The Judicial System in the Promised Land

16:18 Moses continued, When you enter the land, you must replace your current judiciary, which is organized according to the numerical division of the people,1 with a new hierarchy composed of local and regional judges. You must appoint judges and sheriffs for yourself in all your cities that God, your God, is giving you. The job of the sheriffs is to enforce the judges’ rulings, threatening the people with clubs and whips if necessary. Until now, sheriffs were not needed, apparently because I myself appointed the judges and the people therefore accorded them sufficient deference. When you enter the land, however, and appoint new judges without my approbation, these judges may occasionally need the assistance of sheriffs, so you must be prepared for this eventuality.2

You must appoint separate judges and sheriffs for each of your tribes and cities. If a city comprises members of different tribes, a separate court must be set up in that city for each tribe. Appoint judges who are expert and righteous, to ensure that they will judge the people by rendering fair judgments.

19 Tell these judges: ‘You must not pervert justice. {As you have been taught? Ex 23:6? other places?} You must not show partiality to either of the litigants—not even by treating them differently while hearing their testimony—for this will affect their ability to present their respective cases. As you have been taught,3 you must not accept a bribe—even if you are confident in your ability to judge the case fairly regardless—for bribery perforce blinds the eyes of the sage to the faults of the person who gave the bribe and perverts the just words of the Torah, twisting them in the mind of the judge.’

20 Conversely, as litigants, do not automatically assume that all courts will be equitable. Justice, justice must you pursue, by realizing that it is your responsibility to seek reliable courts. In any case, appointing righteous judges is so crucial that doing so will earn you sufficient merit for which you may live and take possession of the land that God, your God, is giving you.


21 You have been told not to worship idols, and moreover, to uproot all deified trees you encounter in the Land of Israel.4 In addition, you must not even plant for yourself such a deified tree, for even merely planting such a tree is a punishable offense, whether or not you worship it. Furthermore, you must not plant any type of tree or build a house near the altar of God, your God, that you will make for yourself, i.e., on the Temple mountain.

22 You must not erect for yourself a single-stoned altar-pedestal, even in order to offer up sacrifices to God on it. Even though God did not oppose the use of such altar-pedestals in the patriarchal era,5 they are now something that God, your God, hates, because the Canaanites have since then made its use part of their idolatrous rites.

Improper Intentions in Sacrificing

17:1 You have been told that you must not eat the meat of a sacrificed animal if the person who slaughtered it did so in the course of articulating his intention that its meat be eaten outside the prescribed times for doing so;6 and that when you slaughter an animal as a sacrifice, you must do so with the intention that it be eaten within the prescribed time limit.7 In addition, slaughtering an animal as a sacrifice with the intention that it be eaten outside its prescribed time is subject to a restrictive commandment: You must not slaughter to God, your God, an ox, sheep, or goat that acquires a defect through any improper pronouncement by its slaughterer, i.e., through an articulation of his or her intent to eat it outside of the prescribed time for doing so, for God, your God, considers this an abomination. In contrast, the sacrifice is not invalidated if you merely harbor such an intention in your thoughts but do not articulate it.8

Punishment for Idolatry

2 If there be found among you, within one of your cities that God, your God, is giving you, a man or woman performing the quintessential act that God, your God, deems evil, transgressing His covenant with you that you not serve idols

3 by going and worshipping other deities and prostrating him or herself before them, or before the sun, the moon, or any heavenly body, all of which I have commanded you not to worship;

4 and the crime is reported to you, and you—via your legal surrogates, the court—hear the report from valid witnesses, and you (again, through the court) investigate the matter thoroughly; and it is found to be true because the evidence supplied by all the witnesses agrees, establishing that this abomination has indeed been committed in Israel;

5 you (again, via your emissaries, the court) must bring the man or woman who has committed this evil thing to the gate of thecity in which the idolatry was committed, this man or woman, and you must pelt them with stones as described below, intending that they die thereby.

6 The idolater, who is liable to death, must be condemned to death by the court by virtue of the testimony of a minimum of two witnesses. The testimonies of the witnesses combine to form one testimony, which as such can only be disqualified by showing that the witnesses could not have witnessed the events9 if this can be demonstrated to be the case for all of the witnesses, whether there are two or three witnesses or any greater number. The accused may not be condemned to death by the testimony of only one witness.

