The portion of the Torah read this week includes the laws of damages.

"When two people have an argument and one hits the other with a stone or his fist…."
"If an ox gores a man or a woman…."
"If a man opens a pit or digs a pit and doesn't cover it…."
"If a man lets his cattle ruin a field or vineyard, whether by letting it walk or graze in
[someone] else's field…."
"If a fire breaks out and sets fire to thorns, devouring a stack of grain, standing grain, or a field…."
(Ex. 21-22)

A person's liability for damages is different for each of these cases, and much of Jewish civil law is concerned with distilling these cases into their underlying principles. Thus, in tractate Baba Kama 1:1, the sages state that "There are four principle categories of damage: the ox, the pit, the destroyer, and the fire". As we shall see, the "destroyer" may refer either to man or to a grazing animal.

The Ox, the Pit, the Destroyer, and the Fire… are the four levels of evil…

Let us discuss the laws of the four principle categories of damage: the Ox, the Pit, the Destroyer, and the Fire. These four are the four levels of evil [kelipot]. They correspond to the four holy fathers [of the Jewish people]: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David.

The Hebrew term for "principle categories" is "avot", which literally means "fathers", since the principle categories give rise to "offspring", i.e. secondary or derivative categories; hence the analogy between the "fathers" of damages and the fathers of the Jewish people.

The Ox corresponds to the attribute of Isaac, i.e. gevura, as it is written, "the face of the lion to the right, and the face of the ox to the left." (Ezekiel 1:10)

Left is the side of gevura. The verse quoted is from the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the Divine Chariot, the image of the array of sefirot in the spiritual worlds. The holy "ox", holy gevura, is power harnessed in the service of G‑d. The evil ox is power misused in order to cause damage.

The Pit corresponds to [the attribute of] Abraham, who was "the well of living water". (Gen. 26:19) The Pit [however], is "a pit of raging waters, slimy mud." (Ps. 40:3)

The attribute of Abraham is chesed, which is associated with life-giving water. Evil water is water that causes damage by overuse or misdirection of chesed, loving-kindness.

The Destroyer corresponds to [the sefira of] tiferet, according to the opinion that the "destroyer" refers to man (Baba Kama 3b), as it is written, "it is the glory [tiferet] of a man to sit in a house." (Isaiah 44:13)

There are two opinions in the Talmud regarding the meaning of the term used for the third category of damage (maveh). According to one opinion, it means a man causing damage. According to the other opinion, it means a grazing animal (and the category of "Ox" means only a trampling animal). According to this opinion, the "four principle categories" enumerated by the sages are only categories of damages done by a person's possessions, not by a person himself.

Tiferet means "glory"; hence the connection between tiferet and "man" given in the verse quoted.

Translated and adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky from Ta'amei HaMitzvot, Parashat Mishpatim; subsequently published in "Apples From the Orchard."

Reprinted with permission from Chabad of California. Copyright 2004 by Chabad of California, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, without permission, in writing, from Chabad of California, Inc.