם. כמעשה ארץ מצרים אשר ישבתם בה לא תעשו וכמעשה ארץ כנען אשר אני מביא אתכם שמה לא תעשו ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו. (Lv 18:2-3)
The Torah outlines in great detail the importance of proper sexual practices. God introduces this discussion by identifying Himself as "the God of Israel." He instructs Moshe to warn the Jews not to adopt the practices of their former and future neighbors, the Egyptians and the Canaanites.

In referring to the Egyptian and Canaanite practices, the Torah uses the word מעשה, doing. "Doing" connotes general social practices, not the personal habits of individuals. The practices enumerated here refer to the social behavior and interpersonal relationships of the Egyptians and Canaanites. These are משפטים, government laws and regulations that are accepted as communal norms.

The word מעשה is from the root ע-ש-ה which means "to make." The word משפטים is from the root ש-פ-ט "to create order and harmony". Its phonetic cognate is ש-ב-ט "to control.


The משפטים reflect the social conditions of a community and its attitudes toward justice and civil life. These attitudes generally develop informally among the people and later become enshrined in the legal system and the social conventions of the people.

In contrast to משפטים, our verse refers to חוקותיהם, "their laws," which refers to the private and personal practices that people follow in their individual lives. This interpretation is supported by the use of the word תלכו literally walk, but here meaning follow. The action of walking (or following) implies moving along a path in a step-by-step movement. This gradual movement is characteristic of private patterns of conduct, which develop gradually and inconspicuously.

The word חוקות is from the root ח-ק-ק "to circumscribe to protect a basic value." The word תלכו is from the root ה-ל-ך "to progress slowly toward a goal".


The משפטים, the formal laws of Egypt, institutionalized slavery and thereby undermined the status of man as a free human being. Similarly, the חוקות, the private practices, of Canaan encouraged moral excesses and bestial depravity, as evidenced by the sexual practices of S'dom and Amora. The public and private norms reinforce each other. Public legislation that enables corruption fosters disrespect for the rights and dignity others. Conversely, when families and individuals embody a life of morals and values, this will be reflected in the public sphere in the form of a legal system that champions justice and righteousness.

As Egypt and Canaan adopted various forms of idolatrous and corrupt practices, these norms became part of the social fabric and the legal system. The Torah warns the children of Israel against following these practices, then immediately commands them: את משפטי תעשו (practice My social laws)—to observe My laws, the laws of God.

The phrase introducing this section, אני ד’ אלוקיכם, echoes the identical phrase used in the Ten Commandments. This is not an accident. The Torah is impressing upon us the grave importance of observing the laws regarding sexual relations. These laws and the laws of ברית מילה form the foundation of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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