Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 25 July 2020 / 4 Av 5780

You Be the Judge of That

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Moshe briefly chronicles the events of the years-long sojourn in the desert. The differences between the way the events are recorded as they occurred and as they are repeated are the subject of much commentary. Often, the versions supplement each other.

When Moshe describes his being overwhelmed at bearing the responsibility of the quarrelsome people, he recounts his instructions on appointing wise men who could also preside over disputes: Give yourselves men, wise and discerning, and known to your tribes. But when Yitro initially suggested this to Moshe, his instructions were quite different. The judges were to be men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who despise improper gain.

When Yitro made the proposal to Moshe, he emphasized the importance of upright moral character, and only obscurely referenced their intellectual capability as “men of substance.” When Moshe instructed the people, he emphasized the intellectual abilities of the men to be chosen as judges, and encapsulated moral fitness by requiring that they be “known to your tribes” — known to be of upright character. Character is known only from their lives, and only to those who have associated with them. If Moshe were interested only in the erudition of the candidates, he could have tested them himself. But to test their moral character, he needed the people to nominate them.

Moshe and Yitro did not disagree — both recognized that fearing G-d, loving truth, and hating improper gain were the most essential characteristics of a judge. However, they had different audiences. Yitro spoke to Moshe and could say it straight. Moshe addressed the masses. In the popular mind, the main virtue of a judge is his sharpness, erudition and wisdom. He thus began with that requirement and then added that the judges must also be a paragon of virtue.

In Jewish law, any three simple, honest men are considered fit to judge in ordinary civil matters. Since Torah knowledge was widespread in Israel, the assumption could be made that at least one of the three would be sufficiently versed in the knowledge of the law.

  • Source: Commentary, Devarim 1:13

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