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Shoftim (judges)

Deuteronomy 16:18 to 21:9, Isaiah 51:12 to 52:12


This Torah portion discusses the four governmental roles of judge, king, priest, and prophet. The role of elder also comes into play in verses 19:12 and 21:1-9.

Deuteronomy 18:1-8 is very significant. The distinction between L'vi'im and cohanim is blurred as the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Two changes are made. The first is comparatively minor: any L'vi'im can eat meat set apart for God, although certain portions are still only for cohanim (compare with Leviticus 6, 7, and 22). The second change is major: any L'vi'im for whom "all the desire of the soul" is ministering before God may become a cohanim!

The further extension of priestly duties is prophesied in Isaiah 66:18 and 21—members of the other nations will one day also be priests and Levites!

The verb ba'ar most often means "burn" or "kindle", but in Deuteronomy is normally used metaphorically to mean "consume as if by fire". By using punishment as deterents, the desire to do evil will be "burned up". (Verses 13:5; 17:7,12; 19:19; 21:9,21; 22:21-24; 24:7) This is similar to what Yochanan the Immerser proclaimed about personal cleansing (Matthew 3:12) but different from what Malachi prophesied about personal destruction (Malachi 4:1). Besides the evil inclination being burned away, the curse brought about by the land receiving innocent blood will be "burned up" if murderers are not shown pity (19:13) or a ritual atones for an unknown killer escaping punishment (21:9). Compare this to Matthew 23:33-36, in which sympathy with those who shed innocent blood leads to a curse.

Traditional Jewish Commentary

The Seifer ha'Chinuch translates shotrim as "policemen" who explain and enforce obedience to Torah and be clear examples of proper living. Thus obedience becomes a community virtue, not the virtue of only some individuals.

The Ba'al ha'Turim emphasizes "for you" in verse 16:18, teaching that these shoftim and shotrim are only for Israel, and that the gentiles have their own legal system and are not expected to obey Torah. Similarly, he says, the phrase "tribe by tribe" shows that each tribe should govern itself whenever possible.

After discussing the importance of judges and judging fairly, verses 16:21-22 prohibit idolatrous trees and standing stones. This shows us that in God's perspective the world is supported by justice, in contrast to the heathen belief that certain trees and stones support the world.

Alternately, Rashi translates matzeivah not as "standing stone" but "altar hewed out of stone", and taught that this verse emphasizes that the altars allowed in Exodus 20:22(25) which were soon after forbidden (after the golden calf) are still forbidden after entering the Promised Land.

The Tz'enah Ur'enah says, "It is a great thing to judge properly. When there is fair judgment on earth there is no judgment wrought by heaven; God does not punish. He has mercy upon men, for justice was already served on earth. But when judgment is not fair on earth, there is judgment in heaven, and God himself brings judgment down upon the people."

In Jewish tradition, a bribe has an effect on a judge even if the judge is unaware of the bribe! For an example, refer to the story of the Upter Rav here.

In verse 17:4, the phrase "You shall inquire well" means to cross-examine the witnesses. Do not believe them immediately, for witnesses may be mistaken or lying.

Rosh Hashonoh (23b) teaches that the words of multiple witnesses should be "found to coincide". That is, the witnesses should not hear each other's testimony, so the agreement in their accounts is known to be genuine and not due to deceitful mimicry.

The mention of both the cohanim (plural) and "the judge" (singular) in verse 17:9 is interpreted as teaching two lessons. First, that the phrase "in those days" assures that every generation will have an special judge appointed by God. Second, that this current judge must be esteemed as much as the special judges of previous generations, even if he is not as great; we must not ourselves use historical legal precedent instead of consulting the current special judge.

The two commandments in verses 17:16-17 have an explanation of why they are good. Rebbi Shimon claims this explanation is complete. The G'ro disagrees, claiming that every commandment has a non-explicit reason it is good, even those for which an explicit reasons is also provided.

Rashi comments that the king needed two copies of Torah (based in mishneh in verse 17:18) to remind him to be especially obedient.

Rav Eliezer Chrysler discusses an imaginary conversation a person has with his evil inclination, to provide an example of how to avoid its twisted logic:

Yeitzer ho'ra: It is okay to sin because if this time, I win, the next time, you will win—then we will be even. And what's more, the time after that, you will beat me again, and then you will be ahead.

The person: No, I will not submit this time. Perhaps next time you will win, and then we will be even; and perhaps the time after that too! But this time it is I who will take the initiative! [This is said, of course, knowing that next time you'll tell him the same story.]

Four times Israel is called Y'shurun, "Little Straight One". The nickname comes from yashar, "straight", used in Exodus 15:26 and Deuteronomy 6:18, 12:25-28, 13:18, and 21:9.

There are seven different types of magic in verses 18:10-11, listed below. The first three mimic appropriate activities: the High Priest's use of the ooreem and tumeem, Eliyahoo bringing clouds, and prophets speaking of signs. The other four are evils that do not mimic God's activities (except when God mocked magicians of Egypt by having Aharon's snake eat theirs).

  1. kosaym (divination): predicting the future or answering yes-no questions about the future
  2. onayn (conjuring): bringing clouds or judging optimal times for activities
  3. nachaysh/chashayf (fortune telling): interpreting signs and omens
  4. chovayr (charming): making charms connected with people (i.e., love charms or voodoo) or putting demons into snakes
  5. sho'ayl ov (inquiring as a medium): speaking with the dead or spirits
  6. yeedonee (knowing one): gaining knowledge by using bones
  7. doraysh el ha'mayteem (seeker of the dead): laying down on graves to become posessed by the dead

We are prohibited from "learning to do" magic of various types (lo teelmad la'asot in verse 18:9). But the members of the Sanhedrin should learn enough magic to know how magicians can escape from prison or punishment, to know how to make decrees that prevent such escapes from happening. We should "be whole" (tameem tee'hyeh in verse 18:13), trusting in and relying on only God and not being divided by trusting in and relying on both God and magic; as Rashi notes, the root of idolatry is the false belief that Adonai is not in control—that other powers can cause events to go against God's will or in spite of God's inaction.

The Ba'al ha'Turim explains that the commands about war in chapter 20 follow "hand for hand, foot for foot" (verse 19:21) to imply that someone missing a limb should not be conscripted, and are followed by "if...a murder victim is found lying in the countryside" to warn that in times of war when many corpses are on the land then an evil man are tempted to murder since his victim can easily be disguised as slain by enemy soldiers.

Why does verse 21:8 have forgiveness asked for all Israel when only one person had committed a crime? First, because the community is responsible for preventing wickedness. Second, because shedding of innocent blood curses the land, distinct from how the murderer will be repaid for his sin.