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This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim.

From wikipedia:

Shoftim, Shof’tim, or Shofetim (?????? — Hebrew for “judges,” the first word in the parshah) is the 48th weekly Torah portion (parshah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the fifth in the book of Deuteronomy. It constitutes Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9. Jews in the Diaspora generally read it in August or September.

Rules for magistrates

Moses directed the Israelites to appoint magistrates and officials for their tribes to govern the people with justice, impartially, without bribes. (Deut. 16:18–19.) “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” he said. (Deut. 16:20.)

[edit] Abhorrent practices

Moses warned the Israelites against setting up a sacred post beside God’s altar or erecting a stone pillar. (Deut. 16:21–22.)

Moses warned the Israelites against sacrificing an ox or sheep with any serious defect. (Deut. 17:1.)

If the Israelites found a person who worshiped other gods, the sun, the moon, or any celestial body, then they were to make a thorough inquiry, and if they established the fact on the testimony of two or more witnesses, then they were to stone the person to death, with the witnesses throwing the first stones. (Deut. 17:2–7.) If a case proved too baffling for them to decide, then they were promptly to go to the place that God would choose for God’s shrine, appear before the priests or the magistrate in charge and present their problem, and carry out any verdict that was announced there without deviating either to the right or to the left. (Deut. 17:8–11.) They were to execute any man who presumptuously disregarded the priest or the magistrate, so that all the people would hear, be afraid, and not act presumptuously again. (Deut. 17:12–13.)

King David (statue by F.A. Jerichau)

King David (statue by F.A. Jerichau)

Rules for kings

If, after the Israelites had settled the land, they decided to set a king over them, they were to be free to do so, taking an Israelite chosen by God. (Deut. 17:14–15.) The king was not to keep many horses, marry many wives, or amass silver and gold to excess. (Deut. 17:16–17.) The king was to have the priests write for him a copy of this Teaching to remain with him and read all his life, so that he might learn to revere God and observe these laws faithfully. (Deut. 17:18–19.) He would thus not act haughtily toward his people nor deviate from the law, and as a consequence, he and his descendants would enjoy a long reign. (Deut. 17:20.)

Rules for Levites

The Levites were to have no territorial portion, but were to live only off of offerings, for God was to be their portion. (Deut. 18:1–2.) In exchange for their service to God, the priests were to receive the shoulder, cheeks, and stomach of sacrifices, the first fruits of the Israelites’ grain, wine, and oil, and the first shearing of sheep. (Deut. 18:3–5.) Levites were to be free to come from their settlements to the place that God had chosen as a shrine to serve in the name of God with their fellow Levites, and there they were to receive equal shares of the dues. (Deut. 18:6–8.)

Rules for prophets

The Israelites were not to imitate the abhorrent practices of the nations that they were displacing, consign their children to fire, or act as an augur, soothsayer, diviner, sorcerer, one who casts spells, one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead, for it was because of those abhorrent acts that God was dispossessing the former residents of the land. (Deut. 18:9–14.)

God would raise a prophet from among them like Moses, and the Israelites were to heed him. (Deut. 18:15.) When at Horeb the Israelites asked God not to hear God’s voice directly, God created the role of the prophet to speak God’s words, promising to hold to account anybody who failed to heed the prophet’s words. (Deut. 18:16–19.) But any prophet who presumed to speak an oracle in God’s name that God had not commanded the prophet to utter, or who spoke in the name of other gods, was to die. (Deut. 18:20.) This was how the people were to determine whether the oracle was spoken by God: If the prophet spoke in the name of God and the oracle did not come true, then that oracle was not spoken by God, the prophet had uttered it presumptuously, and the people were not to fear him. (Deut. 18:21–22.)

Cities of refuge

When the Israelites had settled in the land, they were to divide the land into three parts and set aside three cities of refuge, so that any manslayer could have a place to which to flee. (Deut. 19:1–3.) And if the Israelites faithfully observed all the law and God enlarged the territory, then they were to add three more towns to those three. (Deut. 19:8–9.)

