Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Shofetim

Calling for Peace

Many modern readers wonder about the directive to annihilate the nations of Canaan.  Was there really no possibility for peaceful co-existence?  Medieval commentators  debate the issue. Rashi maintains that it was prohibited to call for peace and war was inevitable, while RambamHilkhot Melakhim 6:1,4,5About R. Moshe b. Maimon claims that the Israelites were obligated to offer terms of peace before waging war against the Canaanites.

  • How does each side of the debate read the verses of Devarim 20?  What other verses could support each position? How does the story of the Gibeonites' deceit in Yehoshua 9 shed light on the issue?
  • According to RashiSotah 35bAbout R. Shelomo Yitzchaki, the reason for the decree of obliteration is religious in nature, lest the nations sway Israel towards idolatry.  Sometimes a zero-tolerance policy is necessary.  Do you agree?  In what circumstances are compromises not an option?
  • According to RambamHilkhot Melakhim 6:1,4,5About R. Moshe b. Maimon, what would have happened had the nations actually accepted the terms of peace and surrendered to Israel? Could the land have sustained both populations? How might the course of our history have changed? For more, see Calling for Peace in the Conquest of Canaan.

Determining Truth

We sometimes look back to the Biblical period and wonder how a nation who lived in a prophetic age and merited to hear the Divine word could still have so much trouble following the will of Hashem.  With access to prophets to tell you for certain what was right and wrong, was it not much easier to be a good person?  Why did the people so often not heed the prophetic instructions?

  • It is possible that part of the problem was the difficulty in determining to whom to listen.  When true and false prophets both claimed to speak in the name of God, yet said contradictory things, how could a layperson know who was Hashem's true messenger?
  • Devarim 18 provides a litmus test: if a prophet's predictions do not materialize, he must be a fraud.  At first glance this sounds straightforward. The verse implies that all prophecies must materialize, but is this true?  What do Yirmeyahu 18, Yirmeyahu 28 and the story of Yonah and Nineveh suggest?  Is repentance incapable of overturning Divine decrees?  If so, how is one to determine who is a true or false prophet?
  • See Distinguishing Between True and False Prophets for several approaches.

Prophetic Autonomy

How much independence does a prophet have?  Can they ever speak or act on their own initiative, or must all their deeds be Divinely directed?  While Devarim 18 suggests that a prophet may never invoke Hashem's name if not commanded to do so, there are several instances in Tanakh where Moshe does in fact speak in Hashem's name, even though there is no record of a prior Divine command.1

  • How are such cases to be understood?  Should the reader assume that despite the textual silence, a Divine directive had indeed been issued?  Or, do prophets actually have the ability to, not only speak and act on their own initiative, but even to attribute that action to Hashem?  Are all prophets equal in this regard, or might Moshe be unique?
  • If prophets do have a certain degree of autonomy, is it possible for them to err?
  • Which model of prophet is on a higher level – one who who simply follows Divine orders or one who takes initiative without prior consultation with Hashem? Contrast the opinions of R"Y Albo4:22About R. Yosef Albo and AbarbanelDevarim 34:11About R. Yitzchak Abarbanel and debate the issue at  your Shabbat table.

See Invoking Hashem's Name Without Explicit Divine Sanction and Prophetic Actions Without Explicit Divine Sanction for elaboration.

Cities of Refuge or Exile?

Devarim 19 speaks of the creation of ערי מקלט (cities of refuge) as places to which an inadvertent killer might flee from a גואל הדם (blood avenger). 

  • What does this law suggest about the Torah's view of blood avengers?  On one hand, the very existence of such cities attests to the fact that the Torah does not want the unintentional killer to die.  On the other hand, this institution simultaneously attests to the fact that the Torah did not outlaw avenging of blood. If the גואל הדם is a negative institution, why allow it at all?  If it is legitimate, why protect the unintentional murderer from them?
  • The flip side of the question relates to the Torah's evaluation of the unintentional murderer.  How culpable does the Torah hold him?   Is he totally innocent and sent to the cities only for his own good?  If so, though, why is he only allowed to leave the city at the death of the high priest and not at his own discretion?  Does this suggest that perhaps he, too, is somewhat deserving of punishment, and that the cities are a form of mandatory exile rather than a safe haven?

See Arei Miklat – Cities of Refuge or Exile for more.


For more, see: Parashat Shofetim Topics.