Tuesday, 23 Aug 2011

Written by Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet

This week’s Torah reading begins with Moses’ instruction to the people to appoint ‘shofetim v’shoterim’.   It is clear that ‘shofetim’ are judges, and their task is immediately spelled out, as well as warnings against misusing their power.  This echoes similar material in Deuteronomy chapter one where again the two groups, shofetim and shoterim, are associated:

So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens and shoterim, ‘officials’, for your tribes.  And I commanded your shofetim, judges… (Deuteronomy 1:15-16).

Who are the shoterim and what is their task?  

On this passage Rashi quotes a disturbing explanation from Sifre ‘these are they who bind and flog with the lash at the bidding of the judges’.  Presumably in the absence of custodial sentences fines and lashes, would have been standard punishments available for crimes.  Even if this is only a later interpretation it reflects their Biblical role as adjuncts to the legal system.

Nevertheless the association with violence actually goes back to a much earlier reference to this term, for the ‘shoterim’ were the Hebrew ‘overseers’ or ‘foremen’ of the work gangs of Hebrew slaves, appointed by the Egyptian taskmasters (Exodus 5:6,10, 14).   The term ‘kapo’ conjures up the ambiguity of such a role: Hebrews appointed to supervise other Hebrews and ensure the completion of the work.  The position would probably have entailed certain privileges, but at the price of potentially oppressing their fellow Hebrews, and hence estranging them from their own people.  On one level this would have worked as a system of divide and conquer (a technique of which Pharaoh was a master) but also effectively placed a buffer between the slaves and their real masters, the Egyptians.  The shoterim were the visible representatives of the power of the state that the slaves might attack if the system broke down.  From the Egyptian perspective they were disposable and replaceable if they gave the Egyptians any trouble.   Pharaoh exploited precisely this system in response to Moses’ initial challenge when he forced the Hebrews to forage for straw while still keeping up the same quota of bricks.   When they failed to do so the shoterim  were blamed and physically beaten (Exodus 5:14).  The  shoterim then blamed the Hebrew slaves who in turn blamed Moses.   Nevertheless the Bible records no actual abuse of their power in this circumstance and Rashi quotes the midrash (Exodus Rabba 5) which regards the shoterim as selflessly accepting the beating and not passing it on.   Rashi concludes that for this reason they were listed amongst the seventy elders upon whom God promised to place some of Moses’ ‘spirit’ (Numbers 11:16-17).   However, in the event Moses gathers the ‘elders’, but the shoterim are not mentioned (Numbers 11:24).  Why the omission?  Perhaps Moses was less convinced than God about the wisdom of giving that particular group special powers.

Given this background of violence, it is no surprise that when they next appear it is in the context of war.  In Joshua (1:10; 3:1-4) they will marshal the people for the crossing of the Jordan River.   But before that, in Deuteronomy (20:5-7), they will work with the priest appointed for warfare, in informing the people about who may be exempt from the fighting:  those who have built a house and not dedicated it, planted a vineyard and have not yet been able to enjoy the fruit, become engaged but not yet married.   These examples emphasise the importance of giving simple human values and tasks greater priority than warfare.  But the shoterim, seemingly at their own initiative, add a fourth separate category (20:8): exempting anyone whose fearfulness might affect the resolve of his comrades in arms.   Here the shoterim are not acting out of compassion for such a person but are simply aware of the military need to maintain morale.  Who better than those who understand something of violence to ensure that people who cannot cope with it are not allowed to endanger others.

Their final appearance is in the service of the judges and the king in First and Second  Chronicles (1 Chr 27:1; 2 Chr 19:11; 34:12).

The questions remain about who they were; how they were appointed; were they salaried employees of the state; did they belong to a specific class or was the term simply used for any kind of middle ranking official with specific functions in particular contexts.   Certainly on the basis of the texts we have seen they would have ensured that the priests and judges, could remain physically distanced from direct engagement with the more unpleasant aspects of their roles.  So it is tempting to recognize in them people charged professionally with getting things done, and tackling the difficult and sometimes even brutal tasks needed to ensure the effective working of a complex society: sometimes policemen, sometimes enforcers, sometimes ‘sergeant majors’.   

These references serve as a reminder of a strand of toughness and practical competence within the Israelite and Jewish people which should not be overlooked or denied.  Maybe it was part of Moses’ wisdom to find a responsible, contained and supervised role for those in Israelite society whose aptitude for violence might otherwise have found more destructive outlets.

Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet
September 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.