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A Brief History of the Shoftim

Parsha Halacha - Parshat Shoftim

A Brief History of the Shoftim

Co-sponsored by Yaakov Schroeder in Memory of his Father, Saran ben Yaakov (Av 30), his Uncle, Harry ben Yaakov (Av 30), and his Grandmother, Ada Riva bas Yosef HaKohen (Av 25). And by Mr. and Mrs. Michoel Lozenik.

Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner and Dr. Morton Berg in loving memory of Stephen's father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella's parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.

Click here for a print version of this article 

Shoftim, which is the name of this Torah portion, means “Judges.” It refers to the mitzvah to appoint a system of judges for the Jewish people. The terms “Shoftim” can also refer to the leaders of the Jewish people who lived between the time of Yehoshua bin Nun and the prophet Samuel. These Shoftim were both religious leaders who would judge the people according to the Torah’s laws as well as military leaders who led them in battle against their enemies. This article will discuss these leaders and some details about their lives.

A List of the Shoftim

Here is a list of the shoftim with some biographical information, in chronological order.

1)     Otniel ben Kenaz from the tribe of Yehudah. He was Kalev ben Yefuneh’s maternal half-brother. He also married his niece, Kalev’s daughter Achsah. He was a great Torah scholar who restored many laws which had been forgotten after Moshe passed away. He judged the people for 40 years and defeated the Aramean king, Kushan Rishatayim.[1]

2)     Ehud ben Geira from the tribe of Binyamin. He was a brilliant Torah scholar and a left-handed swordsman who killed Eglon, the king of Moav, and defeated the Moabites in battle. He led the Jewish people for eighty years.[2]

3)     Shamgar ben Anat was from the tribe of Shimon. He judged the Jewish people for one year and led them in battle against the Philistines.[3]

4)     Yael, wife of Chever HaKeni, is mentioned in the Song of Devorah as having been a leader of the Jewish people during the time of Shamgar.[4]

5)     Devorah, the prophetess, wealthy wife of Lapidot and …

6)     Barak ben Avinoam together led the Jewish people in battle against the Canaanite king Yavin and his general Sisra. Devorah and Barak were from the tribe of Naftaly. Devorah was a wealthy woman who judged the Jewish people for 40 years. Some say that Devorah was married to Barak.[5]

7)     Gideon ben Yoash from Ofra in the tribe of Menashe. He excelled in the mitzvah of honoring his father. He led the Jewish people in battle against the Midianites while also judging them for 40 years.[6]

8)     Avimelech was the son of Gideon by his concubine. He killed 69 of his 70 brothers in order to become the next leader of the Jewish people. He was the only shofet who was the son of the previous shofet and also the only wicked one but he still fought against the enemies of the Jewish people. After a three-year dictatorship plagued by infighting, he was killed in battle by a woman who hurled a millstone down on him from the tower that he and his men were besieging.[7]

9)     Tolah ben Puah from the tribe of Yissachar may have been Avimelech’s cousin. He was a righteous leader who judged the Jewish people for 23 years. [8]

10) Yair HaGiladi from the tribe of Menashe judged the Jewish people for 22 years. He had 30 sons and built 30 cities.[9]

11) Yiftach HaGiladi from the tribe of Menashe judged the Jewish people for six years and led them in battle against the Ammonites. He is faulted for sacrificing his daughter (or secluding her in a monastery) because of a vow he had made. In addition, after his victory over the Ammonites, he fought against the tribe of Efrayim which resulted in the deaths of 42,000 members of that tribe.[10]

12) Ivtzan of Beit Lechem from the tribe of Yehudah had 30 sons and 30 daughters. He judged the people for seven years. Some identify him as Boaz.[11]

13) Eylon HaZevuloni of the tribe of Zevulun judged the Jewish people for ten years.[12]

14) Avdon ben Hillel from Piraton in Mount Efrayim had 40 sons and 30 grandsons who were all considered important men. He judged the Jewish people for eight years.[13]

15) Shimshon, son of Manoach, from the tribe of Dan. He was a Nazirite from the time he was in utero who killed thousands of Philistines while judging the Jewish people for 20 years.[14]

16) Eily, the Kohen Gadol (high priest), judged the Jewish people for 40 years until he died when he fell backwards upon hearing that his sons had been killed in battle and the ark of the L-rd had been captured.[15]

17) Shmuel HaNavi led the Jewish people in battle against the Phillistines and judged the Jewish people for 10 years,then anointing the first king, King Saul, and the next leader, King David.[16]

Grouped by Tribe

The Talmud says[17] that each one of the 12 tribes had at least one Shofet (judge) who descended from their tribe. As such, here is a list of the shoftim according to the tribes

●      It is unknown who descended from Reuven.

●      Shamgar ben Anat was from the tribe of Shimon.

●      Eily HaKohen and Shmuel HaNavi were from the tribe of Yehudah.

