The Hebrew Scriptures are not readily or easily understood by native English speakers, we post a weekly addition to regular Torah commentary. "Cutting to the Root" is intended to promote an understanding of the complexity of the Hebrew language and thereby gain a richer and deeper understanding of the Scriptures. It is our goal that these notes will teach tolerance and understanding.Please visit our web site at

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Parashat Shoftim

Parasha: Shoftim – Deuteronomy
Haftara: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12
Reading Date: 6th September 2008 – 6th Elul 5768

The Torah reading called "Judges" (Shoftim) opens with the command to appoint "judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your city-gates[1] that the YHVH your G-d is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.

Justice, justice[2] shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land YHVH your G-d is giving you.

This is followed by prohibitions again idolatrous trees[3] and monuments, and offering a blemished animal to G-d. Idolatry is to be punished by death, but as with all crimes, a conviction is to be brought only upon the testimony of two witnesses[4]. The courts and judges are also invested with the authority to interpret and decide all matters of

Torah law:
If a matter eludes you in judgment, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, or between affliction and affliction, words of dispute in your cities, then you shall rise and go up to the place YHVH your G-d chooses.

And you shall come... to the judge who will be in those days[5], and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgment.
And you shall do according to the word they tell you, from the place YHVH will choose, and you shall observe to do according to all they instruct you.
According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left.

Appointing a King
When you come to the land YHVH, your G-d, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, "I will set a king[6] over myself, like all the nations around me."
You shall set a king over you, one whom YHVH your G-d chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself...
Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself, so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for YHVH said to you: "You shall not return that way any more."
And he shall not take many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself.
The king should have two copies[7] of the Torah scroll made for him, one of which should accompany him constantly "and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear YHVH his G-d, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them. So that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel."

More Mitzvot
Moses reiterates some of the Israelites' duties toward the Cohenim and the Levites, including the gifts set aside from the farmer's produce, shearings and slaughtered cattle; the prohibitions against the various forms of sorcery and superstitions[8], the duty to obey the prophet, and the setting aside of "Cities of Refuge" for someone who kills unintentionally.
The stealing of land by surreptitiously moving back the boundary marker is strictly forbidden. False witnesses, if refuted through the process of zomemim (i.e., other witnesses testify that they were in another place and could not have witnessed the crime they claim to have witnessed), are subjected to the punishment they would have had inflicted on the accused.

Laws of War
A Cohen (called the mashuach milchamah, "anointed for battle") is appointed to the task of preparing the people for war. "Hear, O Israel," he announces to the people, "today you are approaching the battle against your enemies. Let your hearts not be faint; you shall not be afraid, and you shall not be alarmed, and you shall not be terrified because of them. For YHVH your G-d is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you."
The following are exempted from participating in the battle:
"Is there who has built a new house and has not yet inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he dies in the war, and another man inaugurates it.
"Is there a man who has planted a vineyard, and has not yet redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he dies in the war, and another man redeems it.
"Is there a man who has betrothed a woman[9] and has not yet taken her in marriage? Let him go and return to his house, lest he dies in the war, and another man takes her in marriage."
And finally:
"Is there a man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, that he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt, as his heart."
Terms of peace must first be offered to a city, before attacking it. No fruit trees are to be destroyed to build siege towers -- only non-fruit-producing trees may be cut down (this is the source of the prohibition of Lo Tashchit, not to wantonly destroy[10] any useful thing). It is in this context that the Torah makes the famous analogy comparing man to "a tree of the field."

Egla Arufah (The Law of the Anonymous Murder Victim)
If a slain person be found in the land which YHVH your G-d is giving you to possess, lying in the field, and it is not known who slew him.
Your elders and judges shall go forth, and they shall measure to the cities around the corpse. And it will be, [that from] the city closest to the corpse, the elders of that city shall take a calf with which work has never been done, [and] that has never drawn a yoke.
And the elders of that city shall bring the calf down to a rugged valley, which was neither tilled nor sown, and there in the valley, they shall decapitate the calf...
And all the elders of that city, who are the nearest to the corpse, shall wash their hands over the calf that was decapitated in the valley.
And they shall announce and say: "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes[11] see. Atone for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, O YHVH, and lay not [the guilt of] innocent blood among your people Israel." And so the blood shall be atoned for them.
And you shall abolish the [shedding of] innocent blood from among you, for you shall do what is proper in the eyes of YHVH.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Judges and officers you shall place at all your city-gates... (16:18)
Do not judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One.
(Ethics of the Fathers 4:8)