7 Death by stoning is to be administered as follows: The hand of the witnesses must be the first upon the guilty party, to put him to death: One witness must push him from an elevation twice his height; if the fall does not kill him, the second witness must cast a heavy stone onto his chest; if this, too, does not kill him, then only afterwards must the collective hand of all the people kill him by pelting him with stones.10 His corpse must then be hung on a pole for a short period of time, taken down before nightfall, and then buried.11 The criminal’s relatives must not eat the ritual meal of consolation,12 nor may the sentencing court eat at all on the day of the execution. These rules apply when any form of capital punishment is administered.13

So must you, as a people, eliminate this evil of idolatry from your midst.

Judicial Hierarchy

8 If a matter in judgment that is brought before you as a judge eludes you—for example: whether a particular discharge of blood is blood that would render a woman ritually defiled or it is blood that does not, whether a particular legal case is a case in which the accused is guilty or it is a case in which he or she is innocent, or whether a particular dermal lesion is a lesion that would render a person ritually defiled or it is a lesion that does not—rendering any such matters subjects of dispute in any of your cities because the judges cannot agree upon the verdict, you must arise and go up to the place that God, your God, chooses as the site for His Temple, for this place will also be the seat of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court.”14 (Traveling to the Temple site is termed “going up” because it is considered the “top” of the world.15)

9 “You must approach the Sanhedrin, which should ideally include Levitic priests if they are qualified,16 and which is headed by the supreme judge who will be in office at that time—whose authority you must accept even if he cannot compare with the judges that preceded him—and inquire of them. They will tell you the solution to the matter in question.

10 You must act in accordance with the verdict that they tell you from their seat in the place God will choose as the Temple site. You must be careful to act in accordance with everything they instruct you.

11 You must act according to the law that they instruct you and the judgment they pronounce to you. You may not deviate right or left from the word they tell you; even if they have rendered a manifestly erroneous judgment, God nevertheless insists that you follow their instructions.17

12 Any person (i.e., judge) who acts maleficently—in this case, by not obeying the verdict of the priest who stands there to serve God, your God, or the superior judge—that person must be tried and put to death by the court, and you must thereby eliminate this evil from Israel, i.e., the Jewish people.

13 Postpone the execution of the guilty judge until the next pilgrim festival, so that the entire people, who will be present at that time, can listen to what happened and hence be afraid to incur similar guilt; thus, they will no longer think to act maleficently in this way, had they entertained such an idea.

The King

Second Reading 14 When you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you, take possession of it, and settle it, and you say, collectively, ‘I will appoint a king over myself, like all the nations around me have,’

15 you may indeed appoint a king over yourself, but he must be one whom God, your God, chooses. You must appoint a king over yourself from among your brothers, that is, from among your fellow Jews; you may not appoint a foreigner—that is, one who is not your brother Israelite—over yourself, for, as will be seen presently,18 your king is subject to all the laws of the Torah, not just those that apply to non-Jews.19

16 Once he has been appointed, the only restrictions that the king must abide by beyond those that apply to all Jews are, firstly, that he not acquire more horses for himself than are required for his limited number of chariots, so that he not bring any of the people back to Egypt in order to procure these many horses, for God has said to you, ‘You must never again return along that path.’20

17 Secondly, he must not take more than eighteen wives for himself, in order that his heart not thereby be distracted from his royal duties by his excessive matrimonial duties, undermining his ability to fulfill his duties as king. Thirdly, he must not acquire more silver and gold for himself than is necessary to finance his army.

18 If the king abides by these restrictions, God will make sure that he sit securely upon his royal throne and that his reign be prolonged. The king must also observe the following, additional commandment, that applies only to him: He must write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll, one to keep in his archives and one to take with him wherever he goes, copying it from the Torah scroll that is in the care of the Levitic priests.

19 The Torah must thus remain with him physically at all times, and he must read from it every day of his life, so that he may learn to revere God, his God; to safeguard all the words of this Torah and these rules by studying themso that he know how to properly perform them;

20 so that his heart will not become haughty over his brothers; and so that he will not deviate either to the right or to the left from even a seemingly inconsequential commandment communicated to him by a prophet. He should fulfill all these requirements in order that he might prolong the days he rules over his kingdom—he and his sons—among Israel. If his son is qualified, it is preferable that he inherit the kingship when the time comes, rather than it being given to anyone else.

