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NIFTAR ON 20 ADAR 5758 - MARCH 18, 1998.



Menachim Z. Shimanowitz

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HAFTORA: (Additional portion, from Prophets, which is read after the Parsha)
Yeshayahu / Isaiah 51:12- 52:12 אנכי אנכי
This is the fourth of seven Haftorot, - the שבע דנחמתא - the Seven Haftorot of Consolation, that precede Rosh HaShana).

This week we study Chapter 6 of Pirkei Avot - "Ethics of the Fathers"

פרשת שופטים
In our last episode, Moshe talked about Mitzvot for the common man - Tzedakah, Maaser,... and threw in some Mussar about idol worship too.

As our Parsha opens, Moshe now zooms in on the leaders of the Jewish people: Judges, Prophets, Kohanim and the King. These people have a double duty:

  • As Jews who keep Torah and Mitzvot, and
  • As examples to the rest of the nation.


The Sanhedrin is the highest court in the land. This court is to be set up, ultimately, in Yerushalayim. This way, when Yom Tov rolls around, and you're Oleh Regel (don't tell me you forgot already, it was only reviewed in last week's Parshat Re'eh), to Yerushalayim for the holiday, you can bring your court cases to the high court.

Every town in Eretz Yisroel, has to have a Beit Din of at least three judges. These small courts can settle cases having to do with money and property. But when it comes to the death sentence, that's left for the big boys! In a city of at least 120 Jews, where the Beit Din consists of 23 judges, that's enough to sentence someone to death.

Now what happens when a Beit Din can't come up with a decision? The case moves up to Yerushalayim where the Sanhedrin makes the call!

The Sanhedrin consists of seventy judges and a leader, called a Nassi who is in charge. Every day the Sanhedrin gets together in their room in the Beit Hamikdash. The seats are set up in a semi-circle so the Nassi can see everyone. The greater the judge, the closer he sits to the Nassi.

The Torah teaches us that the Sanhedrin has the last word on everything. In the Sanhedrin - majority rules.

The Torah says that there should be a police force set up to enforce the laws of the Sanhedrin. Even if you think the Sanhedrin is wrong, the Torah stresses that you must always listen to the Sanhedrin.

What happens if someone doesn't agree with the Sanhedrin? Well, the Torah mentions a zakain mamray, a Torah scholar who disobeys the Sanhedrin. If a Torah scholar openly goes against the Sanhedrin, regarding certain rulings, then "off with his head" as they say.

The Sanhedrin holds him until the next Yom Tov (Pesach, Shavuot, or Succot) and when Yom Tov rolls around, the zakain mamray is publicly executed.

Why is the Torah so strict with the zakain mamray?

It all comes down to Mesorah, the unbroken chain of Torah. From the time that Moshe received the Torah and oral law from Hashem, the commandments were passed down directly: first to Yehoshua, then to the elders, then to the judges and finally to the Sanhedrin. To disobey the Sanhedrin is the same as disobeying the very word that Moshe received from Hashem at Har Sinai.


The Sanhedrin is super. But when it comes to royalty, monarchy rules! Moshe tells the B'nei Yisroel that the time will come when Hashem will appoint a King.

The King has two jobs:

  • He has to make sure that Eretz Yisroel is run according to Torah law and,
  • It is also his job to lead the Jewish army in war.
There are four mitzvot that the Torah lists for a King:

King's Rules 1. A King isn't allowed to have too many horses. There are two reasons for this. One reason is that in ancient times Egypt was famous for breeding horses. Hashem doesn't want Jews finding reasons to settle in Egypt (it was enough trouble getting them out of that evil country the first time!)

Another reason is that the more horses a King has, the stronger his army is. Hashem wants a King to know that Hashem is in control of the victories of the Jewish army.

2. A King is not allowed to collect a lot of gold and silver. Too much money in the King's coffers leads to pride. However, a King can collect as much money as he needs for the Beit Hamikdash.

3. A King can't have too many wives. If you think having one wife is a full time job, just imagine having a thousand wives like Shlomo Hamelech. King Solomon, in his old age, couldn't control them. They worshipped idols and he got the blame for it. But that's another story.

The Torah limits a King to 18 wives - and only G-d fearing ones.

