Friday, August 24, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Pleonasms

The word “shoftim” means judges or magistrates, and this week’s Parasha begins with the command to establish a justice sytem. Most of Parashat Shoftim consists of “political” material -- political in the sense of the Greek word polis which means a body of citizens. Parashat Shoftim is interested in teaching us how to create a just society.

Much of Jewish biblical interpretation is rooted in a very close reading of the biblical text. If the Torah uses more language than seems necessary to convey the point in question, (technically known as a pleonasm), the Sages conclude that the additional language comes to teach us something we would not otherwise know.

Two examples in Shoftim have been significant in the development of Jewish law and lore. In Deuteronomy 16:20 we read tzedek tzedek tirdof, “justice justice shall you pursue.” Why does the text say “justice justice” when simply saying “justice” could have sufficed? What does the additional “justice” teach us? Various commentators have suggested a number of possibilities: that justice trumps other competing values (such as compassion or communal harmony); that the pursuit of justice must be carried out in a just manner and the ends do not justify the means; that not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done and that the procedures must be fair and transparent. What are your thoughts?

The second example is Deuteronomy 17:8, where we are instructed to turn for judgments to “the magistrate in charge at the time.” Here, too, the Sages point out that “in charge at the time: is superfluous, that the text could simply have said to go to “the magistrate.” After all, you can only go to the magistrate in charge at the time; you can’t go to a magistrate who lived in a prior era or one who has not yet been born! So what does the text add to our knowledge?

1 comment:

ramonmachtesh said...

1) It was my impression that, unlike dayan, shofet was more than a magistrate. In Sefer Shoftim, it conveys a military leader, usually of less than the whole People. It was by proving H" favored the Shofet through victory (i.e., deliverance from the oke of foreigners) that the responsibilities of civil magistracy were incurred.

2) "In your time" seems pretty obvious to me. It means that the authority conveyed to dayanim and shoftim (and later rabbis) in the generation that knew Moshe Rabbenu would be passed to their successors in perpetuity.