Only a manslayer who had killed another unwittingly, without being the other’s enemy, might flee there and live. (Deut. 19:4.) For instance, if a man went with his neighbor into a grove to cut wood, and as he swung an ax to cut down a tree, the ax-head flew off the handle and struck and killed the neighbor, then the man could flee to one of the cities of refuge and live. (Deut. 19:5.) If, however, one who was the enemy of another lay in wait, struck the other a fatal blow, and then fled to a city of refuge, the elders of the slayer’s town were to have the slayer turned over to the bloodavenger to be put to death. (Deut. 19:11–13.)


The Israelites were not to move their countrymen’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that they were allotted in the land. (Deut. 19:14.)

Rules for witnesses

An Israelite could be found guilty of an offense only on the testimony of two or more witnesses. (Deut. 19:15.) If one person gave false testimony against another, then the two parties were to appear before God and the priests or magistrates, the magistrates were to make a thorough investigation, and if the magistrates found the person to have testified falsely, then they were to do to the witness as the witness schemed to do to the other. (Deut. 19:16–19.)

Rules for war

Before the Israelites joined battle, the priest was to tell the troops not to fear, for God would accompany them to do battle against their enemy. (Deut. 20:2–4.) Then the officials were to ask the troop whether anyone had built a new house but not dedicated it, planted a vineyard but never harvested it, paid the bride-price for a wife but not yet married her, or become afraid and disheartened, and all these they were to send back to their homes. (Deut. 20:5–8.)

When the Israelites approached a town to attack it, they were to offer it terms of peace, and if the town surrendered, then all the people of the town were to serve the Israelites as forced labor. (Deut. 20:10–11.) But if the town did not surrender, then the Israelites were to lay siege to the town, and when God granted victory, kill all its men and take as booty the women, children, livestock, and everything else in the town. (Deut. 20:12–14.) Those were the rules for towns that lay very far from Israel, but for the towns of the nations in the land — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites — the Israelites were to kill everyone, lest they lead the Israelites into doing all the abhorrent things that those nations had done for their gods. (Deut. 20:15–18.) When the Israelites besieged a city for a long time, they could eat the fruit of the city’s trees, but they were not to cut down any trees that could yield food. (Deut. 20:19–20.)

The found corpse

If, in the land, someone slain was found lying in the open, and the slayer could not be determined, then the elders and magistrates were to measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. (Deut. 21:1–2.) The elders of the town nearest to the corpse were to take a heifer that had never been worked down to an ever-flowing wadi and break its neck. (Deut. 21:3–4.) The priests were to come forward, all the elders were to wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken, and the elders were to declare that their hands did not shed the blood nor their eyes see it done. (Deut. 21:5–7.) The elders were to ask God to absolve the Israelites, and not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among them, and they would be absolved of bloodguilt. (Deut. 21:8.)

In classical rabbinic interpretation

Deuteronomy chapter 16

Resh Lakish deduced from the proximity of the discussions of appointment of judges in Deuteronomy 16:18 and the Canaanite idolatrous practice of the Asherah in Deuteronomy 16:21 that appointing an incompetent judge is as though planting an idolatrous tree. And Rav Ashi said that such an appointment made in a place where there were scholars is as though planting the idolatrous tree beside the Altar, for Deuteronomy 16:21 concludes “beside the altar of the Lord your God.” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 7b, Avodah Zarah 52a.)

Resh Lakish contrasted Leviticus 19:15, “In justice shall you judge your neighbor,” with Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” and concluded that Leviticus 19:15 referred to an apparently genuine claim, while Deuteronomy 16:20 referred to the redoubled scrutiny appropriate to a suit that one suspected to be dishonest. Rav Ashi found no contradiction, however, between the two verses, for a Baraita taught that in the two mentions of “justice” in Deuteronomy 16:20, one mention referred to a decision based on strict law, while the other referred to compromise. For example, where two boats meet on a narrow river headed in opposite directions, if both attempted to pass at the same time, both would sink, but if one made way for the other, both could pass without mishap. Similarly, if two camels met on the ascent to Beth-horon, if they both ascended at the same time, both could fall into the valley, but if they ascended one after another, both could ascend safely. These were the principles by which the travelers were to resolve their impasse: If one was loaded and the other unloaded, then the unloaded was to give way to the loaded. If one was nearer to its destination than the other, then the nearer was to give way to the farther. If they were equally near to their destinations, then they were to compromise and the one that went first was to compensate the one who gave way. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 32b.)