4. A King must have two Torah scrolls.

King's TorahOne Torah scroll fulfills his obligation he shares with ordinary Bnei Yisroel, to have a Torah written for their own personal use. This Scroll stays in the Palace. The other Torah scroll, fullfills the requirement that a King needs to have a Torah Scroll written for his personal use, and is carried around wherever the King goes. This is to keep the King humble and remind the King to fear Hashem and keep Hashem's Mitzvot.


We've got a new Mitzvah to ward off the wish to worship idols (whew!). It is forbidden to plant a tree in the Beit Hamikdash or the courtyard. You might think that trees will make the Beit Hamikdash more beautiful. But it's wrong!

If there's one thing the Canaanites like around their evil temples, it's trees. With an urge for idol worship being so strong in those days, planting trees near the Beit Hamikdash can be the first step toward this terrible sin.

A Jew is also not allowed to set up a pillar of stone to honor Hashem. This is also an old Canaanite practice that can lead to idol worship.

If a Jew worships idols after two witnesses warn him not to, then he is reeled into the Beit Din and stoned to death.


One of the jobs of the "Sanhedrin Police" is to make sure that there are no magicians in Eretz Yisroel. In ancient times every gentile king had a palace magician. Before the king would go to war he'd ask his magician whether or not he'd be victorious.

How would the magician know? Well, one way would be the old bone-in-the-mouth trick. The magician put an animal bone in his mouth and the bone began to speak. This type of magician is called a "Yidoni." Another type of magician, called an "Ov" would raise the spirits of the dead and ask them questions about the future. The Torah forbids these and other practices.

Then there are lucky and unlucky signs. Like today, some people are superstitious and believe that it is unlucky to walk under a ladder or to cross the path of a black cat. Well, the Torah forbids a Jew to be superstitious.

A Jew is also forbidden to go to an astrologer. That's because a Jew's destiny is guided by Hashem alone.

There are two ways, however, for a person to find out the future.

One way is to ask a Navi (Prophet).

The other way is for a King or the head of the Sanhedrin to ask the Kohain Gadol to consult the Urim Ve-tumim.

CHOSHENThe Kohain Gadol wears a breast plate (Choshen). On the Choshen are twelve stones, representing the twelve Sh'vatim (tribes). The name of each Shevet (tribe) is engraved on its stone. The names of the Avot (forefathers) are also engraved into the stones. Their names, however, are divided up so that each stone contains six letters - a combination of the Shevet and letters from a forefather's name. (CLICK HERE TO SEE CHART.) Every letter of the Alef Beit was found on the Choshen. In a pocket of the Choshen, is the "Urim Vetumim," a parchment inscribed with the 72-letter holy name of Hashem.

When a Kohain Gadol asks a question of the Urim Ve-tumim, certain letters on the Choshen light up. The answer is in the lit up letters. And that's where the Kohain Gadol has to use his prophetic powers to arrange the letters to formulate the answer. The predictions of the Urim Ve-tumim always came true.


In Bamidbar, Parshat Masei, Hashem commanded that three Aray Miklat (cities of refuge) be built. Once Yehoshua brings the Bnei Yisroel into Eretz Yisroel, three more of these cities will be built.

Moshe repeats it here and tells Sanhedrin, it's their job to see that the roads to them are smooth, and signposts show the way.

What is a city of refuge? Who lives there?

An Ir Miklat (city of refuge) is populated by Leviyim, since they inherit no land themselves.

Why are they called "cities of refuge?"

If one person kills another, purposely or by accident, he must run to one of these six cities before someone takes revenge and kills him. When he gets to a city of refuge the Sanhedrin brings him to trial to see what the cirumstances were in the murder. Is the person an axe murderer or did the axe accidentally fly off the handle?

If the person is indeed a killer, he is put to death. Of course, the conditions have to be just right. To convict a killer, the person has to be warned by two witnesses just before he kills. Even if only one witness was present, the Sanhedrin could not put him to death. If the judges determines that it was an accidental murder, the person is allowed to return to the Ir Miklat.

Ir MiklatWhy doesn't this innocent man just go home? Because there's just one other little detail... the Goel HaDam (blood redeemer).

Who is this Goel HaDam? The closest relative to the dead man. This Goel HaDam has the right to kill the murderer anywhere except in an Ir Miklat.The refugee must stay in an Ir Miklat until the Kohain Gadol dies. Only the death of such a tzadik can atone for murder - even accidental.

