Shof’tim (Judges)

Deuteronomy 16:18 to 21:9

Moses continues to present the laws to the people. With only twenty verses in this week’s portion devoted to the subject of war. Moses shows how war can achieve its objectives while, at the same time, creating a more holy world.

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Deut. 16:18) Moses continues to tell the Israelites the laws of the land they are about to enter. This parsha deals with the government and includes laws relating to the justice system, the authority of a king, the Levitical priests, possible future prophets, and warfare.

PeaceThese laws of warfare take on great significance since the Israelites are in the midst of battles to capture their land. These same concepts presented here will continue to apply throughout history.

In his comments on this subject, Gunther Plaut, editor of the The Torah, A Modern Commentary, states that warfare is unavoidable and needed. Its purpose is to secure and keep the land promised by God. As such, the assistance of the Eternal was anticipated. Thus, warfare became a series of holy wars…. Because of these connections with the Eternal, warfare became ritualized. In many cases the priest led the military campaigns with the objectives of binding the fighting men to the goals of God… and thus he literally “consecrated” or “sanctified” the war.

Types of war can be broken into two groups: “Obligatory” wars which include both conquest of lands to create the land promised by God, and defensive wars to assure the nation’s survival. The second type of war is deemed “Optional.” These include preemptive wars and wars that assist allied nations.

The text examines who should be exempt from battle. It states that any man who is in the process of starting a major project should be exempt. The projects include dedication of a new home, harvesting a crop that the soldier has planted, or a man who has paid a bride-price, but not yet married. Over time, this law became applicable only to the “optional” wars.

We continue to read about the restrictions placed on warfare. These guidelines can be traced back to concepts presented in Genesis where we learned that mankind is created in God’s image and should be considered holy.

War may be necessary, but Moses tells the people “when you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it responds peaceably and lets you in, all the people present there shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not surrender to you, but would join battle with you, you shall lay siege to it.” (Deut. 20:10-12) However, “in towns which the Eternal is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive…lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods….” (Deut. 20:17-18) So, the survival of the Israelites becomes more important than the lives of the opponent.

In Genesis we also read that all the animals and plants on earth are placed there by the Eternal and to be managed by mankind. God gave the fruit bearing fruits to mankind to be eaten. With this in mind, the text looks at the vegetation of the besieged land.… And in the text we read: “You must not destroy its trees… You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you….” (Deut. 20:19-20)

These laws dealing with vegetation point to many reasons for preserving it. God gave mankind these fruit bearing trees for sustenance; but, at the same time mankind must respect and maintain this gift of God. The words above ask: “Are the trees of the field human to withdraw…?” The trees are not part of the reason for attack… they can not withdraw… and, as God’s creation, should be allowed to survive.

The specific commandment orders the attacking forces not to cut the trees down. Over the years this law was extended to cover all forms of wasteful destruction under the concept of bal tashchit, or “do not destroy.” This forbids the shifting of a stream that supplies water to the trees. The prohibition of cutting down trees was extended to times of peace. Then, the law was extended to include other wasteful destruction: “Anyone who deliberately breaks dishes, tears clothing, wrecks a building, clogs up a fountain, or wastes food violates the law of bal tashchit.” (Hullin 7b; Tosafot Baba Kamma 115b, Avodah Zarah 30b, Kiddushin 32a) (from Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, p. 143-5)

Contemporary environmentalists tell us that the survival of trees is critical to the future of the earth. The destruction of the tropical forests endangers the countless species of animals and plants that are exclusive to these forests. The lumbering of forests in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia have opened huge areas to erosion and flooding. The elimination of these trees has also added to the creation of increased carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. In fact, the replacement of these trees has become an issue involving the actual health of our planet. (ibid, p. 144)

So, even in the times of the Torah’s conception, when the people went to war, God commanded them to look for shalom – peace, and to show respect for the plants that God gave man for food. Mankind was to work in partnership with God to create a better world.

Earl Sabes

The Artwork used above titled “Peace and Love” by dan is used courtesy of

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