The Torah introduces the laws of the Red Heifer with, “This is the chok of the Torah” (Numbers 19:2). What is a chok and what is a mishpat?
The Talmud (Yoma 67b) states that mishpatim are rules that can be intuited or logically deduced and would therefore exist even without them appearing in the Torah. Chukim, in contrast, are laws whose purpose or rationale is unclear.
Peirush HaRokeach defines chukim as laws of issur v’heter (roughly, ritual law) and mishpatim as dinim (civil law). Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Genesis 26:5, Exodus 15:28, and Deuteronomy 6:17, 7:12), Ibn Yachya (to Psalms 147:19), and Radak (to Psalms 119:1) all explain that chukim are commandments whose reasons were not revealed while mishpatim are intuitive laws that govern interpersonal relations.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim explains that chukim are more likely to be forgotten because they are not intuitive. Thus, chukim – more than other types of laws – tend to be committed to writing (see Isaiah 30:8 and Job 19:23).
Rabbi Pappenheim writes that “chok” can also be used to refer to any set amount or quota imposed by a higher authority. The arbitrary nature of the prescribed quantity resembles an inexplicable law. So, for example, when Pharaoh’s enforcers chided the Jews for not producing their quota of bricks, the word they used to describe the quota is “chok” (Exodus 5:14).
Rabbi Eliyahu Menachem Margules (author of Emunas Eliezer) explains that although “chok” does not inherently mean “a commandment without a known reason,” it bears this implication because it is related to “chakuk” (engraved). When somebody follows commandments out of rational understanding, his obedience is conditional. In contrast, when he follows commandments because they are G-d’s will, his obedience is unconditional and is more “engraved” or “ingrained” in his persona. For this reason, commandments whose rationale is not revealed are called “chukim”; they ingrain loyalty to G-d more effectively than other types of commandments.
Classical writing requires ink and paper, which are technically separable. In engraving, the material being engraved becomes the writing. This unbreakable bond between the written word and the material it is written on parallels the unbreakable relationship between G-d and people who follow His chukim.
The Mishnah (Avot 5:16) teaches us that love that isn’t contingent on something will never be lost. Thus, when one’s obedience and loyalty to G-d is not bound by one’s subjective logical understanding, the relationship is much stronger and cannot be broken. (Rabbi Pappenheim interestingly points out that “chok” is commonly attached to the word “forever” [e.g., see Exodus 12:14 and 30:21 and Leviticus 3:16 and 23:14].)
How about the word “mishpat”? Rabbi Moshe Shapiro explains that “mishpat” denotes a decision between two viable options. For example, a shofet (judge) decides between the claims of two litigants. When a person follows a mishpat – a commandment whose rationale is meant to be understood – he functions like a judge who weighs his options, comes to a logical conclusion, and proceeds accordingly.
Based on the above, it would seem that chukim are more important than mishpatim. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), however, describes chukim as rungs on a ladder that lead towards the fulfillment of mishpatim, which represent the pinnacle of moral perfection. Fulfilling the chukim helps train a person’s intellect to properly understand the reasons behind the mishpatim and will lead him to follow those rules as well.
A similar sentiment is expressed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (on Psalms 119:5). He explains that the kuf in “chok” can be interchanged with a gimmel to produce the word ch-g, which means holiday, but also circle. Rabbi Hirsch explains that a chok is like a circle in that its purpose is to encircle or surround us, giving us extra opportunities to develop ourselves in a positive way. (The Midrash [Shemot Rabbah 15:25] similarly connects “chok” to “ch-g.”)
Interestingly, many sources relate the chok-mishpat division to the Written Law and Oral Law. Rabbi Berachiah Beirach Shapiro (d. 1663) writes that “chok” refers to the Written Law, which is not fully explained, while “mishpat” refers to the Oral Law, which reveals and expands on the Written Law’s hidden logic.
The Zohar (3:113a) takes the opposite approach. “Chok,” it says, refers to the Oral Law, while “mishpat” refers to the Written Law. In seeking to explain this comment, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that “chok” is related to “cheik” (bosom), which denotes the “middle” or “interior” of a person. (When something is engraved [chakuk], it is carving into something’s interior [cheik].)
The Written Law is made up of a text that is easily accessible and has a plain meaning. It thus corresponds to “mishpat.” The Oral Law digs into the Written Law to reach its interior and reveal its less obvious meanings. It thus corresponds to “chok.”