Wouldn't these refugees pray for the Kohain Gadol to die? After all, his death is the key to their freedom! The Kohain Gadol's mother comes to the rescue... She goes around to all the Aray Miklat (cities of refuge) handing out food and drinks, making the refugees comfortable so that they will enjoy their stay in the city and not pray for her son to die.

If a refugee dies in an Ir Miklat he must be buried there as well. Only after the Kohain Gadol dies can the refugee's bones be transferred to another cemetery.


What's in a Navi? How can you tell the nevi-yim (Prophets) from the "non-vi-yim"?

Well, here are a couple of hints:

Firstly, if Boris-the-Bully thinks he can just claim he's a Prophet after 17 years in reform school, he's wrong. The only people who are being beamed prophecies are Tzadikim. A Talmid Chacham who keeps all the Mitzvot in the Torah is a great candidate. The learned - the dedicated - the Torah-first fraternity; they're the ones who might become Prophets.

To test a Prophet, you ask him something about the future: If his prediction comes true, then he is a real Navi.

If his prediction does not come true, he is executed.


Bringing a sinner to Beit Din is great, but just remember it takes two to punish you. The Beit Din cannot do anything with a "one-witness wonder."

Ever wonder what happens when a sinner goes free in a one-witness case? Hashem takes over for Beit Din and punishes the sinner Himself. (Watch out OJ).

Ever watch someone lose a dollar accidentally or do you have a friend whose car was stolen? Ever wonder why bad things happen to good people? It's Hashem doing the job that Beit Din can't do. Hashem is good enough to punish us for our sins here instead of when we die, where in Gehinom the punishment is many times worse. So the next time you miss the bus, lose your wallet or squirt mustard on your clothes, be happy that Hashem's punishing you now.


Let's say that there are two witnesses. Court is now in session.

The first Part of the trial is to try to figure out if the witnesses are for real. The Beit Din splits up the witnesses and questions them one at a time. The first witness stands before three judges. They try to establish when the crime occurred:

  1. Which of the seven Shmita cycles (there are seven in a fifty year cycle)?
  2. Which of the seven years in a single Shmita cycle?
  3. Which month of the year?
  4. Which day of the month?
  5. Which day of the week?
  6. What time of day?
  7. Where did it happen?
The second witness is called in and the first is sent out. He is asked the same set of questions. If the answers match up, they're in business!

Now it's time to check out the details, again, one witness at a time.

"What color shirt was the accused wearing?"

"What did he say before he committed the crime?"

If the testimonies match up, it's a "wrap." If the witnesses don't see eye to eye, the case won't fly. In a simple case before three judges, the witnesses are dismissed without any penalty. But in a 23 judge Beit Din, things play out differently.

The 23 judges are judging a murder case. They check out each murder witness individually because murder witnesses will determine whether the defendant will live or die. The judges try to scare off the witnesses with tough questioning tactics.

One question after another is thrown at the witness.

"Are you sure you saw the murder?"

"Did you really see it or did you just hear about it?"

"You know, you can't bring a dead man back to life, so think carefully whether or not you want to cause this man to die!"

If both witnesses stand up to the interrogation, the murderer is as good as gone.

If one pair of witnesses say that the murder took place in the morning and a second pair of witnesses say that the murder took place in the evening, then they are both not believed, even though they both agree that the murder took place.


If two witnesses stand up to the heavy interrogation, the murderer is as good as gone.

But wait! Two new witnesses have come on the scene! They say that the first two witnesses were nowhere near the scene! All four of them were sitting together in the Yankee Stadium bleachers that day.

The second pair of witnesses are questioned separately. If they check out, the first pair of "Plotting Witnesses" are busted!

The general rule in this special case, is that such false "Plotting Witnesses" are sentenced to whatever punishment their victim would have received. It it's a murder case, the false witnesses are sentenced to death. If it's a money case, the false witnesses are fined. If it's a whipping, the false witnesses will be feeling it.

What happens, though, if the false testimony isn't discovered until after a man is put to death? It's a complete wash: The witnesses are let free (with only forty lashes for false testimony) and we assume that Hashem let the man die to punish him for some other sin.

As a point of fact, it is very rare for a Beit Din to carry out any execution. The Talmud states, that if an execution occured once in seventy years, that Beit Din is called a murderous Beit Din.