●      Otniel ben Kenaz and Ivtzan were from the tribe of Yehudah.

●      Tola ben Puah was from the tribe of Yissachar.

●      Eilon HaZevuloni was from the tribe of Zevulun.

●      Shimshon was from the tribe of Dan.

●      Devorah, the prophetess, and Barak ben Avinoam were from the tribe of Naftaly.

●      It is unknown who was from the tribe of Gad and Asher.

●      Gideon, Avimelech, Yair HaGiladi and Yiftach were from the tribe of Menashe.

●      Avdon ben Hillel was from the tribe of Efrayim.

●      Ehud ben Geira was from the tribe of Binyamin.

Yael the wife of Chever may have been from the Kini clan like her husband. This family descended from Yitro, Moshe Rabeinu’s father in law.

Grouped by Years of Leadership

Here is a list of the Shoftim according to how long they served as leaders.

●      Ehud ben Geira led for 80 years.

●      Otniel ben Kenaz, Devorah, the prophetess, Gideon and Eily HaKohen all led for 40 years.

●      Tola ben Puah led for 23 years.

●      Yair HaGiladi led for 22 years.

●      Shimshon led for 20 years

●      Eylon HaZevuloni and Shmuel HaNavi led for 10 years.

●      Avdon ben Hillel led for eight years.

●      Ivtzan led for seven years.

●      Yiftach HaGiladi led for six years.

●      Avimelech led for three years.

●      Shamgar ben Anat led for one year.

Grouped by Number of Children

In terms of the number of children that the Shoftim had, that we know of, here is a list in descending order.

●      Gideon had 71 sons. (Please note that in those days, it was permissible to have more than one wife. This was fairly common among people in leadership positions such as royalty.)

●      Ivtzan had 60 children. According to the opinion that Ivtzan was Boaz, he had 61 children. (Oved was the 61st.)

●      Avdon ben Hillel had 40 sons.

●      Yair HaGiladi had 30 sons.

●      Eily HaKohen had two sons, Chofni and Pinchas.[18]

●      Shmuel Hanavi had two sons, Yoel and Aviyah.[19]

●      Yiftach HaGiladi had one daughter.

●      We don’t know about the children of Otniel ben Kenaz, Ehud ben Geira, Shamgar ben Anat, Yael,[20] Barak and Devorah, Avimelech, Tolah ben Puah, Eylon HaZevuloni, and Shimshon.

Grouped by Adversaries

●      Otniel ben Kenaz fought against the Arameans.

●      Ehud ben Geira fought against the Moabites.

●      Barak ben Avinoam, Devorah the Prophetess and Yael the wife of Chever fought against the Canaanites. 

●      Gideon ben Yoash fought against the Midianites.

●      Yiftach HaGiladi fought against the Amonites.

●      Shamgar ben Anat, Shimshon, the sons of Eily HaKohen and Shmuel HaNavi fought against the Philistines.

●      There are no battles (with gentile nations) mentioned regarding Avimelech, Tolah ben Puah, Yair HaGiladi, Ivtzan, Eylon HaZevuloni, and Avdon ben Hillel.

Grouped by Amount of Text Devoted to them

Here is a list of the Shoftim in terms of how many chapters or verses are devoted to them in the books of Shoftim and I Shmuel.

1)     Shmuel HaNavi – 20 chapters (I Samuel 5 – 25)

2)     Shimshon – 4 chapters (Shoftim 13 – 16)

3)     Eily HaKohen – 4 chapters (I Samuel 1 – 4)

4)     Gideon – 3 chapters (Shoftim 6 – 8) 

5)     Devorah, the prophetess, (and Barak ben Avinoam) – 2 chapters (Shoftim 4 – 5)

6)     Yiftach - 1.5 chapters (Shoftim 11 and 12:1 – 7) 

7)     Avimelech – 1 chapter (Shoftim 9)

8)     Ehud ben Geira – 19 verses (Shoftim 3:12-30)

9)     Otniel ben Kenaz – 5 verses (Shoftim 3:7 – 11)

10) Yael - 5 verses (Shoftim 4:18-22 and 5:6)

11) Yair HaGiladi – 3 verses (Shoftim 10:3-3)

12) Ivtzan – 3 verses (Shoftim 12:8-10)

13) Avdon ben Hillel – 3 verses (Shoftim 12:13-15)

14) Eylon HaZevuloni - 2 verses (Shoftim 12:11-12)

15) Tolah ben Puah – 2 verses (Shoftim 10:1-2) 

16) Shamgar ben Anat – 2 verses (Shoftim 3:31 and 5:6)

Differences and Similarities to the Kings

In his introduction to the book of Shoftim, the Abarbanel lists five ways in which the Shoftim were similar to the kings and five ways in which they were different.[21]

Five Similarities

Here are the five similarities between the Shoftim and the kings.