Priests’ Entitlements

Third Reading 18:1 As you have been told,21 the entire tribe of Levi has been granted a portion of the national surplus, and the priests a portion of certain sacrifices in addition, in order to relieve them of the burden of having to earn a living, enabling them to devote themselves to the Temple service (or, until the Temple is built, the Tabernacle service—and so in all further references to the Temple) on behalf of the rest of the nation. The following privileges accrue to the entire tribe: The Levitic priestsevery priest, whether he be fit to serve in the Temple or be disqualified from doing so on account of a bodily blemish22—together with the rest of the tribe of Levi,23 must have no portion in the spoils of war nor any land-inheritance with the rest of Israel.24 Instead, the priests must eat their designated portions of God’s fire-offerings, i.e., the sacrifices offered up in the Temple, and the tribe of Levi as a whole must eat His inheritance, i.e., the portions allocated to them from the rest of the nation’s produce.

2 The commandment that the tribe of Levi have no land-inheritance among its lay brothers applies both to the territory of the seven nations that God has promised to give you now as well as to the territory of the three nations that God has promised to give you in the messianic future, should the nation conquer any of that land before that time.25 Moreover, this prohibition applies equally to lands that have been or may be conquered and apportioned by the nation’s leader as well as to lands that each tribe may conquer individually. Instead, God Himself is the priest’s or Levite’s inheritance, and the priest or Levite must therefore devote himself exclusively to His service, as He spoke concerning him.26

3 Besides the gifts you have already been told about, the following must also be the priests’ entitlement from all lay people: From those who slaughter any domesticated animal for personal consumption,27 be it an ox (or other type of cattle) or a sheep or a goat, the slaughterer must give the priest the section of the right foreleg from the knee to the shoulder, the cheeks together with the tongue, and the stomach (see Figure 1).28 However, a priest who slaughters such an animal for personal use need not give these portions to another priest. Furthermore, this commandment does not apply to wild animals, only to domesticated ones.

These three gifts are given to the priests in recognition of how Aaron’s grandson Pinchas earned the priesthood by raising his hand to slay Zimri and Kozbi, by praying (with his mouth) for success, and by piercing them through their reproductive organs (euphemistically termed bellies in the account of the incident).29

4 As you have been told,30 you must give the priest the first of your annual yields of grain, wine, and oil (terumah). You must also give him the first of the fleece of your sheep when you annually shear them. Only a flock that contains at least five sheep is subject to this obligation. The fleece of other animals, however, is exempt from this obligation, since only sheep wool is soft enough to be suitable to be made into clothing.31

5 For God, your God, has selected him out of all your tribes to stand (for the sacrificial rites must be performed while standing) and serve in the name of God—he and his sons—for all time.

The Divisions of the Priests

Fourth Reading 6 In order to ensure that the Temple function in an orderly manner, I am going to divide the priests into divisions;32 each division will be required to serve in the Temple for a specific, equal number of weeks each year. The officiating division will only be eligible to receive the portions due the priests from the communal sacrifices (e.g., the daily or Sabbath offerings33) offered up during its own turn. Each division is thus effectively “selling” its rights to these portions the rest of the year to the other divisions in exchange for exclusive rights to these portions during its period of service.

If, however, a Levite priest wishes to come from one of your cities out of all Israel, where he sojourns, to offer up his own, personal sacrifice—whether voluntary or obligatory—in the Temple, he may come whenever his soul desires, to the place God will choose as the site of the Temple,

7 and he may serve in the name of God, his God, just like all his Levite brothers—the priests—who stand there before God, even if it is not the time designated for his division. Furthermore, during the three pilgrim festivals (and during the six days following Shavuot), all priests may offer up sacrifices associated with these festivals—not only those whose division happens to be serving in the Temple at that time.

