Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates . . . (Deuteronomy 16:18)

The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. Here, too, it is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out, and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions . . .

(Siftei Kohen)

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Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates . . . (16:18)

Do not judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One.

(Ethics of Our Fathers 4:8)

Monetary matters are decided by a court of three judges . . . capital crimes by a tribunal of twenty-three judges. . . . From where is this derived? For it is written (Numbers 35:24–25): “The community shall judge . . . and the community shall save”—we need a community of judges arguing to convict the accused, and a community of judges arguing to exonerate him. Thus we have twenty (a “community” indicating a minimum of 10, as per Numbers 14:27). A conviction requires a majority of two (as per Exodus 23:2), and a court of law cannot have an even number of judges; thus we need twenty-three judges (22 so that there should be a majority of 2 over the 10 “saving” judges, and another judge so that the court should not be even-numbered).

(Talmud, Sanhedrin 2a–b)

Under Torah law, capital crimes are tried by a tribunal of 23 judges called a “Minor Sanhedrin.” After hearing the testimony of the witnesses, the judges themselves would split into two groups: those inclined to argue for the acquittal of the accused would serve as his “defense team” and seek to convince their colleagues of his innocence; those inclined to convict would make the case for his guilt. Then the judges would vote. A majority of one was sufficient to exonerate, while a majority of two was necessary to convict.

But what if all twenty-three judges form an initial opinion of guilt? What if the evidence is so compelling and the crime so heinous that not a single member of the tribunal chooses to argue in favor of the accused? In such a case, says Torah law, the accused cannot be convicted, and must be exonerated by the court.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the rationale behind this law as follows: No man is so utterly evil that there is nothing to be said in his defense. There is always some explanation, some justification, some perspective from which the underlying goodness of his soul can be glimpsed. This does not mean that he is going to be found innocent, in the legal sense, by a court of law: at times the “mitigating circumstances” result in a verdict of acquittal; at times they do not. But if not a single member of the court perceives the “innocent side” of the person standing accused before them, this a court that obviously has very little understanding of who he is and what he has done. Such a court has disqualified itself from passing judgment on him.


You shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the just (16:19)

As soon as [the judge] accepts a bribe from [a litigant], it is impossible for him not to be favorably disposed towards him.

(Rashi)

A person once brought Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha the “first shearings” (one of the 24 gifts given to a kohen). Said Rabbi Ishmael to him: “Where are you from?” Said he: “From this-and-this place.” Said Rabbi Ishmael: “And from there till here there was no kohen to whom you could give it?” Said he: “I have a matter of litigation, and I said to myself: as I’m coming here, I’ll give it to you.”

Rabbi Ishmael refused to accept it from him, and said to him: “I am disqualified to serve as a judge in your case.” Instead, he sat two Torah scholars to judge his case. While still going to and fro [and overhearing the litigation], Rabbi Ishmael said to himself: If he wanted, he could argue thus and thus [to better present his case].

Said he: “A curse upon the takers of bribes! I did not accept anything from him. And if I would have accepted it, it would have been something that is mine by rights. Nevertheless, I am inclined in his favor. How much more so one who accepts a bribe!”

(Talmud, Ketubot 105b)

A case once came before Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rebbe of Apta (1755–1825), when he served as a rabbinical judge in the town of Kolbasov. While the case was underway, he suddenly felt inclined in favor of one of the litigants, though his initial leaning was against him. This sudden change roused his suspicion that something was amiss, and he ordered a halt to the proceedings. Upon investigation, he discovered that someone had slipped a packet of money into his coat.

Said the Rebbe of Apta: Although I was totally unaware of the attempt to bribe me, my judgment was affected. How true are the words of the Torah that “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise”!

(Maayanah Shel Torah)

An impoverished widow once came to the beit din (courthouse) of the great sage Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutna. Weeping bitter tears, she begged him to summon to the court a man she accused of having wronged her.

Rabbi Yehoshua summoned the man to appear before the court, but referred the case to another rabbi, refusing to preside over it himself. “The Torah forbids the taking of bribes,” he explained. “Do you think that a bribe is only a gift of money? Tears can also be a bribe that ‘blinds the eyes of the wise’—especially the tears of a poor widow.”