1)     Both were appointed by the Beit Din (high court)[22] and accepted willingly by the Jewish people.[23]

2)     Both led in military matters and in judging the people.[24]

3)     Both had the right to exercise extra-judicial justice. This can be seen from how Gideon punished the men of Sukkot and Penuel (Judges 8:16-17) and how King David killed the Amalekite who claimed to have killed King Saul (II Samuel 1:15).

4)     It was mandatory to treat both of these kinds of leaders with respect. One who did not was deserving of capital punishment.[25]

5)     Just as one king immediately succeeded the previous king, similarly the Shoftim served as leaders sequentially, without any time separating their periods of leadership.

Five Differences

Here are the five differences between the Shoftim and the kings.

1)     Kings were anointed by prophets unless they were taking over from their fathers’ rule and there was no disagreement about the transfer of power. The Shoftim were not anointed.[26]

2)     The Shoftim would judge the people using the Torah’s laws. The kings’ judgments, on the other hand, were always extra-judicial while the Sanhedrin who served concurrently with each king would rule according to the Torah’s laws.[27]

3)     The king has special mitzvot that apply to him as enumerated in our Torah portion (Deut 17:16-19), that is, he may not have too many wives or horses, may not amass wealth, and must write a Torah scroll which he needs to carry with him wherever he goes. These mitzvot do not apply to the Shoftim.

4)     The king has the right to tax the people and is supposed to receive special treatment in various ways.[28]

5)     The kingship is passed onto the children of the king. This did not apply to the Shoftim (with the exception of Avimelech who took the position by force).

May the prophecy of Isaiah be fulfilled,[29] “And I will restore your judges as they were originally and your advisors as they were in the beginning!”

[1] See Judges 1:13 and 3:9-12, Sotah 11bTemurah 16a, and Radak on Gen. 49:9.

[2] See Judges 3:15-30, Bereshit Rabati on Gen. 49:27 and Seder Olam Rabbah 12.

[3] Judges 3:31 and Midrash Tehillim 90 as understood by Chidushei HaRadal

[4] Judges 5:6. See Metzudot David and here

[5] Judges 4:4-5:31 with Radak, Targum Yonatan on Judges 4:5, Yalkut HaMachiri on Psalms 22:1. But see Judges 4:5 which seems to indicate that she was from the tribe of Efrayim.

[6] Judges 6:11 – 8:32 with Malbim, and Targum Yonatan on Deut. 33:17

[7] Judges 8:31 - 9:5 and Radak on 10:1

[8] Judges 10:1 with Radak, but See Malbim

[9] Judges 10:3-4. See here

[10] Judges chapters 11 and 12, Midrash Tanchumah on Parshat Bechukotai 5Ralbag on Judges 11:31

[11] Judges 12:8 – 10 and Bava Batra 91a

[12] Judges 12:11 and 12

[13] Ibid verses 13 - 15

[14] Ibid., 13:2 – 16:31

[15] I Samuel 1:3 to 4:18

[16] 1 Samuel 7:3chapters 8 and 9 and 25:1Nazir 5a and Bamidbar Rabbah 3:8

[17] Sukkah 27b. See Yalkut Shimoni on Nach, 42.

[18] I Samuel 1:3

[19] I Samuel 8:2

[20] Some say that Yael became pregnant from Sisra and that her baby was an ancestor of Rabbi Akiva (see Gittin 57bSanhedrin 96b, Chida in Marit Ha’Ayin on Gittin ibid).

[21] Some of the sources for this section come from Nachalat Shimon vol. 1 on Shoftim, siman 1.

[22] Regarding judges, he derives this from the verse (Judges 2:16) that “G-d established the Shoftim” i.e., the court which represented the will of G-d.

As far as kings, the verse in this Torah portion (Deut. 17:16) indicates that the people should place the kings upon themselves.

[23] See ibid 8:22 where the Jewish people said to Gideon ‘You rule over us.” Similar wording is found regarding Yiftach (ibid 11:11).

[24] Regarding the Shoftim most of them led in military campaigns and are described as judging the people. Although in some cases there is no mention of one or the other, that is simply because one of these functions was not necessary at that time. But they had the ability to do both.

In terms of the kings, see I Samuel, 8:20 “And he will judge us and fight our wars.”

[25] See our Torah portion (Deut. 17:12) that “A man who willfully does not listen to… the judge… that man will die.” Regarding kings, see Joshua 1:18 “Whoever disobeys your words… shall die.” See Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 1:3 that Yehoshua was considered a king. See Likutei Sichot vol. 23 pg. 190 and on, as to why Yehoshua wasn’t anointed.

[26] Keritut 5b

[27] See our Torah portion (Deut. 16:18) “And they shall judge the people with a fair judgment.”

[28] See I Samuel 8:11 – 17, Sanhedrin 22a and 20b.

[29] Isaiah 1:26

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom a Chodesh Tov and Ktiva VaChatima Torah!

Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784