8 During the pilgrim festivals, all the priests must eat equal portions of the communal sin-offerings specified for these festivals.34 Moreover, they must divide the hides of all the ascent-offerings specified for these festivals equally among themselves. Thus, they will share equally in all the communal sacrifices offered up during the pilgrim festivals except those not related to the festivals (e.g., the daily and Sabbath offerings),which were ‘sold’ by the heads of each division to each other, as explained above.35

Divination vs. Prophecy

9 As I have told you,36 when you come into the land that God, your God, is giving you, you must not study the abominations of those nations in order to act likewise. However, you should examine their idolatrous rites in order to impress upon yourselves just how depraved these rites are and in order to teach your children not to imitate these practices.

10 Specifically, there must not be among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire—this being the central feature of the cult of Molech,37 anyone who consults38 any of the following: a stick-diviner, a diviner of auspicious times,39 an illusionist, a diviner who interprets omens,40 a divining sorcerer,41

11 a snake- or scorpion-diviner, a diviner who speaks from his armpit by propping up a human corpse under it,42 a diviner who speaks from his mouth by placing the bone of an animal called a yido’a in it,43 or a diviner who communicates with the dead either by resting a human corpse on his reproductive organ or by consulting a skull.

12 Even though these methods of divination may be efficacious,44 you must still refrain from resorting to their use, for whoever does any of these things becomes himself an abomination to God, and because of these abominations, God, your God, is driving out the present occupants of the Land of Israel, who practiced them, from before you.

13 Instead, rather than trying to obsessively divine the future, be wholehearted with God, your God: trust Him and accept His providence. You will therefore not fret about the future and thus not feel any need to foretell it. If you behave in this manner, God will keep you in His land—in contrast to the pagan nations whom He will drive out on account of the abominations they practice.45

Fifth Reading 14 Nonetheless, once you have wholeheartedly accepted God’s providence and are therefore free of anxiety over the future, you may seek to discover what the future holds. But whereas46 these nations whom you are dispossessing hearken to diviners of auspicious times, illusionists, and stick-diviners, as for you, God, your God, has not abandoned you to these methods of divining the future.

15 Rather, in order to enable you to obtain His guidance, God, your God has given you—in contrast47 to stick-diviners, who divine using tools—the urim and tumim, through which He will communicate His will to your king regarding issues of national importance;48 and—in contrast to diviners of auspicious times and illusionists—He will appoint a prophet for you who hails from among you, from your brothers, like I am one of you. You must hearken to him, for the prophets of every generation will serve in my stead as your intermediaries with God.

16 This arrangement will accord with everything you asked of God, your God, at Mount Horeb (i.e., Mount Sinai), on the day of the assemblage of the entire nation to receive the Torah, saying collectively to me, ‘Although I have seen that with God’s supernatural help, it is possible to hear His voice directly and remain alive, I prefer to receive the Torah in the context of my natural existence. Therefore, I prefer not to continue to hear the voice of God, my God, directly, and not to see this great fire anymore, and that way I will not die from the intensity of the revelation. Rather, I prefer that you alone communicate directly with God and then convey His words to me.49

17 And God said to me,50 ‘They have done well in what they have spoken.

18 I will continue to communicate with them through you while you are alive, and after you die I will authorize a prophet for them from among their brothers, like you. I will place My words into his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him to tell them.

19 Whoever does not hearken to My words, which he speaks in My name, I will exact punishment from him by putting him to death Myself. This applies even to a prophet who does not hearken to the very prophecy he himself has pronounced, and also to a prophet who refuses to communicate a prophecy that I have given him.

20 But the prophet who intentionally says something in My name that I did not command him to say—whether I did not say it at all or whether I commanded some other prophet to say it, or who speaks in the name of other deities—even if he speaks the truth, such a prophet must be tried by the court and, if found guilty, die by strangulation.’

21 If you say to yourself, ‘How will we know that the word that the prophet is saying is one that God did not speak?’

22 If the prophet speaks in the name of God, prophesying something favorable, and the thing does not transpire and does not come to pass, you will know that that is the thing God did not say. The prophet has spoken it maleficently. You must therefore not be afraid of him, that is, of bearing responsibility for his death by incriminating him. However, if he prophesies calamity, the fact that the calamity does not occur does not implicate him as a false prophet, since it could well be that the wrongdoers (whose behavior precipitated the calamitous prophecy) have since repented, and God therefore cancelled or commuted their punishment.51

With regard to a prophet who claims to be conveying a Divine imperative, you have already been told that you must not listen to him if that imperative contradicts anything taught in the Torah.52 The exception to this is a prophet of established reputation who instructs you to contravene the Torah as a temporary measure called for by some exigency. An example of this was when the prophet Elijah offered up a sacrifice on Mount Carmel in order to contest idolatry,53 even though the Temple had already been built and thus offerings outside the Temple were forbidden.

