by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
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Parashas Shoftim(66)This week's sedra focuses on the civil law and the Sanhedrin judges' obligation to judge all cases justly.
Deut: 17: 11
"According to the Torah which they instruct you and upon the law that they state to you, you are to act. Do not deviate from the word they tell you right or left."
Right or left Rashi: Even if he tells that right is left or that left is right. And certainly if he tells that right is right and that left is left.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi seems to say a very strange thing. He tells us that we are obligated to heed our judges even when they tell us something so outlandish as that right is left.
Let us try to understand this comment.
To get an idea of what prompted Rashi to make this comment, compare our verse about "right and left" with two other verses. Look ahead a few verses to verse 17:20 and back to verse 5:29.
Do you see any difference in wording between our verse and those verses?
Note also that on those verses Rashi has no comment about deviating to the right or to the left. Why?
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: Only in our verse does it say "that which they tell you , do not deviate....."
Why this difference? What is its significance and its difference from the other verses?
An Answer: Only our verse stresses the Jew's obligation to heed the judges' rulings "which they tell you". The other verses just say do not deviate right or left from the Torah, while here the focus is on obeying the judges' decisions.
This would seem to be the reason that Rashi makes his comment.
But we can still ask about this comment.
A Question: How can we be asked to follow blindly the judges even when the matter seems to be as black and white as knowing our left from our right? And when it says "even if he tells us right is left" that implies that we know what "right" is, so how can we forget and forego what we know and do the opposite? If you say: "Yes, he must relinquish his own knowledge in favor of what he is told," that means that man cannot rely on his own mind. But we know that a person does rely on his own mind if only when he chooses which Rav to ask. Or when he decides to accept the Sanhedrin as his authority. So it is not so simple to ignore one's own reasoning - especially when matters seem to be black & white.
A difficult question. Have you an answer?
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
An Answer: The commentaries on Rashi (Ramban included) explain the meaning as follows: Even if the matter is as clear in your mind as the difference between right and left, nevertheless follow what they teach you. Even if you think they're wrong, follow their decision. In this case "right" could refer to "permissible" and "left" to 'forbidden". Thus if you think what is permissible they say is forbidden or vice versa nevertheless act according to their decision.
A QUESTION OF TERMINOLOGY
A Question Why do you think Rashi ( i.e. the midrash) used the words "right" and "left" and not "black" and "white."
An Answer: I would say that the choice of "right" and "left" is significant. Just as "right" and "left" are relative terms and not objective facts, they depend on where you're standing and the point from which you are viewing matters, so too in the case of halacha it depends on your viewpoint. And the Judge's a viewpoint is more valid that the individual's.
A YET DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
A Question: Why is this the case? Why, if a man thinks a piece of meat is not kosher and the Sanhedrin thinks it is kosher, that the person is commanded to eat it? Why can't he refrain and choose the stricter interpretation?
A BASIC PRINCIPLE OF THE ORAL LAW
An Answer: This is a basic principle of the Oral law. The Sanhedrin's decision (or any Jewish court of law) is the real law - even if it differs from reality. We find this to be case in determining when the month begins, when we declare the New Moon and a new month. We find this also in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) where the Rabbis disagreed with a voice from Heaven (apparently going against G-d's judgment ) and the Talmud says that G-d rejoiced on that day! Meaning the Torah, once given to Israel on Mt. Sinai, is in their hands to decide as they see fit.
Therefore each Jew must follow their decision, because it is automatically correct according to the Torah' law, and a person should not follow what he thinks is right even if in fact it may be more objectively correct.
"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi." The 5 Volume set is available at all Jewish bookstores.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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