[2] Justice, justice shall you pursue (16:20)
By virtue of three things the world endures: law, truth and peace.
(Ethics of the Fathers 1:18)
A judge, who judges with absolute truth, becomes a partner with YHVH in creation.
(Talmud, Shabbat 10a)

[3] You shall not plant for yourself an asherah, any tree, near the altar of YHVH (16:21)
This verse includes two prohibitions: not to plant an aseirah (idolatrous) tree anywhere, and not to plant any tree, or build any Tree on the Temple Mount.
(Sifri; Rashi)

[4] By the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses (17:6)
The testimony of two witnesses constitutes absolute proof; in this, two witnesses are like a hundred.

[5] If a matter eludes you in judgment... then you shall rise and go... to the judge who will be in those days... (17:8-9)
Can a person then go to a judge who is not in his days...? This is to teach us that although this judge may not be of the same stature as other judges who preceded him, you must listen to him, for you have only the judge who lives in your time... Samuel in his generation is like Yiftach in his generation (Samuel is regarded as the greatest of the prophets, equal to Moses and Aaron together; Yiftach, who served as Judge in 982-962 BCE, came from a lowly background and was guilty of many failings).
(Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 25b; Rashi)

[6] Judges and officers you shall place at all your city-gates... (Deuteronomy 16:18)
The human body is a city with seven gates -- seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. Here, too, it is incumbent upon us to place internal "judges" to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out, and "officers" to enforce the judges' decisions...
(Siftei Kohen)

[7] If the ordinary person needs one Torah scroll, a king needs two: because of his greatness, he has greater need to be reminded of the higher authority to which he must submit.
(Yalkut David)

[8] There shall not be found among you... a soothsayer, a diviner of times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, a pithom sorcerer, a yido'a sorcerer, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to G-d (18:10-12)
A soothsayer is one who takes his rod in his hand and says [as though to consult it], "Shall I go, or shall I not go?"
A diviner of times: According to Rabbi Akiva, these are people who determine the times, saying, "Such-and-such a time is good to begin a venture." The [other] Sages say, however, that this refers to those who "catch the eyes" [i.e., they deceive by creating optical illusions].
One who interprets omens -- e.g., bread falling from his mouth, a deer crossing his path, or his stick falling from his hand.
Charmer: One who collects snakes, scorpions or other creatures into one place.
Pithom sorcerer: The sorcerer raises the spirit of the dead, and it speaks from the sorcerer's armpit.
Yido’a sorcerer: The sorcerer inserts a bone of the animal called yido’a into his mouth, and the bone speaks by means of sorcery.
A necromancer is one who raises the dead spirit upon his membrum, or one who consults a skull.
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 65b)

[9] Is there a man who built a house... who planted a vineyard... who betrothed a woman... (20:5-7)
[The order in which the Torah lists these actions teaches us] that a person of character should first find work that earns him a livelihood, then build himself a house, and after that marry... [not like] the fools who first get married, then, if they can afford it, buy a house, and toward the end of their lives start looking for a job or live off charity...

[10] When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them (20:19)
One who breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops a spring or disposes of food in a ruinous manner, transgresses the prohibition of Lo Tashchit.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:10)

[11] Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see... (21:7)
But would it enter one's mind that the elders of the court are murderers? Rather, [they declare:] We did not see him and let him depart without food or escort.
(Talmud, Sotah 45a)
The principle behind the law of Eglah Arufah is that a person is also responsible for what occurs outside of his domain -- outside of the areas where he is fully in control. When a murdered traveler is found out in the field, the elders of the nearest city must go out there and bring the Eglah Arufah to atone for the crime, although it occurred "outside of their jurisdiction"; for it was nevertheless their responsibility to send the traveler off with adequate provision and protection.
The same applies on the personal level in all areas of life. A person never has the right to say, "This is outside of my element. I have no obligation to deal with this." If it is something that, by Divine Providence, one has been made aware of, that means that there is something one can, and must, do to positively influence the end result.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)

No comments: