The Period of the Judges (Shoftim)

The era of the Judges, which lasted 355 years (2516-2871), was a most unique period in Jewish history. The Jews functioned without a central government for this entire era, with but two breakdowns in society: Micha’s graven image and Gibeah’s concubine. (By contrast, in 1977, in New York City, the lights went out for several days, and police were unable to patrol effectively. Countless numbers of business establishments were ransacked in a wild orgy of looting.)

Perhaps the period was so tranquil because of the great stature of the Judges — Chief Rabbis who held no political or governmental power and whose positions were not transferred to their sons. In 355 years there was only one grab for power: Abimelech ben Gideon ruled three years. Indeed, so exemplary was the Judges’ rule that a king was unnecessary to enforce the Torah’s laws. In addition, the collective conscience of the Jewish people united them in combating such deviancies as Micha's graven image and Gibeah's concubine.

However, since the Jewish people did not completely follow the Torah’s admonition to expel the Seven Nations from the Land, some Jews became influenced by their neighbors’ idol worship. As a result, from time to time the Jews were subjugated by neighboring countries. When they repented, G‑d defeated their enemies. This cycle of spiritual backsliding and hostile oppression, followed by repentance and long periods of peace, occurred repeatedly during this era. Even during times of foreign invasion, however, the Jews continued to be protected by Divine Providence. In addition, a different nation conquered the Land each time, for a country that invades and occupies another and is forced to withdraw will be utterly ruthless if it succeeds in reconquering the land it lost. The only exception was the Philistines, who, despite controlling the Jews numerous times, treated them relatively well. The easy treatment was due to the pact that Abraham and the Philistine king Abimelech concluded, forbidding each nation to mistreat the other.

There were many famous Judges, including:

Ehud: Left-handed warrior (a rarity). Judged 80 years. Defeated Moab.

Deborah: A female judge and one of the seven female prophets. She defeated the mighty Sisera.

Gideon: Defeated Midian. Refused to become king when offered.

Jephtah: Defeated Ammon. Upon returning victorious from the battlefield, he vowed to offer to G‑d the first thing that left his home. Alas, his daughter came out first.

Ivtzan: Identical to Boaz. He married Ruth and is the ancestor of King David.

Samson: A Nazirite who performed supernatural feats with his Divine strength. He defeated the Philistines.

Eli: Judge and High Priest. He died when the Philistines destroyed the Tabernacle at Shiloh and captured the Holy Ark.

Samuel: Judged 11 years (2871-2882), 10 years on his own and one year in conjunction with King Saul. Considered the last (and greatest) of the Judges, and the first of the Prophets.

The Era of the Monarchy

Toward the end of Samuel’s life, the Jewish people asked him to appoint a king, a request seemingly prompted by noble considerations. To enforce the laws of the Torah, keep the tribes united, prevent the kind of religious backsliding that had occurred during the time of the Judges, and organize an army, the Jewish people felt they needed a king. However, while the Torah indeed commands the Jewish people to appoint a king, asking for a monarch at that point in time was wrong. In truth, the Jewish people should have waited until that current system of self-government had completely stopped working. In addition, having a temporal monarch would subject the Jewish people to natural forces and diminish the obvious manifestation of Divine Providence. Worst of all, the Jews did not want a king in order to fulfill the Torah’s command; instead, they demanded a king so that they could be like the surrounding nations. As such, the early and presumptive institution of royalty was a disaster for the Jewish people. Corrupt monarchs split the nation, introduced idolatry on a large scale, and caused both the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile.

King Saul

Saul is one of the most tragic figures in Scripture, a man who had a very difficult role to play. Sadly, due to several errors, which, although relatively minor, were judged very harshly by G‑d, Saul’s vast potential went unrealized. In fact, because he did not heed Samuel’s instructions to obliterate totally the nation of Amalek, Saul lost his throne. As a result, he fell into a deep melancholy, relentlessly pursuing David, his designated successor. When faced with imminent capture by the Philistines, Saul committed suicide on the battlefield. His rule lasted three years (2881-2884). In summing up his career, the sages wrote: “ Had David been Saul, and had Saul been David, G‑d would have destroyed many Davids for his sake.”

Saul’s Pursuit of David

The sages listed five transgressions committed by Saul. Interestingly enough, pursuing David is not one of them. This fact can be understood through a story related in the Talmud: Shimon HaTzadik, a High Priest in the days of the Second Temple, designated his younger son Chonyo as his successor. Chonyo voluntarily declined in favor of his older brother Shimi. However, although Chonyo had relinquished the position willingly, he was still jealous of the honor Shimi enjoyed and so devised a plan to remove his older brother from office. Chonyo told Shimi, who was ignorant of Temple procedure, that in honor of his inauguration he should wear women’s garments. Shimi did so, and when the enraged onlookers saw such a sacrilege committed in proximity to the Altar, they wanted to execute Shimi. However, upon finding out that Chonyo had duped Shimi, they pursued Chonyo, who fled to Egypt.

Discussing this story, the sages remarked: “If even someone who voluntarily refuses a high position is so jealous, then surely one who loses an office he previously had would find it intolerable.” Rabbi Joshua ben Perachiah commented: “Before I assumed high office, if anyone would have suggested that I take a prestigious position, I would have tied him in front of a lion. Now that I have the office, if someone would tell me to relinquish it, I would pour a pot of boiling water on his head. For Saul did not desire monarchy, but once he had it, he wanted to kill David.” Removing a person from a position he held is tantamount to killing him, and it is human nature to try to prevent it from happening. Therefore, Saul is held relatively blameless for his pursuit of David.

Saul’s Suicide

Ordinarily, suicide is a grave sin, the equivalent of murder. A suicide forfeits his share in the World-To-Come and is buried at the edge of the cemetery. Saul’s suicide, however, was permissible for several reasons. Normally, even if a person is in a bleak situation, he should not lose hope of Divine rescue — G‑d’s salvation can come in the blink of an eye. Saul’s situation was different, for Samuel had informed him prophetically that the king would die in the war with the Philistines. Furthermore, it would be a great Chillul HaShem (desecration of G‑d’s Name) if the Jewish king were captured and tortured. Saul also feared that when his subjects realized he was captured, they would try to free him — despite overwhelming odds – thereby resulting in many deaths. Therefore, given the extraordinary circumstances, Saul properly took his own life. (Nevertheless, some rabbinic opinions hold that suicide is forbidden under all circumstances, and that Saul therefore acted improperly.)