Shoftim By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Shoftim (שופטים)
Torah: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah:  Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

Shoftim: The Constable’s Tale, 622 BCE

“You shall appoint judges and constables in all of the gates [of your settlements, in the Land] which the LORD your GOD is giving you, and they shall judge the people according to righteous judgment.”

–Deut. 16:18

My name is Bodek ben Zahir, and I am Shoter, or Constable, for the Village of Ein Yirah, Shechem Township, South Israel Judiciary—or Judah, I should say, begging your pardon, Stranger. I was born and raised here—lived here all my life; know every bush and tree, oasis, cameldriver encampment, and whatever maze of straw-and-mudbrick streets passes for a village, in these parts.

When our people, the Israelites, crossed over Jordan, ‘way back in General Joshua’s time—burned down the fortresses and totally exterminated the inhabitants, you say?—no, I wouldn’t say that—more like a gradual migration, it was—but the living wasn’t easy. The locals, the Canaanites, didn’t exactly respect us, nor we them; why, folks’d toss their garbage into one another’s yards. It was all due to old-school pagans living alongside us newfangled Israelite One-God worshipers—but I believe that we’ve gotten that all straightened out, now. Why, just last week, once King Josiah sent a couple of his runners down our way with a scribal copy of that new Devarim-Deuteronomy-Book, and I got Sholem the Scribe to read the “Civil Laws & Ordinances” Section to our citizenry—or to at least as many folk as I could round up from the downtown cattle rodeo and the local tavern. Anyways, things have settled down somewhat, betwixt us and the pagan folk.

It certainly helps that the local authorities appointed me as constable. I’m an easygoing sort, able to get along with people from all walks of life, and I have my trusty blackthorn staff by my side at all times. If things get rough, I have my mastiff, Barak; he’s a tough customer, and a good ‘un to have alongside me in a fight. But these farmers aren’t really warlike; the local Philistines are moving in a bit from their coastal settlements, but not all that much; they prefer a night raid, now and again, and then, the Colonel of the King’s Cavalry will send down a squad of charioteers, and they’ll raid the Philistines encampments over by the Great Sea. That’s all it is: attack-and-reprisal, attack-and-reprisal….I do hope to see things brought to a peaceful conclusion, before I die. Aye, well may you say “Amen” to that, Stranger; yes, May God be Willing, indeed!

But that has naught to do with me, y’see: I’m strictly Civil Law, Enforcement of. That’s what Yashar ben Mishpat, our South Judah District Magistrate, explained to me and the other Peace Officers—all of us constables, at our Graduation Ceremony in Beersheva, three years ago. He himself draped over us the official blue-and-gold cross-belts that we wear over our uniform tunics, with the motto, Tsedek Tsedek Tirdofe—“Justice, Justice shall you pursue”—and that alone, often, gets the job done. Say that a townsman has a dispute with the Torah-Law, and I appear—well, one glance at my cross-belt bearing that motto, that Symbol of Authority, that little quotation alone, will often settle the matter, then and there. Justice: hm. It’s a good feeling, enforcing Justice.

But it’s when two drunken citizens—not wrongdoers, mind you; just a farmer and a shepherd overjoyed about the good luck of their respective harvests—a good crop for the one, a good shearing-season for the other—when they’ve gotten into the old barley beer a bit too deeply, passed that happy feeling, and moved on to the fighting feeling—well, you know how that erupts, there in the Black Hole Tavern, in downtown Ein Yirah.

That’s when Tavern-Keeper Kayum ben Shikor jumps over his bar—a board hung over two largish stones, really—with a shepherd’s crook in his hands, and tries to separate them. He can’t do it; doesn’t have the upper-body-strength, really. And the two over-muscled peasants hold off their head-banging to grab Old Kayum, heave him back over the board, head over beer-jar, so to speak; he bangs his head, and sees stars.

“They’ll wreck my place of business,” cries Kayum, “Oh, help!”

So Kayum sends his boy, Tali, to fetch me, before the farmer and cowman can reduce his business to rubble. I come on the double, flash my cross-belt—it has gold threading on it, making it especially effective in low candle-light, but the tavern is a pit of blackness—and shoulder my way between the battlers. I tell you, the stench of their breath is a challenge, so it is.

“Here now, here now! Now, what’s all this?” I say, placing my blackthorn betwixt Farmer Evyasaf and Shepherd Shafrir, and pummeling them both about the face and shoulders with it—they, by this time, have grown tired of punching and fighting. I knock them apart, to neutral corners, so to speak, and demand that they explain themselves. Waving their arms, they start in to complaining about what t’other fellow said:


“He started insulting me, the sheep-shearing lout—“


“Nay, Brother Constable, but he said things about my wife—“


“I did no such thing! For you insinuated about my fine milch cow—“


“Cow? I thought it was your daughter….”


“Kayum ben Shikor!” I call to the Tavern-Keeper, who is crouched beneath his serving-board, waiting for peace to reign—“Thieving Purveyor of Harshest Drinks, Thou! Set up two Boilermakers for my friends here, and let them part as comrades—let farmer and herdsman dwell together in peace!”

Note that I shift the focus from the two battlers to the hapless barkeep, making all the assembled drinkers laugh, which shuts the two up, and makes them thirsty again. Kayum wisely tenders them cups of Phoenician 106-proof arak—that spirit will quiet down any feelings of fighting, no error.

I slip Tali-Boy ten perutote to fetch their wives or daughters to escort the topers home, and leave the premises in peace, listening to the farmer and the shepherd, arms around one another’s shoulders, singing lustily, “O Give Praise to the Lord, for He is good….” Just another night’s patrol; no, don’t thank me. It’s my job, after all.

As I depart Kayum’s Tavern, and set my steps to Headquarters to etch my report into a soft-clay tablet, I see the early-morning sun rising over the Tents of the Elders, there nigh the eastern side of our Simeonite tribal portion. Overall, ‘twas a quiet evening. Over on the next croft, I hear the ram’s-horn calling the faithful to early-morning prayer, asking God’s forgiveness, as we begin the Season of Repentance.

Have I much to repent of, to promise to improve? Doubtless I do, but performing my official duties well—that is, doing my job as a Peace Officer, is not one of them. (I stretch, and yawn.) Thank You, Lord! Please bless me, my dear wife, and our children—may it be a good, sweet year for all of us Israelites, yes, and our Philistine and Canaanite neighbors, as well. Good Night—or Good Morning, Stranger—and, Happy New Year!




Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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