There is a concept in Jewish law and life which 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 defined this concept as one of legal and societal necessity and not solely one of piety and saintliness.
The Talmud relates to us an instance when a well-known rabbi and scholar hired day laborers to move barrels for him. The workers were apparently not up to the task, for many of the barrels fell from their hands and shattered in the process of being moved from one place to another. The rabbi was justly disturbed by this turn of events and in order to protect himself in his claim for monetary damages against the workers, he confiscated their coats and cloaks. The workers objected to this seizure of their personal property and they, together with the rabbi/employer, appeared before the rabbinic judge of the town to have the matter adjudicated. The judge ordered the employer to return the seized clothing to the laborers. The rabbi/employer asked the judge “Is that the law?” The judge replied “Yes, that is the law!” The workers, heartened by this initial victory, then asked the judge to order the rabbi/employer to pay them their wages – to pay them for their time spent during the day in his employ. The judge did as they requested and ordered the employer to pay them the wage agreed upon. The rabbi/employer complained again, “Is that the law?” The judge reiterated his decision and said firmly, “Yes, that is the law. It is the law of lifnim meshurat hadin – of doing what is moral, even if the technicalities of the law do not require it.” The commentators to the Talmud explain there that the employer was held to the standard of lifnim meshurat hadin being that he was a well-known Torah scholar and public figure. As far as he was concerned, lifnim meshurat hadin had become the actual din, the law itself!
There is another concept in Torah, enunciated by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman – Ramban – of sanctifying one’s self by refraining from acts which are legally permissible to one but do not engender a sense of holiness and Godly service. Thus, there is room to legitimately follow a higher and stricter sense of kashrut than the basic one that renders the food kosher. One can refrain from physical pleasures that the Torah allows, if one feels that those pleasures will interfere with the quest for greater spiritual growth and that they will weaken eventual adherence to Torah discipline. If this concept of self-sanctification is true, as it is, in the realm of the observance of commandments and personal behavior, the concept of lifnim meshurat hadin is its natural companion in the realm of business and inter-personal relationships. It is the means of self-sanctification in the mundane and everyday world of commerce, labor, traffic and shopping. The Rabbis of the Talmud warned us that society could not long exist and prosper in an atmosphere where everyone insists on one’s rights to the letter of the law. Courtesy, sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others, the ability to be non-judgmental about others and their apparent behavior, are all aspects of this great concept of lifnim meshurat hadin. This is especially relevant to our current Jewish world (and to the general world that we live in as well) where there is an acute shortage of this necessary Torah attitude amongst us. In our democratic societies, where we pride ourselves on the strength of the rule of law, we would be wise to realize that there always is a higher rule of law that is demanded of us. It is only that higher rule of law – lifnim meshurat hadin – that guarantees the social harmony of society and allows for a full vision of the peaceful human society that the Torah envisions for humankind.
Rabbi Berel Wein