Shof’tim (Judges or Magistrates)

Shof'timDeuteronomy 16:18 to 21:9

Torah tells us that to obtain true justice we must pursue ‘Justice, Justice.” Talmud explains the double “justice” as (first) the law of Torah, and (second) compromise to create a law that fits the real 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.”

“You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the just.”

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal is giving you.” (Deut.16:18-20)

This week’s text focuses on the judicial system. The three verses shown above provide a foundation for the administration of justice in the new land.

The first line mandates that magistrates (or judges) and officials (those responsible for administrating the rulings of the magistrates … this includes a policing force). These people are placed in “all the settlements” to insure that this law is close to the people and able to react to local needs.

The second line tells us that the magistrates and officials should treat all people equally. At the time of Moses, crimes against the people of power resulted in more severe punishments…. Steal from a king or landed gentry and heavy punishment resulted. Steal from a common, unlanded man, and the court might not even pay attention to the crime.
Then, in addition to the idea that bribes can influence decisions, judges are also told not to judge cases where they could profit from decisions or where they were personally involved in a case.

The third line has been the source of much rabbinic comment through the ages. Much has been written on the double use of the word “justice.” However, the Talmud focuses on the word “pursue.” How does one pursue justice? Talmud tells us to “follow the scholars to their academies.” (Sanhedrin 32b) This means that the judges should have a quality education and be well grounded Torah, past teachings, and relevant decisions. These men will have the knowledge required to render quality decisions.

The use of the double word “Justice” has also been a subject of great discussion. Some commentators have noted that every word in Torah has meaning and no extraneous words are included. Then, why a double “Justice?” Maybe, because there is no punctuation, bold, or italic letters in Torah, there is no way to show emphasis…. So, the double use of the word may have been included as a way of added emphasis for this important concept.

Then there are many major sages who have given this double word added meaning. Rabbi Ashi (352-427, re-established the Academy at Sura and was the first editor of the Babylonian Talmud) wrote; “Justice, justice you shall pursue, the first [mention of justice] refers to a decision based on strict law, the second, to a compromise.” (Sanhedrin 32b). Here the Talmud is actually suggesting that there are two ways to view a decision: strict law and compromise…. Justice and justice.

Two examples are given to illustrate this “justice, justice.” Two boats are sailing on a river. They meet at a narrow passage. If they try to pass together, both will sink. If one makes way for the other, both can pass without mishap….. Likewise if two camels meet each other while climbing a steep narrow path, both may; tumble down into the valley if they fight and try to ascend together. But, if they ascend one after the other, they will proceed safely. How should they act? If one carries a heavy load and the other has no load, the former should go first. If the load-bearing animal is nearer its destination, it should let the other go first. If both are equally near their goals, they should make a compromise between themselves; the one which is to go first should compensate the other. (Sanhedrin 32b)

The justice here is subjective… based upon the situation. The locale is not in a court, but on the land… in the streets. Finding equitable solutions to complex problems is part of the “pursuit of justice.”

The commentators noted that when the modern state of Israel was established, the first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, posed the following question; “How does a modern secular state coexist with the religious community, which bases its existence on different values and laws… some thousands of years old.”

The Chazon Ish, arguably the most eminent rabbi of his age, responded that the points of conflict could be answered similarly to the camel problem presented above. “When two camels meet at a narrow ledge, we must look, which of the two have been traveling longer and bearing a greater burden.” The Chazon Ish concluded that this analogy applied to the religious community, and that the State should “step aside and respect those values carried for a millennia.”

There is another path to Justice. Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov (1st Century Jerusalem) was known to say “I have heard that the court may … pronounce sentences even where not warranted by the Torah, yet not with the intention of disregarding the Torah but on the contrary in order to safeguard it.” (Sanhedrin 46a) Here is an example of a judge looking at the law (Justice) and looking at the real world for a just ruling (Justice).

There are cases where the law must be set aside in order to provide “justice, justice.”
It is said in Psalms 119-126, “It is time to work for the Lord; they have made void your Torah.”

…The Torah made void?….. Talmud tells us “The first clause of this verse can be taken as explaining the second, and the second can be taken as explaining the first … thus’ It is time to work for the Lord. Why? Because they have made void your Torah… And… thus, they have made void your Torah Why? Because it is time to work for the Lord.” (Barchot 63) So… in effect … the judges become a partner to God in creating justice. Strict law can at some times become destructive. The effective judge knows the Torah, knows the law, and is ready to compromise to create a true justice as needed.…… “Justice, Justice.”

The basis of the comments this week come from an article in by Rabbi Ari Kahn from his weekly column M’oray Ha’Aish … This week’s comments are titled Shoftim – Justice, Justice ( ) Rabbi Kahn concludes his article with a psalm.

Loving kindness and truth meet together;
Righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Truth shall spring from the earth,
And righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Also, the Lord shall give that which is good,
And our land shall yield her produce.
(Psalms 85:11-13)

Earl Sabes

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