After the momentous Exodus and the spectacular splitting of the Red Sea the Jews find themselves at Marah:

So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur. And they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah for they were bitter, therefore, its name was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree, which he threw into the waters and made the waters sweet. There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he tested them, and said, "If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and will do that which is right in His sight, and will give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you, which I have brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that heals you." (Exodus 15:22-26)

While the situation seems like a question of insufficient supplies, namely, the people are in need of an efficient water source, the end of the text seems perplexing: There he made a statute and an ordinance.

Traditionally, this text has been understood as an indication of some type of law-giving. Prior to Sinai, where the major revelation would take place, the people here receive the first installment of Torah: statutes and ordinances.

The Israelites were given ten precepts at Marah, seven of which had already been accepted by the children of Noah, to which were added at Marah social laws, the Sabbath, and honoring one's parents ... for it is written, "There [sc. at Marah] he made for them a statute and an ordinance" ... and "As the Lord thy God commanded you." (Sanhedrin 56b)

The logic of the Talmud is clear: The Ten Commandments are enumerated twice in the Torah. When they are repeated--specifically these two commandments, Shabbat and honoring parents--they contain the phrase "as the Lord thy God commanded you." 1

Why is this phrase added only to these two commandments?

Clearly, this phrase would be equally apt for any or all of the Ten Commandments which had been given years before at Sinai. Why is this phrase added only to these two commandments?

The Talmud asserts that some laws were actually taught at an earlier juncture, at Marah.

Therefore As the Lord thy God commanded you refers to Marah, and not to the first tablets transmitted at Sinai.


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We see that certain laws were taught prior to Sinai. The question is, which laws were chosen to be taught at this juncture, and why?

As we have already seen, the Talmud included in this pre-Sinai category social laws, Shabbat, and honoring one's parents. In his comments, Rashi says:

In Marah they were given a few of the sections of the Torah, so that they be involved in them: "Shabbat, Red Heifer and Laws." (Rashi on Exodus 15:25)

Rashi replaces honoring parents with the laws of the red heifer parah adumah, a shift that has been noticed by numerous commentaries.2 Perhaps even more interestingly, in other places Rashi does list honoring parents as having been commanded at Marah. Why, then, did Rashi add parah adumah to this category at all, and why he omits the commandment to honor parents at this point.

In Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21 to 24) Rashi writes:

The seven Noachide laws, Shabbat, honoring parents, red heifer, and [social] laws which were given at Marah. (Rashi 24:3)

Rashi clearly states that both honoring parents and parah adumah were taught at Marah. The inclusion of parah adumah can be attributed to simple exegesis. The term used in the Torah was chok -- a law that has no explanation. The archetypal chok is, of course, the red heifer. The term mishpat, on the other hand, indicates law that does have an explanation. Therefore, Rashi would naturally include in his comments the red heifer law, which is the chok, and social laws, which are mishpat.

But then, why did Rashi include Shabbat?


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The answer lies in an appreciation of the broader canvas which Rashi treats: the very next section of the Torah deals with Shabbat, and it presupposes some knowledge on the part of the people:

And he said to them, "This is what the Lord had spoken about -- tomorrow is the day of rest, the Holy Shabbat to the Lord." (Exodus 16:23)

Prior to this verse, we do not find any discussion of Shabbat in the Torah other than the general comments in Genesis. Nonetheless, the text makes clear reference to some type of earlier discussion centering around Shabbat. Arguably, Rashi, first and foremost a biblical commentator, is attempting to explain the simple reading of the verse, and therefore lists Shabbat among the laws transmitted at Marah, based on the context of the verses.

On the other hand, in Parshat Mishpatim, Rashi lists what had been taught prior to the revelation at Sinai, and he incorporates the Talmudic tradition, also citing the commandment to honor parents.

A careful reading of Rashi may provide another solution to this problem.

Rashi says that "at Marah they were given a few of the sections of the Torah, so that they be involved in them."