Cities of Refuge

19:1 As you know, God commanded us to designate six cities of refuge in the Promised Land. The purpose of these cities is to shelter unintentional murderers, whose close relatives are allowed to kill if they find them outside these cities.54 I have already designated three such cities in the territories that I assigned to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and to half of the tribe of Manasseh.55 When you cross over into Canaan and God, your God, cuts off the nations whose land God, your God, is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses,

2 you must designate three additional cities of refuge for yourself in the midst of your land, which God, your God, is giving you to possess.

3 Prepare for yourself the way to these cities by posting signs pointing the way to them at every crossroad. Divide the length of your land, which God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, such that the three cities are equidistant one from another as well as from the border, so it will be convenient for every unintentional murderer to flee there, i.e., to one of them.

4 This is the case in which the unintentional murderer may flee there, so that he may live: Whoever strikes his fellow to death unintentionally, whom he did not hate in times past—

5 as when a man goes with his fellow into the forest to chop wood, and his hand swings the ax to fell the tree, and either the iron flies off the handle or the ax’s blow to the tree causes a chunk of wood to go flying, and it reaches his fellow and he dies—he must flee to one of these cities and live.

6 God commands you to do all this—to designate multiple cities of refuge and make them sufficiently accessible—lest the blood-avenger pursue the killer while the former’sheart is hot, and overtake him because the way to the city of refuge is too long, and he strikes the killer to death—although he was not deserving of death, for he did not hate his victim and premeditate the murder beforehand.

7 Therefore, I command you, saying, ‘You must designate for yourself three cities.’

8 When, in the future, God, your God, will expand your boundary as He swore to your forefathers,56 and He gives you all the land of the Kenites (Ammon), the Kenizites (Moab), and the Kadmonites (Edom), which He said He would give to your forefathers57

9 (provided that you safeguard this commandment completely by studying how to perform it properly, enabling you to thenindeed perform it properlynamely the commandment that I am commanding you today: to love God, your God,58 and to walk in His ways for all time59), you must add three more cities for yourself in those territories, in addition to these three in Canaan,

10 so that the innocent blood of the unintentional murderer not be shed by the avenger of the slain person in the midst of your land that God, your God, is giving you for an inheritance, which would make you guilty collectively of having shed this blood.

There will thus eventually be nine cities of refuge: three to the west of the Jordan River, three in the territory I have already assigned to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and to half of the tribe of Manasseh, and three in the territory of Ammon, Moab, and Edom.

11 But if a man hates his fellow, and as a result of this hatred lies in wait for him, rises up against him, and intentionally strikes him mortally, and he flees to one of these cities,

12 the elders of his city must send emissaries and have them take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the blood-avenger, that he may die.

13 You must not pity him, regretting to kill another Jew besides the one that he has already killed. You must rather, in this way, eliminate the injustice caused by the shedding of the blood of the innocent murder victim from Israel, and it will go well for you.

From such a case you can see how transgressing a minor prohibition leads a person to transgress a more serious prohibition: at first, the murderer transgressed the prohibition against hating one’s fellow;60 this led him to transgress the prohibition against murder.


Sixth Reading 14 You must not push your neighbor’s landmark, which your predecessors have erected as border markers, back into his territory in order to increase the size of your own territory—for this is robbery. You have already been told not to rob in general,61 so this prohibition makes you doubly liable to punishment. This double injunction applies, however, only in your land-inheritance that you can bequeath to your offspring, in the land that God, your God, is giving you to possess. Outside of the Promised Land, such behavior does not incur double punishment.