(Maayanah Shel Torah)


Justice, justice shall you pursue (16:20)

Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in the pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just.

(Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)


Justice, justice shall you pursue (16:20)

By virtue of three things the world endures: law, truth and peace.

(Ethics of Our Fathers 1:18)

The three are one and the same: if the law is upheld, there is truth and there is peace.

(Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:2)

A judge who judges with absolute truth becomes a partner with G‑d in creation.

(Talmud, Shabbat 10a)


You shall not plant for yourself an asherah, any tree, near the altar of G‑d (16:21)

This verse includes two prohibitions: not to plant an asherah (idolatrous) tree anywhere; and not to plant any tree, or build any wooden structure, on the Temple Mount.

(Sifri; Rashi)

To seek to beautify the Holy Temple by planting trees around it is an insult to the holiness of the place, whose beauty derives from itself and not from external “landscaping.”

This also explains the Talmud’s statement (Sanhedrin 7a) that the reason that the Torah places this law immediately following the law regarding the appointment of judges is to teach us that “whoever appoints an unqualified judge it is as if he planted an asherah near the altar.” Often, we see people appointed to positions of authority because of their external appearance, charm and oratorical prowess, instead of their knowledge, integrity and fear of heaven . . .

(Even HaAzel)


By the mouth of two witnesses or three witnesses (17:6)

The testimony of two witnesses constitutes absolute proof; in this, two witnesses are like a hundred.

(Talmud)


If a matter eludes you in judgment . . . then you shall rise and go . . . to the judge who will be in those days (17:8–9)

Can a person then go to a judge who is not in his days? . . . This is to teach us that although this judge may not be of the same stature as other judges who preceded him, you must listen to him, for you have only the judge who lives in your time. . . . Samuel in his generation is like Yiftach in his generation. (Samuel is regarded as the greatest of the prophets, equal to Moses and Aaron together; Yiftach, who served as Judge from 980–974 BCE, came from a lowly background and was guilty of many failings.)

(Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 25b; Rashi)


According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not diverge from the word they tell you, either right or left (17:11)

Even if this judge tells you that right is left and that left is right. How much more so, if he tells you that right is right and left is left!

(Sifri; Rashi)

Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, known as “The Noda B’Yehudah” after his work by that name, served as the rabbi of Prague from 1754 to 1793. Once a group of scholars who wished to contest his rabbinic qualifications presented him with a series of questions in Torah law. These fictitious “cases” were artfully constructed to be as complex and as misleading as possible, so as to ensnare the rabbi in their logical traps and embarrass him with an incorrect ruling.

The Noda B’Yehudah succeeded in resolving all the questions correctly—all, that is, but one. Immediately his detractors pounced on him, demonstrating how his verdict contradicted a certain principle of Torah law.

Said the Noda B’Yehudah: “I am certain that this case is not actually relevant, and that you have invented it in order to embarrass me.”

When questioned how he could know this with such certainty, he explained: “You see, whenever a being of flesh and blood is called upon to decide a matter of Torah law, we are confronted with a basic dilemma: How can the human mind possibly determine what is G‑d’s will? The dos and don’ts of Torah are the guidelines by which the Almighty desires that we order our lives. How is it that the finite and error-prone intellect is authorized to decide such divine absolutes?

“But the Torah itself instructs that the ‘Torah is not in heaven’ but has been given to man to study and comprehend, and that whenever a question or issue is raised, it is a human being, employing his finite knowledge and judgment, who must render a ruling. In other words, when a person puts aside all considerations of self and totally surrenders his mind to serve the Torah, G‑d guarantees that the result will be utterly consistent with His will.

“However,” concluded the Noda B’Yehudah, “this guarantee applies only to actual events, when a rabbi is called upon to determine what it is that G‑d desires to be done under a given set of circumstances; but not if his personal honor is the only issue at hand. Had you presented me with a relevant question, I know that I would not have erred, since I approached the matter with no interest or motive other than to serve the will of G‑d. But since your case was merely a hypothetical question designed to mislead me, my mind was just like every other mind, great and small alike—imperfect and manipulable.”

(Told by the Lubavitcher Rebbe)

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It will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll . . . (17:18)

The king has two Torah scrolls: one that is placed in his treasury, and the other that comes and goes with him.

