Rabbi Boaz Genut
Former Rosh Kollel in St. Louis
Former Executive Director of Torah Mitzion
Currently Director of the Department of Marriage and Community Affairs at Tzohar


Sefer Devarim begins Moshe Rabeinu’s long speech to the people before he passes away. In this speech he describes many events that occurred over the past 40 years that he spent with the Jewish people. One particular event relates to the founding of a system of delegated authority for the adjudication of disputes amongst the people. We all know that it was Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who suggested and set the format.

But a comparison of the system that Yitro sets out, and the one of Moshe describes, reveals a profound insight about the essence of the Jewish judicial system.

Moshe’s requirements (Devarim 1:15) Yitro’s requirements (Shemot 18:21)

ואקח את ראשי שבטיכם אנשים חכמים וידעים ואתן אותם ראשים עליכם …

ואתה תחזה מכל העם אנשי חיל יראי א-להים אנשי אמת שנאי בצע

So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men, and full of knowledge, … Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain;

Yitro’s primary condition is: Anshei Chayil(able men) while Moshe’s is: anashim chachamim(wise men). The first perspective of Yitro is on administration and management skills. The focus of Moshe’s is the wisdom and knowledge a judge brings with him. The difference goes to the heart of the role of the Jewish judicial system.

One is a pragmatic concept which is expressed in the well-known phrase:

“If not for the fear of the authorities – man would have swallowed up his fellow”(Avoda Zara 4a)

אלמלי מוראה של מלכות איש את רעהו חיים בלעו (ע”זדע”א)

In other words, the content is not necessary fundamental, it is the construction or the system which is essential. People need laws and rules so they’ll be able to manage their interaction with others. From this perspective it makes no different if the rules are from Sedom, Nazi Germany, the Spanish Inquisition, or the court in Hague. In order to fulfill this role the main characteristics required for a judge are his administration and management skills. Even in the American Judicial System, the fundamental concept is that the every trial must be conducted in a fair way. This attitude is very much developed through the idea we just presented.

A very different concept is expressed in another well-known pasuk:

“Because the people come to me to seek God… and I judge between a man and his fellow, and I make known the decrees of God and His teachings” (Shemot 18:15-16).

“כי יבא אלי העם לדרש אלהים … ושפטתי בין איש ובין איש ובין רעהו והודעתי את חקי האלהים ואת תורותיו” (שמות יח, טו-טז)

In this system, the content is fundamental. The assumption is that judges represent Hashem himself. Therefore, if a judge makes a wrong decision it will bring about a huge Chilul Hashem (violation of God’s name). Accordingly, the main characteristics for a judge are his wisdom and knowledge. You may be a bad administrator but enough of a scholar to enable you to decide correctly in any given case.