Testimony; Perjury

15 You have been taught that a minimum of two witnesses are required to establish guilt in capital cases.62 The same rule applies to most non-capital offenses: One single witness must not be empowered to rise up against any person accused of a crime and implicate him for any iniquity or for any sin, regarding any sin that he or she may commit. Rather, the matter of someone’s innocence or guilt must be confirmed by the testimony of at least two witnesses. Similarly, you have been taught that in capital cases,63 the testimonies of the witnesses combine to form one testimony, which therefore cannot be disqualified by showing that the witnesses could not have witnessed the events unless this can be demonstrated for all of the witnesses, whether the defendant is being indicted by the testimony of two witnesses or by the testimony of three or any greater number of witnesses. This same rule generally applies to non-capital cases.64

The exception is that the testimony of one witness may be used to obligate a person accused of a monetary liability to swear that he has no such liability. The gravity of having to swear65 will presumably deter him from lying.

Witnesses must testify in person, orally, and not through an interpreter. Only adult males are admissible as formal witnesses in legal cases66 (since forcing a woman to testify publicly would be considered disrespectful67), with certain exceptions.68

16 If two69 corrupt witnesses rise up against a man to bear untenable testimony against him, and the defendant has been sentenced by virtue of that testimony but has not yet been punished for his alleged crime,70 and then two other witnesses testify that the first pair could not have possibly witnessed this crime,

17 the two original witnesses must stand trial themselves.

(When witnesses testify, as well as when the two litigantsbetween whom the controversy exists state their cases, they must stand to do so. Furthermore, they must consider themselves as if they were standing before God Himself when they stand before the priests71 and the judges and conduct themselves accordingly, and—as you have been taught72—they must accept the authority of the priests and judges who will be in office at that time even if they cannot compare with the priests and judges who came before them.)

18 The judges must investigate thoroughly, and if it is indeed determined that the witnesses are false witnesses, because they testified falsely against their brother,

19 then you must do to them what they plotted to do to their brother; you must thus eliminate this evil from your midst. An exception to this rule is if they accused a priest’s married daughter of adultery; in such a case, the false witnesses must suffer the punishment that would have been given to her alleged paramour (death by strangulation) rather than that which would have been given to her (death by burning).73

20 You must announce the sentence of these false witnesses publicly, so that those who remain—i.e., all other potential witnesses74will listen and fear, and thus they will no longer continue to commit any such evil thing among you.

21 You must not have pity on the false witnesses but exact from them the same punishment that would have been exacted from the defendant had he or she been declared guilty: the perjuring witnesses must pay with their lives for having caused the accused party to be sentenced to lose his life; they must pay the accused full monetary compensation for the loss of an eye if he was sentenced to pay monetary compensation for having caused the loss of an eye, and likewise—the monetary compensation of a tooth for a tooth, of a hand for a hand, andof a foot for a foot. In these latter cases, the false witnesses must pay the defendant the difference between the price the supposed victim would have commanded on the slave market before and after suffering the damage the defendant was accused of inflicting on him.75

Preparations for War

20:1 As you know, when you enter the Land of Israel, you are obligated to wage war against its present occupants, either killing them76 or driving them out of the land.77 If, at some future point, you deem it necessary to expand the borders of the Promised Land,78 you may, after consulting with God through His prophets or the urim and tumim,79 wage an optional war against your neighbors. In either case, when you go out to war, whether it be an obligatory or optional war,80 you must bear in mind that since you are contending against your enemies, who will show you no mercy if you fall into their hands, you must likewise not show them any mercy. Furthermore, you must be confident that God will assist you in your confrontation with them: If81 you see the enemy armies, then see them as God does—as easy to defeat as one single horse and one single chariot. And although the people in the enemy’s army may appear frighteningly numerous to you, in God’s eyes they are not frightening at all. Thus, you must not be afraid of them, for God, your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, is with you. The fact that you are resolutely dedicated to the pursuit of justice—as evidenced by how you are not afraid to punish false witnesses in the cases described above—assures you of God’s assistance in battle.

{Chasidic Insights? or Closer Look?: Mercy on Enemies}

2 However, you must first ensure that all those who are exempt from military service are either released from conscription or not conscripted in the first place. Firstly, anyone lacking a limb or organ is exempt.82 Secondly, all those who may not be able to summon their full courage in battle must not be allowed to fight. Therefore, when you—that is, those of you who have been conscripted into military service—are about to cross the border of the territory you control and approach the battlefield, the priest who has been designated and anointed with oil for the purpose of addressing the soldiers must approach and speak to the people. He must deliver this address in Hebrew.

