Immediately following the Splitting of the Sea, the Torah recounts how our ancestors came to a place they would ultimately call Marah, which means “bitter.” Indeed, the water there was bitter and undrinkable.

Thirsting, the people complained to Moses about not having anything to drink, at which point Moses cried out to G‑d. G‑d then instructed Moses to cast a piece of wood into the water, which then turned into sweet water.

At this point, the Torah tells us rather cryptically, “There He gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them.” Scripture continues with G‑d telling the people that if they are careful to keep all of the mitzvahs and statutes, He will not bring upon them “all the sickness” that He had placed upon the Egyptians, “for I, the L‑rd, heal you.”1

Since this occurred before the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, what were these statutes and ordinances that the people were given and admonished to keep?

Mitzvahs Given at Marah

We find several traditions in the Talmud and Midrash regarding what these statutes and ordinances were, based on the meaning of the words we translated as “statute” and “ordinance,” חֹק and מִשְׁפָּט in Hebrew. Here are some:

  • Shabbat (חֹק) and honoring parents (מִשְׁפָּט)2
  • Forbidden sexual relationships (חֹק) and civil law/torts (מִשְׁפָּט)3
  • Shabbat (חֹק) and civil law/torts (מִשְׁפָּט)4
  • Shabbat and honoring parents (?חֹק) and civil law/torts (מִשְׁפָּט)5
  • Shabbat and laws of the red heifer (חֹק) and civil law/torts (מִשְׁפָּט)6

According to one opinion in the Talmud, they were also given the Seven Noahide Laws at that time.7

Laws Before Torah Was Given

According to some opinions, these laws were already in effect at Marah.8 However, Rashi opines that these laws were first taught and studied at Marah as a preparation for the giving of the Torah, but they were not binding until G‑d “gave” them again together with the rest of the Torah on Mount Sinai.9

Why were these laws specifically given after the people complained? Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashi’s grandson, known as Rashbam, c.1085–c.1158) explains this was teaching them that the way to get one’s needs fulfilled by G‑d is through keeping His Torah and mitzvahs.10