parasha

Shoftim 5779

The Court and the Temple
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
Last week, in Parashat Re’eh, we read about the importance of “the place that the Lord, your G-d, chooses”, the Temple, the only place where sacrifices are permitted, the place which should be visited three times a year

, and the place where one should eat the tithe taken from the field’s harvest. In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we read about how the governing bodies should operate: the court system, legislation, monarchy, policing, and more. And then again, we are suddenly told again about “the place the Lord will choose”:

“If a matter eludes you in judgment…words of dispute in your cities, then you shall rise and go up to the place the Lord, your G-d, chooses. And you shall come to the Levitic kohanim and to the judge who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgment. And you shall do according to the word they tell you, from the place the Lord will choose, and you shall observe to do according to all they instruct you.
(Deuteronomy 17, 8-10)

In the Jewish state outlined in the Torah, the “supreme court” that handles complicated legal disputes is in a very special place - the Temple!

Indeed, when the Mishna describes the structure of the Temple, part of it was a court that during certain periods was called the Sandhedrin (a term borrowed from Greek).

“There were six chambers in the courtyard, three on the north and three on the south…On the south were the wood chamber, the chamber of the exile and the chamber of hewn stones… In the chamber of hewn stone the great Sanhedrin of Israel used to sit and judge…”
(Mishna Middot, 5)

In another mishna, we learn that in the area of the Temple Mount, which had the Temple at its center, there were three courts:

“Three courts of law were there, one situated at the entrance to the Temple Mount, another at the door of the [Temple] court, and the third in the Chamber of Hewn Stone… If [this second court] had heard [a ruling on the matter] they state it; if not, they all proceed to the great court of the Chamber of Hewn Stone from whence instruction issued to all Israel.”
(Mishna Sanhedrin, 11)

According to this week’s Torah portion and what is described in the mishna, the Temple was as much a judicial center as it was a ritual one. This historical fact that links the Temple with the courts teaches us about the character of the Temple and about the character of the court.

We are used to considering judicial legislation a purely societal practice. People need laws and need to be judged by these laws in order to get along. But Judaism sees the legal sphere as something religious, connected in its essence to the Temple. Justice is a matter for the Creator of the Universe, and therefore laws must be just, and judges deal with the application of just principles in people’s lives. At the beginning of Deuteronomy (1, 17), it says: “…for the judgment is upon the Lord”, and according to Nachmanides, this means that the true judge in any dispute is G-d and judges are merely His substitutes.

This relationship between the court and the Temple works in reverse as well. In a society that lacks justice, there is no value to a temple. The prophets taught us this repeatedly. In the words of Isaiah: “Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord… who requested this of you, to trample My courts?... Wash, cleanse yourselves…cease to do evil… seek justice!” (Isaiah 1, 11-17). Or in the words of Jeremiah’s admonitions: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery… And will you come and stand before Me in this house, upon which My name is called, and say, ‘We are saved’?” (Jeremiah 7, 9-11). Justice is what allows for worship in the Temple!

What we see is that the Temple offers validity to the court and the court that judges justly allows for worship in the Temple.

Judaism does not accept the separation between the values of justice and those of holiness and worship. On the contrary, the integration of the creation of a just society with sacrificing offerings in the Temple is the ideal state to which the Torah guides us.

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