Summary: After receiving the dismembered parts of the concubine in Gibeah, the tribes gather to find out what happened. When the Levite man related the incident, the rest of the tribes responded by demanding that the culprits be punished. The tribe of Benjamin refused to cooperate, sparking civil war which caused tens of thousands of deaths on both sides. In the aftermath, the other tribes swore not to marry their daughters into the tribe of Benjamin making their tribe the pariah among Israel.
A deeper look: The effects of the people’s zealous action against the tribe of Benjamin were beginning to show. Not only had the Benjamite tribe been devastated by war, but the survivors had become ostracised. The remaining tribes realised that they could not allow one of their brothers to face extinction (Judges 21:17). The people relented and resolved to allow their daughters to marry into Benjamin once again.
They directed the surviving Benjamite men to Shiloh and told them to wait in the vineyards. An annual festival was approaching so they instructed the men that if the young maidens of Shiloh came out to dance, they could each choose a wife from the maidens.
The 16th century Rabbi Shmuel Laniado notes that since these women had grown up near the site of the tabernacle they would have been inspired to righteousness. In turn, their positive influence would turn these Benjamite men back to God. Yet the men are instructed to ‘grab’ their wives from the group of dancing girls (ibid. 21:21). Aside from this rather unchivalrous behaviour, it is forbidden to force someone into marriage unwillingly.
In Jacob’s blessings to his sons, he blesses Benjamin as a זאב יטרף, ‘a wolf that grabs’ (Genesis 49:27). Rashi links that phrase to this incident implying that it describes the positive change made in the tribe of Benjamin. They ‘grabbed’ the opportunity to marry righteous women and begin their journey of repentance.
The Book of Judges therefore ends on a positive note reminding us of the virtues of righteous Jewish women, an apt introduction to the Book of Samuel and his righteous mother, Hannah.
Summary: The last two sections of the Book of Judges describe the profoundly shocking events relating to the Pilegesh b’Givah, the Concubine of Gibeah. A concubine from Bethlehem who was married to Levite man fled back to her father’s house. After winning her back, the Levite man journeyed home together with his servant and stayed in the town of Gibeah with a visiting Ephraimite. A rabble of local Benjamites surrounded the house and demanded that the owner surrender the Levite man so they could sodomise him. The Levite man thrust his concubine at the baying crowd who repeatedly raped her. By morning she had collapsed and died from her ordeal.
A deeper look: The chapter begins by repeating a theme at the end of the Book of Judges which begins to explain the lawlessness that had gripped the Jewish people; ‘in those days there was no king in Israel (Judges 19:1).’ The 17th century Galacian rabbi David Altschuler notes that had the people lived under the authority of a king, prospective perpetrators would never have dared carrying out such debased acts for fear of punishment.
Following the tragic death of his concubine, the Levite man sliced her body into twelve pieces and sent one to each of the tribes. This gruesome act was a cri de coeur designed to elicit outrage and horror among the other tribes at the behaviour of these Benjamite men. Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1732) notes the additional significance to the concubine’s dismemberment. The Jewish people are like one body with each tribe representing a separate limb. The immoral, perverted conduct of the Benjamintes indicated grave division among the tribes. Since a human body requires all its parts to function properly, so too each tribe must conduct itself in accordance with Torah law.
The Midrash comments that God is only King over the Tribes of Israel when they are unified in peace (Sifrei 33:5). Highlighting the lack of a Jewish monarch at the beginning of the chapter was true in a historical sense but the Sifrei points to a deeper meaning. Through disunity the Jewish people had lost their connection to the Ultimate King of kings resulting in anarchy and carnage.
Summary: The penultimate section of the Book of Judges describes the story of Micah who set up idols in his house and appointed his son to serve them. He additionally employed a travelling Levite to serve as a priest. The tribe of Dan dispatched five spies in search of new territory and spent the night in Micah’s house. After the Levite ‘priest’ confirmed the success of their campaign, they relayed the message back triggering the dispatch of 600 Danite warriors to the city of Laish. They kidnapped Micah’s priest and idolatrous temple and following their victory established them in their new city.
A deeper look: The Gemara notes that Micah is initially described as Michayhu (Judges 17:1,4) including letters from God’s name, implying that he had originally been a righteous man (Sanhedrin 103b).
He stole a vast amount of money from his mother, only to return it on hearing her curse the thief who took it. Worried that her curse would still be effective against her own son, Micah’s mother blesses him in the name of God, without admonishing him for the original theft (ibid. 17:2).