(Talmud; Rashi)

If the ordinary person needs one Torah scroll, a king needs two: because of his greatness, he has a greater need to be reminded of the higher authority to which he must submit.

(Yalkut David)


There shall not be found among you . . . a soothsayer, a diviner of times, one who interprets omens, a sorcerer, a charmer, an ov sorcerer, a yid’oni sorcerer or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to G‑d (18:10–12)

A soothsayer is one who takes his rod in his hand and says [as though to consult it], “Shall I go, or shall I not go?”

A diviner of times: According to Rabbi Akiva, these are people who determine the times, saying, “Such-and-such a time is good to begin a venture.” The [other] sages say, however, that this refers to those who “catch the eyes” [i.e., they deceive by creating optical illusions].

One who interprets omens—e.g., bread falling from his mouth, a deer crossing his path, or his stick falling from his hand.

Charmer: One who collects snakes, scorpions or other creatures into one place.

Ov sorcerer: The sorcerer raises the spirit of the dead, and it speaks from the sorcerer’s armpit.

Yid’oni sorcerer: The sorcerer inserts a bone of the animal called yido’a into his mouth, and the bone speaks by means of sorcery.

A necromancer is one who raises the dead spirit upon his membrum, or one who consults a skull.

(Talmud, Sanhedrin 65b)


Be wholehearted with G‑d (18:13)

Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him, and do not seek to manipulate the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with simplicity, and then you will be with Him and to His portion.

(Sifri; Rashi)

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When G‑d expands your boundaries, as He swore to your forefathers, and He gives you all the land of which He spoke to give to your forefathers . . . you shall add three more cities for yourself, in addition to these (19:8–9)

The Torah attests to the coming of Moshiach. . . . Also, regarding the “cities of refuge” it is written: “When G‑d expands your boundaries . . . you shall add three more cities.” This never yet came to pass, and G‑d did not command it in vain.

(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11:1–2)

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When you approach the battle, the kohen shall approach and speak to the people: “. . . Hear, O Israel, today you are approaching the battle against your enemies” (20:2–3)

These are not your brothers, for if you fall into their hands, they will not have pity on you. This is not like the war of Judah with Israel, of which the verse states, “The men who were mentioned by name rose up and took hold of the captives, and clothed all their nakedness from the spoils, and they dressed them and shod them, fed them and gave them to drink, and anointed them, and led them on donkeys, every feeble one, and they brought them to Jericho, the city of the palms, beside their brothers, and they returned to Samaria” (II Chronicles 28:15). You, however, are going against your enemies; therefore strengthen yourselves for battle.

(Talmud, Sotah 42a; Rashi)


Is there a man who built a house . . . who planted a vineyard . . . who betrothed a woman . . . (20:5–7)

[The order in which the Torah lists these actions teaches us] that a person of character should first find work that earns him a livelihood, then build himself a house, and after that marry. . . . [Not like] the fools who first get married; then, if they can afford it, buy a house; and toward the end of their lives start looking for a job or live off charity . . .

(Maimonides)


When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them (20:19)

One who breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or disposes of food in a ruinous manner, transgresses the prohibition of lo tashchit.

(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:10)

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A body . . . lying in the field (21:1)

[One] who encounters a met mitzvah is obligated to bury it. . . . What is a met mitzvah? The body of a Jew abandoned by the wayside that has no one to bury it. . . . Even a kohen gadol (high priest, who is forbidden all contact with the dead, even his own parent or spouse) is obligated to become ritually impure and bury it.

(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 3:8)


Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see (21:7)

But would it enter one’s mind that the elders of the court are murderers? Rather, [they declare:] We did not see him and let him depart without food or escort.

(Talmud, Sotah 45a)

The principle behind the law of eglah arufah is that a person is also responsible for what occurs outside of his domain—outside of the areas where he is fully in control. When a murdered traveler is found out in the field, the elders of the nearest city must go out there and bring the eglah arufah to atone for the crime, although it occurred “outside of their jurisdiction”; for it was nevertheless their responsibility to send the traveler off with adequate provision and protection.

The same applies on the personal level in all areas of life. A person never has the right to say, “This is outside of my element. I have no obligation to deal with this.” If it is something that, by divine providence, one has been made aware of, that means that there is something one can, and must, do to positively influence the end result.

(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)