The Rabbis taught in a Baraita that the words “Justice, justice shall you pursue” meant that one should pursue the most respected jurist to the place where the jurist held court. The Rabbis also taught a Baraita that the words “Justice, justice shall you pursue” meant that one should follow sages to their academies. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 32b.)

The Mishnah taught that the words of Jeremiah 17:7, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose hope is the Lord,” apply to a judge who judges truly and with integrity. The Mishnah taught that the words of Deuteronomy 16:20, “Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue,” apply to tell that an able-bodied person who feigned to be disabled would become disabled. And similarly, the words of Exodus 23:8, “And a gift shall you not accept; for a gift blinds them that have sight,” apply to tell that a judge who accepted a bribe or who perverted justice would become poor of vision. (Mishnah Peah 8:9.)

Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob deduced from the prohibition against any kind of tree beside the altar in Deuteronomy 16:21 that wooden columns were not allowed in the Temple courtyard. The Gemara explained that it was not permitted to build with wood near the altar. Rav Hisda taught that stone columns were permitted. (Babylonian Talmud Tamid 28b.)

Deuteronomy chapter 17

The Mishnah questioned why Deuteronomy 17:6 discussed three witnesses, when two witnesses were sufficient to establish guilt. The Mishnah deduced that the language of Deuteronomy 17:6 meant to analogize between a set of two witnesses and a set of three witnesses. Just as three witnesses could discredit two witnesses, two witnesses could discredit three witnesses. The Mishnah deduced from the multiple use of the word “witnesses” in Deuteronomy 17:6 that two witnesses could discredit even a hundred witnesses. Rabbi Simeon deduced from the multiple use of the word “witnesses” in Deuteronomy 17:6 that just as two witnesses were not executed as perjurers until both had been incriminated, so three were not executed until all three had been incriminated. Rabbi Akiba deduced that the addition of the third witness in Deuteronomy 17:6 was to teach that the perjury of a third, superfluous witness was just as serious as that of the others. Rabbi Akiba concluded that if Scripture so penalized an accomplice just as one who committed a wrong, how much more would God reward an accomplice to a good deed. And the Mishnah further deduced from the multiple use of the word “witnesses” in Deuteronomy 17:6 that just as the disqualification of one of two witnesses would invalidate the evidence of the set of two witnesses, so would the disqualification of one witness invalidate the evidence of even a hundred. Rabbi Jose said that these limitations applied only to witnesses in capital charges, and that in monetary suits, the balance of the witnesses could establish the evidence. Rabbi said that the same rule applied to monetary suits or capital charges where the disqualified witnesses joined to take part in the warning of the defendant, but the rule did not disqualify the remaining witnesses where the disqualified witnesses did not take part in the warning. And the Gemara further qualified the Mishnah’s ruling. (Mishnah Makkot 1:7–8; Babylonian Talmud Makkot 5b–6b.)

Rav Joseph reported that a Baraita interpreted the reference to “the priests” in Deuteronomy 17:9 to teach that when the priests served in the Temple, a judge could hand down capital punishment, but when the priesthood is not functioning, the judge may not issue such judgments. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 52b.)

The Mishnah explained the process by which one was found to be a rebellious elder within the meaning of Deuteronomy 17:12. Three courts of law sat in Jerusalem: one at the entrance to the Temple Mount, a second at the door of the Temple Court, and the third, the Great Sanhedrin, in the Hall of Hewn Stones in the Temple Court. The dissenting elder and the other members of the local court with whom the elder disputed went to the court at the entrance to the Temple Mount, and the elder stated what the elder and the elder’s colleagues expounded. If the first court had heard a ruling on the matter, then the court stated it. If not, the litigants and the judges went to the second court, at the entrance of the Temple Court, and the elder once again declared what the elder and the elder’s colleagues expounded. If this second court had heard a ruling on the matter, then this court stated it. If not, then they all proceeded to the Great Sanhedrin at the Hall of Hewn Stones, which issued instruction to all Israel, for Deuteronomy 17:10 said that “they shall declare to you from that place that the Lord shall choose,” meaning the Temple. If the elder then returned to the elder’s town and issued a decision contrary to what the Great Sanhedrin had instructed, then the elder was guilty of acting “presumptuously” within the meaning of Deuteronomy 17:12. But if one of the elder’s disciples issued a decision opposed to the Great Sanhedrin, the disciple was exempt from judgment, for the very stringency that kept the disciple from having yet been ordained served as a source of leniency to prevent the disciple from being found to be a rebellious elder. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:2; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 86b.)

