Are the norms of Jewish religious law grounded in reason and values? In classical rabbinic discourse, justifications for laws - whether by direct reasoning (sevara), or more commonly, by scriptural derivation (Midrash) - are prevalent in most extant collections, where they serve to express underlying values. Justifications are rare, however, in the core document of the tradition, the Mishnah. But the absence of overt justification should not be taken to signify a lack of an underlying value-laden worldview. Careful analysis of an unusual mishnaic clause reveals a message about the reasonableness and significance of the rabbinic "half-damage" rule, sharply divergent from the plain meaning of the biblical text, which is perceived as inherently unfair. This serves as an instructive example of how exploring the Mishnah as a work of literary art can reveal the reason and values of halakhic norms.
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