As told in Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9, this is the story of the Torah reading Shoftim:
Rules for magistrates
Moses directed the Israelites to appoint magistrates and officials for their tribes to govern the people with justice, with impartiality, and without bribes. "Justice, justice shall you pursue," he said.
Moses warned the Israelites against setting up a sacred post beside God's altar or erecting a stone pillar.
Moses warned the Israelites against sacrificing an ox or sheep with any serious defect.
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.
Court of referral
If a case proved too baffling for the Israelites to decide, then they were promptly to go to 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. 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.
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. The king was not to keep many horses, marry many wives, or amass excess silver and gold. 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 faithfully observe these laws. 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.
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. 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. Levites were to be free to come from their settlements to the place that God chose as a shrine to serve with their fellow Levites, and there they were to receive equal shares of the dues.
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 residents of the land.
God would raise a prophet from among them like Moses, and the Israelites were to heed him. When at Horeb (Mount Sinai) 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. But any prophet who presumed to speak an oracle in God's name that God had not commanded, or who spoke in the name of other gods, was to die. This was how the people were to determine whether God spoke the oracle: If the prophet spoke in the name of God and the oracle did not come true, then God had not spoken that oracle, the prophet had uttered it presumptuously, and the people were not to fear him.
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. 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.
Only a manslayer who had killed another unwittingly, without being the other's enemy, might flee there and live. For instance, if a man went with his neighbor into a grove to cut wood, and as he swung an ax, 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. 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 blood-avenger to be put to death.
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.
Rules for witnesses
An Israelite could be found guilty of an offense only on the testimony of two or more witnesses. 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.
Rules for war
Before the Israelites joined battle, the priest was to tell the troops not to fear, for God would accompany them. 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.
When the Israelites approached to attack a town, 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. The elders of the nearest town were to take a heifer that had never worked down to an ever-flowing wadi and break its neck. The priests were to come forward, all the elders were to wash their hands over the heifer, and the elders were to declare that their hands did not shed the blood nor their eyes see it done. The elders were to ask God to absolve the Israelites, and not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among them, and God would absolve them of bloodguilt.
Here are a few of the questions that the Rabbis raised about this Torah reading:
- Why does the discussion of appointment of judges follow the discussion of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals?
- Why is the discussion of appointment of judges placed near the discussion of idolatrous practices?
- Who appointed the judges?
- What is entailed in the admonition “Justice, justice shall you pursue”?
- How important is the correct appointment of judges?
- Why does the Torah say that God hates stone pillars, if the Patriarchs set some of them up?
- What is meant by the requirement for “two witnesses, or three witnesses”?
- Why does the Torah instruct “you shall come . . . to the judge who shall be in those days”? How could a person go to a judge who was not in that person’s days?
- How authoritative is the law handed down by the Sages?
- What was the law of the rebellious elder?
- Did God command Israel to have a king or merely acknowledge that Israel would inevitably want one?
- What role does God play in the section of earthly leaders?
- What were the appropriate powers of the king?
- How many were too many wives for the king?
- How much wealth was too much for the king?
- What purpose was served by the limitations on the king?
- What is symbolized by the parts of the offerings that the priests receive?
- What are diviners, soothsayers, enchanters, and sorcerers?
- Since astrologers and diviners also purport to foretell the future, how do they differ from prophets?
- What does Deuteronomy 18:13 mean when it directs us to be “whole-hearted with the Lord”?
- What qualities do prophets have?
- What distinguishes a false prophet?
- What happened to prophecy?
- What is the connection between false prophecy and cities of refuge?
- What were the laws of the cities of refuge?
- What is meant by the command not to move a neighbor’s landmark?
- What were the Torah’s laws of perjury?
- What did the Torah mean by “eye for eye”?
- If all who were “fearful and fainthearted” were going to be excused from the war anyway, then why does the Torah go through all the exceptions for those who built a house, planted a vineyard, or became engaged?
- What were the laws of the found corpse and the calf whose neck was to be broken (eglah arufah)?
- Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:3; Ibn Ezra; Munk.
- Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 7b; Avodah Zarah 52a.
- 1 Sam. 8:1–3; 2 Chron. 19:5–11; Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:4; Milgrom; Tigay.
- Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 32b; Mishnah Peah 8:9.
- Sifre to Deuteronomy 144:6.
- Rashi; Tigay.
- Mishnah Makkot 1:7–8; Babylonian Talmud Makkot 5b–6b.
- Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 25b.
- Babylonian Talmud Berakot 19b.
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:2; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 86b.
- 1 Samuel 8; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 20b; Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:8–9; Nachmanides; Maimonides; Abarbanel; Munk.
- Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 91b.
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 20b.
- Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21a.
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:4; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21b.
- Meir Schweiger. 5769 — Shoftim — “The Monarchy.” At http://podcasts.pardesusa.org/?p=235.
- Babylonian Talmud Chullin 134b. Maimonides. Guide for the Perplexed 3:39.
- Sifre to Deuteronomy 171. Land of Israel, circa 250–350 CE. Reprinted in, e.g., Sifre to Deuteronomy: An Analytical Translation. Translated by Jacob Neusner, vol. 2, at 47–48. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987. ISBN 1-55540-145-7.
- Moses Maimonides. Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah: The Laws, Which Are the Foundations of the Torah, 10:3. Reprinted in, e.g., Eliyahu Touger. Mishneh Torah. New York: Moznaim Publishing, 1989. ISBN 0940118416. Elie Munk. The Call of the Torah: An Anthology of Interpretation and Commentary on the Five Books of Moses: Devarim. Translated by E.S. Mazer, 192. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1995. ISBN 0-89906-048-4.
- Rashi; Leibowitz.
- Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 38a.
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:5. Reprinted in, e.g., The Mishnah: A New Translation. Translated by Jacob Neusner, at 608–09. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 89a. Reprinted in, e.g., Talmud Bavli. Elucidated by Asher Dicker, Joseph Elias, and Dovid Katz; edited by Yisroel Simcha Schorr and Chaim Malinowitz, vol. 48, at 89a2–3.
- Babylonian Talmud Yoma 9b, Sotah 48b.
- Elie Munk. The Call of the Torah: An Anthology of Interpretation and Commentary on the Five Books of Moses: Devarim, 192.
- Mishnah Makkot 2:1–8;Tosefta Makkot 2:1–3:10; Babylonian Talmud Makkot 7a–13a.
- Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 85a; Sifre 188; Mishnah Peah 5:6.
- Mishnah Makkot 1:1–9; Tosefta Makkot 1:1–11; Babylonian Talmud Makkot 2a–7a.
- Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 84a.
- Mishnah Sotah 8:5. Reprinted in, e.g., The Mishnah: A New Translation. Translated by Jacob Neusner, 461. Babylonian Talmud Sotah 44a. Reprinted in, e.g., Talmud Bavli. Edited by Yisroel Simcha Schorr and Chaim Malinowitz, vol. 33b, at 44a5–6.
- Mishnah Sotah 9:1–9; Tosefta Sotah 9:1–2; Babylonian Talmud Sotah 44b–47b.