By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
August 29, 2003
In judging the people of Israel, there will be times when the
judges will not know how to decide:
If a matter of judgment be concealed from you (KI YIPALEI MIMCHA DAVAR
LA’MISHPAT), between blood and blood (BEIN DAM L’DAM), between law and law (BEIN
DIN L’DIN), and between plague and plague (U’VEIN NEGA LA’NEGA), matters of
dispute (DIVREI RIVOT) in your gates; then you shall arise and ascend to the
place which Hashem, your G-d, will choose (Devarim 17:8).
Although this passage has many far-reaching implications, its primary focus is
on the judges themselves, who might find a particular case too difficult.
Writes Sforno (R. Ovadiah Sforno, 1470/1475-1550):
“Although you appointed judges for each city so that each court shall judge
its city, nevertheless, if a doubt arises regarding the traditional teaching,
the court of that city shall not decide according to its own deliberation, but
the decision shall be made according to the deliberation of the majority of
the High Court (in Jerusalem). [This is also the case] when [the local court]
cannot reach a majority opinion.”
Thus, the lower courts will not dispute with one another.
Here, the difficulty among the judges arises due to a doubt about the original
law. The High Court takes final responsibility for transmitting the laws
Other commentaries suggest that the question arises within the lower court as
a result of a genuine disagreement concerning the application of the law.
Despite unanimity about the parameters of the law, the judges might
nonetheless disagree how the law is to be applied in a particular case. Then
the case is referred to a higher and higher court, possibly going as far as
the Supreme Court that convenes in the chamber at the entrance to the Temple
(See Rambam, “Laws of the Sanhedrin” 1:3; “Laws of Rebels” 1:4; 3:8).
Along these lines, Rashi, following Onkelos, writes that doubts may arise
“between blood and blood between ritually unclean blood and clean blood.”
In other words, the judges cannot come to an agreement whether the blood they
are examining renders the person tamei.
"between law and law between a decision of "not
guilty" and a decision of "guilty."
This means that the judges cannot agree whether the facts prove the accused
“and between plague and plague between a ritually unclean plague and a clean
This is because not every instance of a plague that resembles tzara'at makes
the afflicted person tamei.
Ibn Ezra and
Ramban have different interpretations of
these phrases, the essential idea is the same: The judges are unsure how to
rule in any one of the many areas of Halachah civil law, criminal law,
capital offenses, ritual law so they take their case to the Sanhedrin.
The overall impression one gets is of an atmosphere of uncertainty that must
be resolved, towards the goal of restoring order. To borrow a phrase of our
"so that disputes may not increase within Israel" (Megillah 3a, and
Disagreement and lack of clarity obviously is an undesirable state of affairs.
Rashi echoes this in his comments on DIVREI RIVOT, “matters of dispute in your
gates”, which may be read as a summary of the first part of the verse:
“When the wise men of the city disagree over the matter, this one declaring
unclean and this one declaring clean; this one ruling guilty and this one
ruling not guilty.” It was the function of the Sanhedrin to provide unanimity
and structure, not only for the court system, but also for the entire Jewish
People: When the Sanhedrin existed, there was no dispute in Israel. Instead,
if a doubt arose in a Jew's mind over any law, he would inquire of the court
in his city. If they knew, they would tell him. If not, the questioner and
that court, or its agents, would ascend to Jerusalem and ask the court . . .
who deliberate about the matter at that time and debate it back and forth
until they reach a uniform decision, or until a vote is taken. They follow the
majority and then tell all the questioners: "This is the halachah." Then they
all depart (Rambam, “Laws of Rebels” 1:4).
Out of disunity emerges certitude.
The beginning of the dispute is, “If a matter of judgment be concealed from
you” (KI YIPALEI MIMCHA DAVAR LA’MISHPAT). YIPALEI derives from the root
PEI-LAMED-ALEF, Rashi says that this root always denotes separation:
“The matter is separated, concealed from you.”
To Rashi, YIPALEI means the matter is beyond you, it is abstruse. This type of
murkiness leads to disharmony.
However, there is another side to YIPALEI. Chizkuni (R. Chezkiya ben Manoach,
13th century) points out that the root PEI-LAMED-ALEF has two opposite
meanings. In addition to the meaning of "concealment," as in our verse, we
“when one will YAFLI a vow” (Vayikra 27:2).
In this verse, YAFLI means "express, enunciate" (see also Bamidbar 6:2). So,
the same word can denote both indefiniteness and clarity!
We might add to this, that the word PELE means a miracle, a wonder (Shemot
15:11, and elsewhere). It is, therefore, both incomprehensible a "wonder"
and a clear demonstration of Hashem's presence.
How can we reconcile these two aspects of YIPALEI?
It is important to recognize that, since no two human beings are alike, and
since the Torah was entrusted to us to grapple with, a multiplicity of
interpretations is inevitable. This is part of the "wonder" that is man: “The
Holy One, Blessed be He, stamped all people with the die of Primordial Adam,
and yet not one of them resembles the other” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Argument, in the
pursuit of Torah truth, is not only legitimate; it is the ideal: “One who
sees, in a dream, goring oxen [is thus given a sign that he] will have
children who will "clash" over the Torah” (Berachot 56:).
For the good of the Torah society, standards of behavior must be set. Still,
wherever Torah is studied passionately from the classroom to the beit
midrash to the Sanhedrin itself it is a dynamic, living entity.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Parshat Shoftim follows the pattern of much of Sefer Devarim in presenting
the mitzvot and institutions that were to be established upon the
settlement of our forefathers in Eretz Yisrael. As the name of our Parshah
- Judges - indicates, a local and national judicial system was to be
established. Ultimately, the Supreme Court - the Sanhedrin of seventy-one
judges - was to be located in Jerusalem in a chamber (the Lishkat HaGazit)
that was part of the Temple complex.
Non-Jews - who are obligated to fulfill the seven universal laws referred
to as "the seven mitzvot of the descendants of Noah" - are also required
by Torah law to establish courts of law. While the administration of
justice applies equally to all peoples, the Sanhedrin's status is
radically different from that of any other judicial body. Our Parshah
teaches that the Sanhedrin can only hear capital cases when it is seated
in its Jerusalem venue.
"If any case should arise for you to decide in a matter of blood[shed]...
you shall go up to the place which the Lord your God shall choose.... (Devarim,
17:8)." The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14b) derives from this verse "shehamakom
gorem," that the PLACE of the Sanhedrin grants it the authority to try
capital cases. If the Sanhedrin moves from its seat of judgment, as was
the case forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple, capital
cases can no longer be adjudicated. Such a phenomenon is found in no other
court system in the world, because in all other judicial systems,
judgments are rendered solely on the basis of the evidence presented.
To understand this anomaly, we must invoke the words of the prophet
Isaiah, "...for out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of God
from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3)." A full measure of justice can take place
only in the 'presence' of God - "...in the midst of the judges, He gives
judgment (Psalms 82:1)." Jerusalem is the source of full revelation and it
is from there that the rest of the world is sustained. Thus, we can
understand why Chazal gave preference to Torah study in Eretz Yisrael over
that in any other country (Sifre on Ekev) and why they equated residency
in Chutz la'Aretz with living without a personal [relationship with] God (Ketubot
110b). Through residency in Israel, we identify with the focal point of
our destiny as a people; only there are we able to reach our full
spiritual potential. And this is why immigration to Israel was referred to
throughout the ages as "aliyah" - an act of ascending.
Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320