2003There are two weekly Torah portions that deal with the concept of Mishpat or Jewish Law. This week we read Mishpatim that deals with details of Jewish law while during the summer we read Shofetim that focuses upon the judiciary itself. I would like to focus on the nature and purpose of judges.
Are Judges Imbued with Godliness?
(referring to an indentured servant) "... and his master shall bring him close to Ha-Elohim..."
"The case of both parties shall be brought before Ha-Elohim; he whom Ha-Elohim declares guilty shall pay double to the other ..."
"If a case is too baffling for you to decide ... you shall get up and go to Ha-Makom (the place) that the Lord your God has chosen ..."
Your Torah Navigator
1. What does the word "elohim" usually mean and what can it mean in the verses from Exodus?
2. Why is the word "elohim" used rather than "shofetim" or "dayanim" (both are Hebrew words for judges)?
3. What is the difference in focus between the verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy 17:8?
4. According to the Torah, who decides court cases- God or the judges?
The Torah uses precise language. Usually judges are referred to as either "shofetim" or "dayanim." Yet, in our Torah portion, the word Ha-Elohim is used. According to some commentators, this word still refers to God. According to others, this word very clearly refers to judges. Indeed, the use of the plural verb in Exodus 22:8 seems to indicate that Ha-Elohim cannot refer to God and must refer to judges. Depending on how you translate Ha-Elohim, either God itself or judges decide court cases. It would seem that even if God does not actually proclaim a verdict, he blesses the judges with holiness (and good judgment) and sanctifies the place in which the court meets.
Ibn Ezra on Exodus 21:6
"The judges were called Elohim due to the fact that they enact God's laws on earth."
Midrash Rabbah, Exodus (30:24)
"At the time that the judge sits and deliberates in truth, the Holy One Blessed Be He descends from the heavens and places his Shekhinah (divine countenance) next to the judge, for God has established the judiciary and God (remains) with the judge."
Your Midrash Navigator:
1. According to the Midrash, does God sit "on the bench" or "in the gallery"?
2. Under what circumstances will God concur with the judge?
3. How does the Midrash support the statement of Ibn Ezra?
Judges assume an awesome task in evaluating a case and deciding a case on its merits. They are God's emissaries on earth. However, the judges cannot allow this sense of godliness to go to their heads. Therefore, the Torah deliberately uses the word "elohim" to describe judges. The words "shoftim" and "dayanim" refer to the task that the judge is asked to perform. The term "elohim" reminds judges at all times that they must be humbled in front of God. While the judge decides cases, God is always sitting right next to the judge. Not only has God imbued the judiciary with holiness, he has also consecrated the place in which judgment takes place. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, the Sanhedrin (high court) met in the Beit HaMikdash in the "Chamber of Hewn Stone."
In many secular courts today, the phrase "in God we trust" appears right behind the bench. While judges today do not have the same role as the shofetim of biblical times, they nonetheless see holiness in their work. Indeed, oaths/affirmations of office end with the words, "so help me God." We should not be afraid to ask for help when we need it, whether we need help from God or from other people. You could say "so help me God" in one breath or you could choose to pause and say "so, help me God." We should all learn from the shofetim. It is all a matter of emphasis. The Shekhinah is always at our side to guide us in our ways but not to goad us.
Prepared by Akiva D. Roth, Hillel Director, Drew University, Madison, NJ.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Mishpatim at MyJewishLearning.com.