A Jewish army is different from other armies of the world. You've got to give credit where credit's due. This army really fights on faith. The rules of war in the Jewish army are based on one idea: You are fighting Hashem's battle so put your trust in Hashem.

Big army... small army... strong enemy... makes no difference to Hashem. Hashem made the enemy strong in the first place and, if He wants, He'll destroy them with an army of peashooters.

Before the Jewish army goes to war, a special Kohain is chosen. Oil that is used to annoint a Kohain Gadol or a King is poured over his head. He is called the Kohain Mashuach Milchama - the Kohain annointed for war. He's the "cheerleader" of the Jewish army. His job is to pep up the army for war. That means this Kohain has to convince the soldiers that Hashem is backing up the war project.

The war Kohain starts out with an old favorite, the "Shema cheer," reciting the first line of the prayer. He reminds the soldiers that they should not be afraid because Hashem is with them all the way.

Next the Kohain announces that there are three categories of soldiers who don't have to fight:

  1. Soldiers who just built homes and haven't moved in yet.

  2. Soldiers who planted vineyards but haven't eaten from the fruits yet.

  3. Soldiers who are engaged. They can go home and get married.
Officers of the army repeat these conditions and add in one more:
"If you're afraid you'll get killed in battle, you can go home too!"

These individuals don't really go home. They are required to support the fighting troops by providing them with supplies and support behind the front lines.

These exemptions apply only during a Milchemet Reshut (Optional War). For a Milchemet Mitzvah (a Mandatory War), such as for the conquest of Eretz Yisroel or the elimination of Amalek, there are no exemptions. Everyone comes out to fight.


Armies don't just conquer, they plunder and pillage the land. By the time they're finished, the land is more like a wasteland. This is not so with the Jewish Army. It's like an ad for Arbor Day: A Jewish army that surrounds a city is not allowed to destroy fruit trees unless it's absolutely, positively necessary.

The Rabbonim (Rabbis) take it further: A Jew is not allowed to be wasteful, including food, clothes and money. Wasting is called, "Bal Tashchit." We must always think of the wonderful things that Hashem has blessed us with, and not waste these precious gifts.

Hashem also commands Bnei Yisroel not to make war before making an offer of peace to the enemy. Also, The Bnei Yisroel should not surround a city from all four sides, only on three sides, leaving one side open to those who want to escape.


When a person is murdered, his blood cries out for revenge. Hashem is very sensitive to this calling because He mourns for future generations that are lost, and the life of Mitzvot that has been cut off. In the case of an accidental murder, Hashem is swayed to allow the next-of-kin to hunt down the accidental murderer, if he can find him (or her) outside an Ir Miklat (City of Refuge).

It only takes two witnesses to execute a murderer who was warned beforehand. Even in a case where a murderer goes free because of lack of proof, Hashem picks up where the Beit Din is forced to leave off.

But what happens when a dead man is found in the middle of nowhere and no one knows who the murderer is?

That's where the Egla Arufah (axed heifer) comes in. Five judges are sent to the murder scene on the orders of the Sanhedrin. They measure the distance between the body and all surrounding cities to see which city is closest. Once this is determined, they make sure that the body is buried.

The Beit Din of the closest city takes over from here. The judges purchase a one year old female calf that has never been used for plowing and has never been yoked for work. They take it to a valley that has hard soil that's never been plowed.

Before an audience of elders, righteous people and leaders of that city, the judges break the neck of the calf with an ax. Everyone washes their hands on the scene and declares "It is not our fault that this murder occurred. Whenever a stranger comes to our city we offer him food and drink and we accompany him when he leaves. We don't let him go hungry. He never has to steal food or put himself in a position to risk his life."

The Kohanim pray to Hashem, "Please forgive Bnei Yisroel for this innocent's blood."

So why all the hoopla with the cow and the valley?

A cow that's never reproduced nor worked for its master; a valley where the ground has never been put to proper use, both are examples of waste. This stranger's life was also wasted when he was murdered. When the calf's neck is broken with the ax in this wasteland valley, the murder victim's blood ceases to cry out for revenge. If the procedure is done properly, the Torah promises that the blood will be avenged.

Tune in next week when the Mitzvot keep marching by. We'll talk about marriage, inheritences, rebels and chasing away birds in the next exciting episode of:
Parsha on Parade

Midrash Maven
See the Midrash Maven on Shoftim

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