Not only does Micah’s mother fail to rebuke him for the original theft, she actively encourages his rebellion against God. The character of Micah’s generation is captured by the phrase ‘In those days there was no judge in Israel; a man would do whatever seemed appropriate in his eyes’ (ibid. 17:6). Rabbi David Kimche (d. 1235) notes that this lack of leadership and role modelling is what caused the righteous such as Micah to fall so far.
Given the gravity of Micah’s sin, it is surprising to learn that despite serving idols he merited a place in heaven on account of his generous hospitality to guests (Sanhedrin 103b).
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yosef Reischer (d. 1733) explained that when Abraham was speaking to God he interrupted his discussion to welcome three desert travellers (Genesis 18:3). From here our sages learn that hospitality to guests is greater than welcoming the Shechinah,theDivine presence (Shabbat 127a). If idol worship spurns the Shechinah, then hospitality to others offers the perfect antidote.
Summary: Samson travelled to Gaza where he consorted with a harlot after which tore out the city gates. He met a woman called Delilah who was employed by the Philistine leaders to discover the source of his strength. After three failed attempts, Delilah eventually coaxed the truth out of Samson that due to his Nazirite oath, his hair had never been cut. She lulled him to sleep so the Philistine men could shave his head. When he awoke, they overpowered him and gouged out his eyes before throwing him into prison.
A deeper look: Rabbi David Kimchi (d. 1235) notes that unlike every other judge, the period that Samson judged is recorded at the peak of his life, rather than at the end (Judges 15:20). He explains that this chapter now marks the downfall of Samson as he indulges his passions. The Gemara explains that since he sinned in Gaza he was punished there too, measure for measure; he sinned with his eyes by gazing at beautiful women and surrendered to temptation, so his eyes were gouged out by the Philistines (Sotah 9b).
Rashi (d. 1105) explains that verse in the Shema ‘and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes’ (Numbers 15:39) highlights the process of human temptation; ‘the eye sees, the heart desires and the body commits the transgression’.
In the end, the Philistines wanted to humiliate Samson. They praised their idols for delivering him to them and Samson cried out to God to restore his strength one last time to avenge God and punish the Philistines for this desecration of God’s name. God answered his prayer allowing him one last burst of strength which broke the supporting pillars and brought down the building, killing everyone inside.
While suicide is forbidden Jewish law, Samson’s actions were contingent on God’s miraculous intervention. Given the desecration of God’s name caused by the Philistines Samson was permitted to risk his life to sanctify God’s name. This also demonstrated his desire to undo the damage he had caused by giving in to temptation. He may have completed his mission but it had now cost him his life.
Summary: Samson returned to his father-in-law’s house to take back his wife, only to be told that she had been given away to another man. Out of vengeance, he caught three hundred foxes, attached torches to their tails and let them loose in the fields of the Philistines to burn down their crops, causing a chain reaction of events.
A deeper look: Samson’s marriage to the woman from Timnat and her subsequent infidelity created the perfect excuse to take revenge against the Philistines. The Philistines blamed his wayward wife and her father for Samson’s anger towards their nation. They were burnt alive as punishment. This gave Samson the justification to launch his attack triggering a Philistine invasion of the Judean lands to arrest him. Fearing a full scale battle, the people of Judah bound Samson with ropes and handed him over. As the Philistines came to take him, he broke the ropes, picked up a donkey’s jawbone and used it to slay a thousand Philistine men.
Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1732) explains that this jawbone was from the donkey of Bilaam. While Bilaam had ridden it in order to curse Israel, he had only been able to offer blessings. This is why Samson came across its jawbone now to kill the Philistines.
Rabbi Moshe Dovid Valle (d. 1777) explains the deeper significance of why specifically the jawbone of the donkey was used. Samson’s strength was not natural; it came on account of his relationship with God and could not be subdued by mere ropes or chains. We reinforce our connection to God through learning Torah using our own jaws by articulating the words with speech. Similarly Rashi (d. 1105) explains that the Jawbone was moist and so it reflected light, hinting again to the light of Torah.
Samson’s strength was needed to subdue his physical enemies. Our enemy is the yetzer hara – the inclination to indulge in activities which distance us from God. The Gemara explains that the antidote to this is learning Torah (Bava Basra 16a). This is how we can cultivate our spiritual strength and become mighty warriors in our own right.
Summary: Samson’s chose to marry a Philistine woman from Timnat. On his journey there he was pounced on by a young lion which he killed. A swarm of bees gathered in the lion’s carcass with honey which Samson scraped out and ate during his journey to the wedding. His new wife elicited the answer to a riddle Samson had posed to the wedding guests and revealed it to them. When the guests came with the answer, Samson travelled to Ashkelon and killed thirty Philistine men, took their garments and gave them to the wedding guests as their reward. He went back to his parent’s house while his wife was given away to another man.