3 He must say to them as follows: ‘Even if you have no collective merit other than that earned by reciting Hear, O Israel!—the Shema—twice a day, God will still help you. Today you are approaching the battle against your enemies. If they capture you, they will not show you mercy. Therefore, summon your courage for battle. You must not let your hearts become faint when you hear the neighing of their horses and the trampling of their horses’ hooves! You must not be afraid when you hear the clanging of their shields! You must not be alarmed when you hear the blast of their trumpets! And you must not be terrified of them when you hear their shouts!

4 For whereas they rely solely on human prowess, you have the protection of God, your God; He is the one who accompanies you, as evidenced by the continued presence of the Ark of the Covenant in the middle of your encampments and trekking formation. You may therefore confidently rely on Him to fight for you against your enemies, and to save you from them.’

5 The priest must then say the following in an undertone, and the law-enforcement officials must afterward speak to the people, saying out loud what the priest just said in an undertone: ‘Has anyone built a new house but has not yet inaugurated it by beginning to live in it? If so, he must go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man inaugurate it.’ The soldier’s anxiety over this possibility will prevent him from summoning his full courage in battle.

6 The priest—again in an undertone, followed by the officials out loud—must continue: ‘And has anyone planted a vineyard but has not yetredeemed it, that is, its fourth-year fruit,83 in order to eat of its fruit for the first time? If so, he must go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man redeem it.’ Here, too, the soldier’s anxiety over this possibility will prevent him from summoning his full courage in battle.

7 The priest—again in an undertone, followed by the officials out loud—must continue: ‘And has anyone betrothed a woman but has not yet taken her as a wife? If so, he must go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man take her in his stead.’ Once again, the soldier’s anxiety over this possibility will prevent him from summoning his full courage in battle.

8 The priest having finished his address, the officials must then add the following to the priest’s words, and speak to the people and say, ‘Is there anyone who is fearful and fainthearted—being afraid to do battle? If so, he must go and return to his house, so as not to cause the heart of his brothers to melt as his heart has melted.’ Fear is the most crucial reason for exemption from military service, since its contagiousness could enervate the entire army, and as such, it should have been announced first. But instead, it is announced last, in order to include those who become struck by fear only at the last minute, just before going into battle.

From another perspective, this final reason for exemption from service is addressed specifically and exclusively to those who are afraid that their sins will outweigh their merits, rendering them unworthy of Divine protection. In this context, when the priest announced at the outset that the soldiers must not be afraid of battle,84 those who were nonetheless afraid understood that if they cannot meet this condition they must return home, and no further exemption was necessary for them. God then excused the owner of a new house, the owner of a new vineyard, and the betrothed man from military service—not because they are subject to any anxiety that would undermines their ability to engage in combat, but so as not to embarrass the sinners from deserting the front, since their departure could be attributed to their belonging to one of the other three categories. In each of these three cases, the expression ‘lest he die in the war’ means that if such a soldier does not return from the front—because he thinks that his situation in no way undermines his ability to fight—he deserves to die in battle for not obeying the priest. The reason that the announcement regarding fear is pronounced last, in this context, is in order to protect the sinners: were it to be announced first, everyone else would see these people preparing already at that point to leave the battlefield, thus defeating the whole purpose of exempting the other three categories of soldiers.85

In any case, after the priests and officials finish their declarations, those who are exempted from combat duty leave the front and return home. Nonetheless, they are still required to supply the troops with water or food and repair the roads, as necessary.86

9 When the officials finish speaking to the people, they must appoint officers over the legions to stand at the head and at the rear of the people. It will be the job of these officers to deter deserters, encouraging them by saying, “Return to the battle and do not flee, for flight will lead to defeat!” and threatening to cut off their legs should they attempt to desert.