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (painting by Edward Poynter)

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (painting by Edward Poynter)

Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4–5 and Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 20b–22b interpreted the laws governing the king in Deuteronomy 17:14–20.

The Mishnah taught that the king could lead the army to a voluntary war on the decision of a court of 71. He could force a way through private property, and none could stop him. There was no limit to the size of the king’s road. And he had first choice of the plunder taken by the people in war. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 20b.)

The Rabbis disagreed about the powers of the king. The Gemara reported that Rab Judah said in Samuel’s name that a king was permitted to take all the actions that 1Samuel 8:4–18 enumerated, but Rab said that 1Samuel 8 was intended only to frighten the people, citing the emphatic double verb in the words “You shall surely set a king over you” in Deuteronomy 17:15 to indicate that the people would fear the king. And the Gemara also reported the same dispute among other Tannaim; in this account, Rabbi Jose said that a king was permitted to take all the actions that 1Samuel 8:4–18 enumerated, but Rabbi Judah said that 1Samuel 8 was intended only to frighten the people, citing the emphatic double verb in the words “You shall surely set a king over you” in Deuteronomy 17:15 to indicate that the people would fear the king. Rabbi Judah (or others say Rabbi Jose) said that three commandments were given to the Israelites when they entered the land: (1) the commandment of Deuteronomy 17:14–15 to appoint a king, (2) the commandment of Deuteronomy 25:19 to blot out Amalek, and (3) the commandment of Deuteronomy 12:10–11 to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Nehorai, on the other hand, said that Deuteronomy 17:14–15 did not command the Israelites to choose a king, but was spoken only in anticipation of the Israelites’ future complaints, as Deuteronomy 17:14 says, “And (you) shall say, ‘I will set a king over me.’” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 20b.)

The Mishnah interpreted the words “He shall not multiply horses to himself” in Deuteronomy 17:16 to limit the king to only as many horses as his chariots required. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21b.)

The Queen of Sheba and Solomon (painting by Tintoretto)

The Queen of Sheba and Solomon (painting by Tintoretto)

The Mishnah interpreted the words “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself” in Deuteronomy 17:17 to limit him to no more than 18 wives. Rabbi Judah said that he could have more wives, provided that they did not turn away his heart. But Rabbi Simeon said that he must not marry even one wife who would turn away his heart. The Mishnah concluded that Deuteronomy 17:17 prohibited the king from marrying more than 18 wives, even if they were all as righteous as Abigail the wife of David. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21a.) The Gemara noted that Rabbi Judah did not always employ the rationale behind a Biblical passage as a basis for limiting its legal effect, as he did here in Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4. The Gemara explained that Rabbi Judah employed the rationale behind the law here because Deuteronomy 17:17 itself expounds the rationale behind its legal constraint: The reason behind the command, “he shall not multiply wives to himself,” is so “that his heart be not turned aside.” Thus Rabbi Judah reasoned that Deuteronomy 17:17 itself restricts the law to these conditions, and a king could have more wives if “his heart be not turned aside.” And the Gemara noted that Rabbi Simeon did not always interpret a Biblical passage strictly by its plain meaning, as he appeared to do here in Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4. The Gemara explained that Rabbi Simeon could have reasoned that Deuteronomy 17:17 adds the words, “that his heart turn not away,” to imply that the king must not marry even a single wife who might turn away his heart. And one could interpret the words “he shall not multiply” to mean that the king must not marry many wives even if they, like Abigail, would never turn away his heart. The Gemara then analyzed how the anonymous first view in Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4 came to its conclusion that the king could have no more than 18 wives. The Gemara noted that 2Samuel 3:2–5 refers to the children of six of David’s wives born to David in Hebron. And the Gemara reasoned that Nathan the Prophet referred to these six wives in 2Samuel 12:8 when he said, “And if that were too little, then would I add to you the like of these, and the like of these,” each “these” implying six more wives. Thus with the original six, these two additions of six would make 18 in all. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21a.)