A deeper look: Samson’s bizarre choice to marry a Philistine woman was a ploy to get close to the enemy (Judges 14:4). Yet the Gemara cites Samson’s physical attraction to women as the ultimate source of his downfall (Sotah 9b).
This explains the deep symbolism of the events surrounding the lion and the bees. Samson was left alone on the edge of the vineyard for as a nazirite he was forbidden to enter. His parents however, cut across on their way to Timnat leaving Samson alone. Rabbi Sabbatai Sheftel Weiss explains that the lion was a warning to Samson to gird himself with both physical strength to fight the Philistines and self-control to overcome his inclination and passion for women.
The Mishah in Ethics of Our Fathers asks ‘Who is strong? One who masters his evil impulse.’ (Pirkei Avot 4:1, see Green Siddur page 545). The lion is not only employed by the Shulchan Aruch as an animal which is mighty in character (Orach Chaim 1:1), but the tribe of Dan from which Samson is a descendent is blessed to be like a young lion (Deuteronomy 33:22).
When Samson turns to find bees and honey in the lion’s carcass it alludes to the verse in Proverbs which says ‘Have you found honey? Only eat enough for you, lest you become sated with it and vomit’ (Proverbs 25:16). This was a warning to Samson not to lust after earthly physical pleasures, lest he become ensnared in the Philistine honey-trap (Mishbetzot Zahav on Judges 14:5,8).
Summary: After describing forty years of Philistine oppression, we are introduced to Manoach from the tribe of Dan and his barren wife. An angel informs her that she will bear a child who will save the Jewish people from the Philistines. Therefore, she should refrain from consuming any grape products so that the child will be a nazirite from the womb. After she related this to Manoach he prayed to see the angel, who reiterated the message. Manoach gave offerings to God and his wife gave birth and called the child Shimshon (Samson).
A deeper look: While Manoach’s wife is not mentioned by name, the Talmud explains that she was called Tzelelponit,identifying her with a woman of that name in Chronicles I 4:3 (Bava Batra 91a). The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 10:5) explains that her name reflects the distinction in which she merited to see an angel. The word tzel literally means shadow, but can refer to an angel and the word poneh means ‘to whom she turned’. After Manoach requested to see the angel it returned and related the same message directly to him. At the end of the dialogue, Manoach asks the angel its name, since the name of an angel defines its mission (see also Genesis 32:30 with respect to Jacob and the angel of Esau). After the angel replies ‘why do you want to know my name?’ the verse concludes with the words והיא פלאי– ‘v’hi peli’ (Judges 13:18). The word peli means ‘wondrous’ implying that the Angel was astonished by the question, or ‘hidden’ meaning ‘my name is hidden [from you]’. Nevertheless, Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1732) rendered the phrase to mean ‘it [my name] is Peli’. The root of the word peli (פלא) can also mean to separate and links with the verse which relating to Nazirite abstention (Numbers 6:2) כי יפלאי נדר… – ki yafli neder… ‘when you shall separate by means of a vow’ (Yalkut Meam Loez on Judges 13:18). Samson will be a Nazirite who will separate himself from wine and refrain from cutting his hair. His mission was planned by God from before his birth. Yet in the next three parts we will examine how his separation from normality defines his heroic but often tumultuous life.
Summary: After the death of Avimelech, the Jewish people experience 44 years of calm until a new cycle of idol worship triggered a war with the Ammonites. Although unpopular, the people chose the Gileadite warrior Yiftach to successfully lead them against their enemy. Tragically, following their victory civil war breaks out with the Tribe of Ephraim.
A deeper look: Prior to battle, Yiftach made a vow that should God facilitate victory over the Ammonites, on his return home he would take whatever emerged from his house and sanctify it to God as an elevation offering. There is a precedent for taking a vow in times of need or danger with the intent of eliciting God’s help, just as Jacob did on his way to Lavan’s house (Genesis 28:20-22). Nevertheless, Yiftach acted inappropriately by vowing to make an offering out of ‘whatever emerged from his house’ (Taanit 4a). The impropriety of his vow was realised when on returning home, his daughter rushed out dancing in celebration (Judges 11:34).
Yiftach was a righteous and mighty man, but it is clear that he did not know the legal position of what had happened and assumed that his vow stood. Most commentators understand that since human sacrifice is forbidden, his daughter was not offered up but remained celibate, secluding herself away for the rest of her life. Disturbingly, others explain that Yiftach thought that the vow of a king is binding even if it results in the death of a human (Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachaya on Vayikra 27:29).