Laying Siege

Seventh Reading 10 If, in the course of an optional war,87 you approach a city to wage war against it, you must first propose peace to it according to the following terms:

11 If it responds to you with peace and opens up its gates to you, the terms are that all the people found therein both become tributary to you and serve you; they are not allowed to accept only one of these conditions. Even if you find there members of the seven nations whom you are commanded to exterminate,88 you may, in this case, allow them to live and become your servants.89

12 If the city does not make peace with you on these terms, you can be certain that it will eventually wage war against you if you leave it unconquered. You must therefore besiege it, and, if necessary, starve its inhabitants, make them suffer thirst, and kill them by spreading mortal diseases among them, until they surrender.

13 If you indeed offer this city peace and then besiege it if it refuses, God, your God, will deliver it into your hands, and you must then kill all its adult males by the sword.

14 However, the women, the children, the livestock, and everything that is in the city—all its spoils—you may take for yourself, and thus you will consume the spoils of your enemies that God, your God, will have given you.

15 You must do likewise to all the cities that are far from you, i.e., outside your borders, which are not one of the cities of these seven nations currently occupying the Promised Land.

16 It is only with regard to any of the cities of these seven peoples occupying the Promised Land, which God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, that you must not allow any soul within them to live once you have begun to besiege them.90

17 Rather, you must utterly destroy them—the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, and the Girgashites, as God, your God, has commanded you91

18 in order that they not teach you to act in accordance with all their abominations that they have performed for their deities, whereby you would be sinning against God, your God. If, however, members of these nations forsake their idolatrous ways and convert to Judaism, you may accept them and allow them to live. [Ger Toshav]

Before beginning to besiege them, however, you may propose peace to them—just as I did to Sichon92—although you are not required to do so, as you are in the case of an optional war.93

19 Returning to the laws of besieging a city outside the Promised Land: If94 you besiege such a city, you must begin the siege more than two days before the Sabbath, and repeat your offer of peace a few times during this period before you undertake to wage war against it in order to capture it. You must not destroy its fruit trees by wielding an ax against them, for since you may eat from them, you must not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, who is able to come into the besieged city, fleeing from you? Since it is not, you should not punish it.

20 However, you may destroy and cut down any tree that you know is not a food tree and use its wood to build a blockade against the city that makes war with you, keeping the city besieged until its submission.

Unsolved Murder

21:1 As you have been told,95 criminal bloodshed creates a collective guilt that devolves on the entire people—and on the very land itself—and this guilt must be atoned for. In the case of a witnessed intentional murder, the execution of the murderer atones for this guilt; in the case of a witnessed unintentional murder, the exile of the murderer to a city of refuge (or his execution by the blood-avenger) atones. It now remains to explain how the guilt of bloodshed is to be atoned for in the case of an unsolved murder.

If a slain person be found anywhere in the land that God, your God, is giving you to possess, lying in the field, andit is not known who slew him,

2 your elders and judges, i.e., the Sanhedrin, must go out to the site where the corpse was found and measure the distance from that site to the cities surrounding the corpse in all directions in order to ascertain which city is closest. This city must then collectively assume the responsibility for atoning for the guilt caused by the murder,96 as follows:

3 From the city closest to the corpse, the elders, i.e., the court, of that city must take a calf with which labor has never been performed and that has never drawn any load with a yoke,

4 and the elders of that city must bring the calf down to a virgin valley that has never been tilled or sown, and there in the valley, they must decapitate the calf with a hatchet.97 The death of the calf—too young to have borne offspring, and killed in a location that had never produced any yield and in a manner that disqualifies it for Jewish consumption98—will atone for the death of this slain person, whose life was cut short before he could fulfill all his potential.99

5 The Levitic priests of that city must also approach the decapitated calf, for God, your God, has chosen them to serve Him and to bless the people in the Name of God, and by their mouth must every controversy and every dermal lesion be judged.100

6 All the elders of that city, who were nearest to the corpse, must wash their hands over the calf that was decapitated in the valley,

Maftir 7 and must declare their innocence and say, ‘Our hands did not indirectly shed this blood by letting this person depart from our city without proper escort,101 for our eyes did not see him leave.’

8 The priests must then address God, saying, “Grant atonement for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, O God, and do not lay the guilt of this innocent blood upon your people Israel.” Thus the bloodguilt will be atoned for them.

9 Nevertheless, if the murderer is later found, you must still abolish the guilt of innocent blood from among you by sentencing him to death and executing him, for you must do what is proper in the eyes of God.”