Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20)
tzedek (צֶדֶק) = right behavior; ethical standards; justice.
The pursuit of justice and/or ethical behavior is an obligation incumbent upon all of us. But in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), the pursuit of tzedek is an instruction to judges. The portion begins:
Shoftim and officers you shall appoint in all your gates [of towns] that God is giving to you according to your tribes; veshaftu the people [with] rulings of tzedek. (Deuteronomy 16:18)
shoftim (שֺׁפְטִים) = judges; those who decide cases; those who deliver justice.
veshaftu (וְשָׁפְטוּ) = and they shall judge, make settlements among, deliver justice to.
The shoftim in this week’s portion are not the kind of shoftim we see in the book of Judges/Shoftim. There, most shoftim were chieftains or war leaders during a time of frequent conflicts among small states. They deliver justice to the people by leading an army that frees them from their latest conquerors. Afterward they usually serve as chieftains who are also judges.1
The shoftim in this week’s Torah portion also differ from the town elders who serve as judges in biblical passages referring to the time before Israel and Judah had kings. During that period, an individual with a claim to press, or two household heads seeking arbitration, would go to the town gate or the village threshing floor at daybreak and call ten of the settlement’s elders (respected male heads of households) to come over and adjudicate.2 A decision required the consensus of all ten men.3
Although the book of Deuteronomy is set on the bank of the Jordan at the end of Moses’ life, it was written for the citizens of the kingdom of Judah, and refers to their legal system.4 The shoftim in this week’s portion are appointed judges, not the first ten respected elders to pass by.
These appointed shoftim must judge the people with “rulings of tzedek” as follows:
You may not skew a ruling; you may not recognize a face; and you may not take a bribe, since a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the words of the tzaddikim. Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue, so you may live and take possession of the land that God, your God, is giving to you. (Deuteronomy 16:19-20)
tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִם) = the innocent; the righteous, the ethically good, the just. (From the same root as tzedek.)
To “recognize a face” means to show favoritism, not just in the decision but also in how the parties are treated during the hearing.5
Why would pursuing justice enable the Israelites to live and conquer more and more of the land of Canaan? Deuteronomy predicts that they will only win battle victories with God’s help. (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.) Therefore it pays to do what God wants.
Moses frequently restates what God wants from the Israelites, which includes just decisions about legal claims. It also includes avoiding the worship of other deities (the first of the Ten Commandments). If local appointed judges hear that someone has been worshiping other gods, they must investigate thoroughly. If the rumor proves true,
Then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who did the wicked thing, and stone them with stones so they will die. On the word of two or three witnesses they shall definitely be executed, [but] they shall not be put to death on the word of one. (Deuteronomy 17:5-6)
At least two eye-witnesses must agree that they saw the accused bow down to, or otherwise serve, an alien god before the judges can declare the accused guilty. One or zero witnesses are insufficient for a guilty verdict, no matter what the circumstantial evidence.6
The Torah portion Shoftim also addresses what local judges should do when it is hard to connect a legal case with the appropriate law or ruling.
If a matter of law is too difficult for you, … then you shall get up and go up to the place God, your God, chooses. And you shall come to the priests of the Levites, or to the judge who is [serving] at that time, and you shall inquire; and he shall tell you the matter of the law. (Deuteronomy 17:8-9)
The next few verses say that the local judges must carry out the ruling from Jerusalem (the place God chooses) exactly as instructed. This passage parallels the scene in Exodus/Shemot where Yitro tells his son-in-law Moses to appoint judges to settle minor disputes, and ask them to bring the major cases to him.7 Yitro explains that the major cases should go to Moses not because he is the central authority, but because God talks to him and gives him the laws. Perhaps difficult cases must be referred to the priests and judges in Jerusalem not because they are the central authority, but because they are more experienced in interpreting God’s laws.
Just as “Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue” should be a goal for every human being in some sphere of life, we can take to heart other instructions to the shoftim in this week’s portion. How do you judge the actions of another person?
Do you act like the chieftains and war leaders in the book of Judges, convinced that your own cause is just and therefore you have the right to dictate to everyone else? Or do you act like the elders in the gate, taking action against someone only if your sense of what is right matches the opinions of other respected people in your community?
Do you “recognize a face” or show favoritism, making excuses for someone you like while judging someone you dislike harshly? Do you feel obligated to refrain from correcting someone who has given you a gift, such as a job or status?
If one person tells you about the terrible thing a third person did, do you believe it? Or do you wait until two eye-witnesses confirm it? Do you draw conclusions about someone from circumstantial evidence?
If you cannot make up your mind about whether another person is guilty of wrongdoing, or whether you need to do anything about it, to whom do you take the case? Who can you trust?
It is not so easy to pursue justice.
- Judges 2:16-19. Specific war-leaders whom the book of Judges cites as shoftim administering justice are Otniel (3:9), Jepthah/Yiftach (12:7), and Samson/Shimshon. (15:20, 16:31). The shoftim named in Judges who appear to be chieftains who also judge cases are Tola (10:1-2), Ya-ir (10:3), Ivtzan (12:8-9), Eilon (12:11), and Avdon (12:13-14). One woman, Devorah, takes a dual role. She is introduced as “a prophetess, a woman of Lapidot, [who] administered justice in Israel at that time … and Israelites went up to her for rulings” (Judges 4:4-5), but then she calls for war and accompanies a general into battle.
- Ruth 4:1-11, Proverbs 31:23, and Lamentations 5:14. Also see Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1993, pp. 122-124. Deuteronomy 25:7 calls for the elders at the gate to rule on the case of a new husband who accuses his bride of not being a virgin; perhaps the older system of town elders survived, modified by later laws and rulings imposed by the kingdom’s priests and other higher-ranking judges (see Deuteronomy 17:8-13).
- Matthews & Benjamin, p. 124.
- Most modern critical scholars date the composition of Deuteronomy chapters 12-25 to the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E., with some editing later.
- Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Deuteronomy 16:19.
- Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37b.
- Exodus 18:22.