The Midrash relates that the legal position could have been clarified had Yiftach spoken to sage and prophet Pinchas, for even if the vow had been effective it could have been annulled. Yet tragically, Yiftach felt that as judge and ruler it was beneath him to travel to see Pinchas to resolve matters. Similarly, Pinchas did not want to denigrate his position as a prophet and high priest and refused to visit Yiftach. The two never met and were both punished for their obstinacy (Leviticus Rabbah 37:4). Another Midrash cites Yiftach as a paradigm of what can happen when an unlearned person wants to do the right thing but fails to seek Jewish legal advice from a Torah scholar (Tanchuma Bechukotai 7).
Summary: After Gideon’s son Avimelech was appointed king of Shechem, he raised a band of thugs to go to his mother’s house and murder his own brothers – seventy in total – in order to eliminate any rivalry to his power. Only the youngest child, Yotam escaped. As the people of Shechem went to anoint Avimelech, Yotam ascended Mount Gerizim and bellowed out curses against the people. God intervened to sour relations between Avimelech and the people of Shechem which sparked a rebellion led by Gaal ben Eved. Avimelech crushed the rebellion resulting in the annihilation of Shechem but was killed in the process, thus fulfilling Yotam’s curse.
A deeper look: Yotam’s curse was a parable rich in meaning and symbolism. Rabbi Shmuel Laniado (16th Century Aleppo) explains that Yotam chose Mount Gerizim because this was the mountain designated by God to relate the blessings (Deuteronomy 27:12 and Joshua Chapter 8). Yotam’s first message was that corrupt leaders will transform God’s blessings into curses (Kli Yakar on Judges 9:7). Yotam’s parable involved the trees, symbolising the Jewish people wanting to appoint a king over them. They approached the olive tree, the fig tree and the grapevine all of whom declined. Finally they approached the thorn bush who asked if the people were honest in their offer. If not, fire will come from the thorns and consume the cedars of Lebanon. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that the first three trees were the three worthy judges who declined the position of leadership of the people. The olive tree represented Otniel ben Kenaz (Judges 1:13 and 3:9) who was a Torah scholar. Just as olive oil is used to provide light, so too the Torah (called Oraita in Aramaic, meaning light) gives out its own spiritual light. The fig tree represented Devorah (Judges 4:4) whose Torah and prophecy was like a sweet fruit. The grapevine represented Gideon who was a descendant of Joseph. Joseph is described as בן פרת יוסף – a charming son is Joseph… (Genesis 49:22). Targum Onkelos (ibid.) likens Joseph to a vine which spreads out, alluding to his offspring. The thorn bush symbolised Avimelech. Thorn bushes offer no benefit and may harm those who come too close. Similarly, Yotam warned the people of Shechem about their leader, but it was too late.
Summary: After the death of Deborah, a reversion to idolatry triggered a period of Midianite oppression. Gideon was appointed to combat both the physical threat and the spiritual corruption.
A deeper look: In an act reminiscent of Abraham, Gideon smashed his own father’s idols together with those belonging to other Jewish families. Gideon now needed to raise an army to fight Midian and Amalek. Yet for a Jewish army to be effective, its heart must be as strong and true as its sword. God told Gideon to bring prospective recruits to drink from a watering hole and to separate those who lapped the water with their hands from those who kneeled to drink. Rashi (d. 1105) explains that those who kneeled were used to doing so for idol worship, rendering them unsuitable to fight.
Gideon hears someone relating a dream that barley bread was roasting in the Midianite camp. Rashi notes that the barley bread symbolised a type of mincha (meal) offering called the omer which is made from barley and brought on the second day of Pesach (Leviticus 23:9). Whearas other meal offerings are offered by an individual (Leviticus 2:1), the omer is a communal offering. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (d. 1926) elucidates the symbolism of the dream: Midian cannot be defeated by individuals but by a people joined together as one unified community (Meshech Chochma, Haftarah Shabbat Hagadol).
After executing the Midianite kings, Gideon removed ‘the crescents that were on the necks of their camels’ (Judges 8:21). Interestingly, Rabbi David Kimchi (d. 1235) notes that the Midianites were descendants of Ishmael (Radak loc. cit. 24). After gathering other jewellery, Gideon fashioned a replica of the breastplate worn by the High Priest and hung it in the city.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (d. 1593) explains that the Ephod specifically atoned for the sin of idol worship and Gideon hoped to inspire the people to abandon the worship of foreign deities and instead worship God. Yet after his death, through a turn of tragic irony the very symbol fashioned to inspire the people against idolatry became an object of worship, triggering another cycle of idolatry and suffering.