Category Archives: Shoftim

Moving boundaries

You shall not move your neighbour’s boundary… (Deuteronomy 19:14)

While the Torah prohibits infringing another person’s property by moving a boundary marker (hasagat gevul, lit. infringement of boundary), the essence of this law is much more extensive. Rashi (d. 1105) cites another example of hasagat gevul which prohibits planting near a bordering field if water and nutrients will be drawn from the neighbour’s land, reducing its fertility and harming the neighbour’s livelihood (Rashi on Shabbat 85a).

In a similar vein, while the Gemara appears to promote marketplace competition by stating that one is entitled to set up a shop adjacent to an existing shop, it rules that a mill owner may prevent another mill from opening nearby if it will interfere with his business (Bava Basra 21b). Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach (d. 1702) held that competition is always permitted provided that taxes are paid to the local authority (Chavot Yair 42).

Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel (d. 1298) ruled that if there is a shop at the end of a closed alley, it would be forbidden to open a similar shop at the beginning of the alley as it would attract customers in before they reached the other shop (Mordechai, Bava Batra).

Rabbi Yosef ben Meir Migash (Ri Migash d. 1141) limited the restriction on competition to cases where there is no real benefit to the customers. If one shop offers lower prices however, it is permitted to open near a more expensive shop.

In another matter, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Rema, d. 1572) ruled in a case where Rabbi Meir of Padua together with Aloizi of Venice published a revised printing of Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah in 1551. Shortly afterwards another Venetian publisher, Antonio Ostinian published his own version undercutting Padua’s. Rema ruled that this was prohibited due to hasagat gevul on the grounds that it would certainly cause Rabbi Padua financial ruin. He ruled that the community should not buy Ostinian’s version until all of Padua’s books had been sold (Rema Responsa 10).

While in general marketplace competition is good, Jewish law also seeks to protect the livelihoods of all. While healthy market competition is good, it must not be at the cost of another’s livelihood.

Judges and the Asheirah Tree

You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials … You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favouritism, and you shall not take a bribe … Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you. You shall not plant for yourself an Asheirah tree, or any tree, near the altar of the Lord, your God, which you shall make for yourself. (Deuteronomy 16:18-21)

The beginning of this week’s Parsha describes the requirement of establishing a judicial system while warning against corruption and bribery. These words are then juxtaposed with the prohibition of planting an Asheirah tree, used for idolatry.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 7b) explains that the juxtaposition of these laws teaches us that appointing a corrupt judge over the community is akin to carrying out acts of idol worship. The Maharsha, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555–1631) explains that an honest judge who seeks truth acts in partnership with God, the Dayan HaEmes, Judge of truth. In fact the Torah (Exodus 21:6) refers to judges as Elohim, the same word used for God’s name. Conversely, a dishonest judge shows that he has surrendered to the idols of avarice, corruption and fraud.

An idea attributed to Rabbi Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik (1853 – 1918) further highlights a subtlety of the Torah’s prohibition of an Asheirah tree and its juxtaposition to the commandment to appoint judges and develop a judicial system. Regular idols are recognisable as such; their appearance directly reflects their purpose. Externally, the Asheirah tree seems to be just another tree, but in reality man has corrupted it through the falsehood of idolatry.

A dishonest judge or leader may also seem to be like anyone else; decent, respectable and righteous. Nevertheless, in reality he is a fraud. Just as the Asheirah which appears to be like any other beautiful tree, is in fact a vehicle for blasphemy, so too a corrupt leader while appearing to be a positive force in the world is in fact in conflict with God.

Parshat Shoftim is always read on the first Shabbat of Ellul, the month of introspection and self-analysis preceding Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. The broader message of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s observation is that every person should examine the persona they exude together with the person they really are on the inside. Most of us are very anxious about maintaining our character; social standing and a good reputation are very important behavioural drives. We all want to appear respectable and well thought-of, but how many of us invest the same amount of care in living up to that appearance?

Just as the Torah requires the highest standards from our leaders so too, their example must be emulated in our own lives. Then we too can become anshei emet,men of truth (Exodus 18:21) to partner God, complementing his creation rather than conflicting with it and causing discord.


A version of this article appeared in Daf Hashavuah