Rashi says that "at Marah they were given a few of the sections of the Torah, so that they be involved in them." The term sheyit'asku, "to be involved," implies an intellectual pursuit, and not necessarily a behavioral commitment. This follows the teaching in the Talmud that Marah is the source upon which public reading of the Torah is based:

And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water, upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: Water means nothing but Torah, as it says: Everyone that thirsts, come for water (Isaiah 55:1). It thus means that as they went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted. The prophets among them thereupon rose and enacted that they should publicly read the law on Shabbat, make a break on Sunday, read again on Monday, make a break again on Tuesday and Wednesday, read again on Thursday and then make a break on Friday so that they should not be kept for three days without Torah. (Baba Kamma 82a)

The events at Marah are the source of Torah study, but not necessarily for the practice of Torah.


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This argument is buttressed by the inappropriateness of the inclusion of the red heifer among the statutes transmitted at Marah. At this point, in the desert, before the construction of the Tabernacle, the laws of red heifer, indeed the entire concept, could only have been a theoretical construct. Therefore, at Marah which is the inspiring experience for public Torah study every three days, the Jews are given some laws to occupy themselves intellectually.3

Why, then, is the commandment to honor parents not included?

The Maharal points out that the verse ends with, "there He tested them." Such a test, regarding the honor of one's parents, would be inappropriate.

The Maharal categorizes the commandments, dividing them into four groups:


  1. Commandments that are beyond logic -- referred to as chok.



  2. Commandments whose logic would elude us had it not been for the Torah's explanation.



  3. Commandments which are part of a social contract whose logic is apparent, such as a prohibition against stealing, which legislate against human desire.



  4. Commandments which are part of an individual's emotional makeup, that is commandments which converge with human instinct.


Honoring parents is of the fourth type, a most logical commandment, one that is within human nature. This does not imply that all men excel in the performance of this commandment; nonetheless it is part of man's inborn character to honor and cherish his parents.

The Talmud routinely brings examples of non-Jews or unsavory characters as quintessential examples of filial relationships. The Maharal's suggestion is that a test regarding honoring parents is incongruous.

This becomes more clear in light of our thesis that it was the study of Torah, and not its practice, that was laid down at Marah. The acceptance of laws such as the red heifer and Shabbat required a stretch of man's belief. To accept and study the laws of honoring parents can not be called a "test." Therefore, the Maharal says, Rashi did not include it in his commentary on the verse in our Parsha.


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At Marah the Jews received all four types of laws:


  • Transcendental
  • Metalogical
  • Social and
  • Logical


I once heard Rav Yehuda Amital modify this teaching. When asked for guidelines for the newly-observant, Rav Amital replied that this was the educational challenge faced at Marah.

The first steps undertaken toward observance should include a law in the interpersonal sphere -- like the prototype of honoring parents. The second category should be represented by a law concerning Shabbat, a law involving the relationship between man and God. The third category, represented at Marah by the laws of parah adumah, should involve something which transcends human understanding.

We understand how the people would have been attracted to a law like honoring parents, being eminently logical and appealing to human nature. Seen through the eyes of a generation only recently redeemed from hundreds of years of subjugation in Egypt, the laws of Shabbat may also have been logically compelling.

Religious experience necessitates something beyond logic.

Yet religious experience also necessitates something beyond this type of logic; it requires a transcendent component. There must be a rendezvous with the Divine.

This is the heart of religious experience. Without it, the relationship with God would be reduced to a human construct. This is what the Jews received at Marah, and should serve as the cornerstone of our own commitment.


  1. Deut. 5:12,16: "Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord your God has commanded you." And "Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you." (return to text)



  2. The Torah Temima suggests that this Rashi represents an error of transmission: originally, Rashi's comment read "honoring parents" in Hebrew, kibud av v'em, represented by the letters kaf aleph. At some point, this was inadvertently mistaken for peh aleph, initials for para adumah. Rav Kasher, in the "Torah Sh'lemah," ridicules this suggestion, asserting that all the manuscripts bear out the reading as it has been transmitted. Numerous Rishonim, including the Nachmanides, cite Rashi with the term para adumah. Rav Kasher then suggests that perhaps the Talmud has an alternative reading with the words para adumah. See "Torah Sh'lemah" pages 284-285. (return to text)



  3. Nachmanides understands Rashi in this light, he further sees the learning as a preparation for the accepting of the Torah, which Nachmanides views as a quasi conversion process. Also see the comments of the Maharal to these verses where he gives a very similar explanation. (return to text)