King Solomon (18th Century Russian icon)

King Solomon (18th Century Russian icon)

The Mishnah interpreted the words “and silver and gold he shall not greatly multiply to himself” in Deuteronomy 17:17 to limit the king to only as much silver and gold as he needed to pay his soldiers. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21b.)

The Mishnah interpreted the words “he shall write a copy of this law in a book” in Deuteronomy 17:18 to teach that when he went to war, he was to take it with him; on returning, he was to bring it back; when he sat in judgment, it was to be with him; and when he sat down to eat, it was to be before him, to fulfill the words of Deuteronomy 17:19, “and it shall be with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21b.)

Deuteronomy chapter 18

Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:7 and Babylonian Talmud 64a–b interpreted the laws prohibiting passing one’s child through the fire to Molech in Leviticus 18:21, 20:1-5, and Deuteronomy 18:10.

Deuteronomy chapter 19

Chapter 2 of tractate Makkot in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Jerusalem Talmud, and Babylonian Talmud interpreted the laws of the cities of refuge in Exodus 21:12–14, Numbers 35:1–34, Deuteronomy 4:41–43, and 19:1–13. (Mishnah Makkot 2:1–8; Tosefta Makkot 2:1–3:10; Jerusalem Talmud Makkot; Babylonian Talmud Makkot 7a–13a.)

Chapter 1 of tractate Makkot in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Babylonian Talmud interpreted the laws of perjury in Deuteronomy 19:15–21. (Mishnah Makkot 1:1–9; Tosefta Makkot 1:1–11; Babylonian Talmud Makkot 2a–7a.) According to the Mishnah, if witnesses testified that a person was liable to receive 40 lashes, and the witnesses turned out to have perjured themselves, then Rabbi Meir taught that the perjurers received 80 lashes — 40 on account of the commandment of Exodus 20:12 (in the JPS; Exodus 20:13 in the NJPS) not to bear false witness and 40 on account of the instruction of Deuteronomy 19:19 to do to perjurers as they intended to do to their victims — but the Sages said that they received only 40 lashes. (Mishnah Makkot 1:3; Babylonian Talmud Makkot 4a.)

The Gemara taught that the words “eye for eye” in Deuteronomy 19:21 meant pecuniary compensation. Rabbi Simon ben Yohai asked those who would take the words literally how they would enforce equal justice where a blind man put out the eye of another man, or an amputee cut off the hand of another, or where a lame person broke the leg of another. The school of Rabbi Ishmael cited the words “so shall it be given to him” in Leviticus 24:20, and deduced that the word “give” could apply only to pecuniary compensation. The school of Rabbi Hiyya cited the words “hand for hand” in Deuteronomy 19:21 to mean that an article was given from hand to hand, namely money. Abaye reported that a sage of the school of Hezekiah taught that Exodus 21:23–24 said “eye for eye” and “life for life,” but not “life and eye for eye,” and it could sometimes happen that eye and life would be taken for an eye, as when the offender died while being blinded. Rav Papa said in the name of Raba that Exodus 21:19 referred explicitly to healing, and the verse would not make sense if one assumed that retaliation was meant. And Rav Ashi taught that the principle of pecuniary compensation could be derived from the analogous use of the term “for” in Exodus 21:24 in the expression “eye for eye” and in Exodus 21:36 in the expression “he shall surely pay ox for ox.” As the latter case plainly indicated pecuniary compensation, so must the former. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 84a.)

Deuteronomy chapter 20

Chapter 8 of tractate Sotah in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud and part of chapter 7 of tractate Sotah in the Tosefta interpreted the laws of those excused from war in Deuteronomy 20:1–9. (Mishnah Sotah 8:1–7; Tosefta Sotah 7:18–24; Babylonian Talmud Sotah 42a–44b.)

Even though one might conclude from Deuteronomy 20:10 and 15–18 that the Israelites were not to offer peace to the Canaanites, Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman taught that Joshua sent three edicts to the inhabitants of the Land of Israel before the Israelites entered the land: first, that whoever wanted to leave the land should leave; second, that whoever wished to make peace and agree to pay taxes should do so; and third, that whoever wished to make war should do so. The Girgashites vacated their land and thus merited receiving land in Africa. And the Gibeonites made peace with the Israelites, as reported in Joshua 10:1. (Jerusalem Talmud Sheviit 45b.)

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