What the Bible Says About Law Enforcement | Aleph Beta

The Torah's Police Officers

What The Bible Says About Law Enforcement

Daniel Loewenstein


Parshat Shoftim introduces us to the system of law enforcement that God envisioned for the Israelites: a police force, called the shotrim. Only...the Torah doesn't really tell us outright what these shotrim are supposed to do. In fact, the only thing we're told about them is in an obscure law about military service: when some people are exempt from service for one reason or another, the shotrim are the ones who send them home.

Why is this law the only thing the Torah tells us about the shotrim? And why would this job be assigned to police officers? Believe it or not, the answers just might lie in an older story in the Torah, a story about a nation with a very different kind of law enforcement system: Egypt.

Come and see what the Torah's idea of police officers is all about.

Watch the course mentioned in the video: ''Why Do We Celebrate “Law-Day”?''

We also explore the shotrim's role before battle in: "The Bible's Curious Exemptions For Serving In The Military"

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The Torah's Police Officers
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Hi! I’m Daniel Loewenstein, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Shoftim.

In this parsha, we learn about the command to appoint shotrim.

You know, shotrim, the ones with the super important jobs, the ones who do the… um… huh. What do the shotrim do?

What's the Job of Shotrim, the Bible's Police Officers?

Well, the word shotrim means officers or enforcers, and in modern Hebrew, shotrim are the police. So, is that what the Biblical shotrim are? Is their job to give out tickets for kashrut violations, or arrest people who fall behind on their tithes? Do they have undercover units that bust up idolatry cells?

The truth is, we know almost nothing about the job of the shotrim from the Torah. In fact, they only have one job that we actually hear about – and it doesn’t sound anything like the role of a police officer or enforcer. 

In Devarim chapter 20, the Torah talks about war, and it describes this kind of scripted scene that’s supposed to happen before a battle is joined. It starts with a כהן approaching the people – וְנִגַּשׁ הַכֹּהֵן – and reassuring them that they shouldn’t be afraid, because God is with them. And once that’s done, then that’s when we meet the shotrim. They step up, and you know what they do? They...send people home. They say:

מִי-הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בָּנָה בַיִת-חָדָשׁ וְלֹא חֲנָכוֹ

If anyone built a new house, but hasn’t lived in it yet?

 יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ

Go, leave and return home. Go break in that house.

And if anyone’s planted a vineyard but hasn’t gotten to enjoy its fruits yet, same deal. יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ – go home. Or if a person is betrothed, and is waiting to get married, or even if he’s just scared, and he might bring down morale, once again, יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ. Go home.

So let me ask you: Is that the kind of thing you’d expect a police officer to say? “Sir, were you aware you were traveling 20 miles over the speed limit? That’s a pretty hefty ticket right there. Oh, wait, do you by any chance have a new house? Well, you should’ve said something! Go on home and we’ll forget all about this.”

It’s ridiculous. It’s insane. Any officer who’d say that clearly doesn’t understand the job. Police maintain order, and they do that by holding people accountable. So why are the shotrim, the supposed enforcers, letting people off the hook?

I think there might be a clue to solving this mystery in another place in the Torah.

Connections Between Bible Verses on Law Enforcement

See, this isn't the first place where we hear about "shotrim.” There’s actually another place, way back in the Book of Shmot, where we hear all about another set of shotrim. Shotrim who actually act like enforcers.

So maybe, if we read that first story about shotrim in Shmot, it can give us some answers about the strange role of the shotrim we’re seeing here. So let’s go to the book of Shmot, and see what we see.

Here’s the scene: Moshe and Aharon have just told Pharaoh to let the Israelites go for the very first time, and Pharaoh is unimpressed. But he doesn’t just say no – he actually pushes back. Here’s what happens:

וַיְצַו פַּרְעֹה, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, אֶת-הַנֹּגְשִׂים בָּעָם, וְאֶת-שֹׁטְרָיו לֵאמֹר.

On that day, Pharaoh issued a command to the nation’s taskmasters, and...their shotrim, their officers. There they are. And Pharaoh tells them,

לֹא תֹאסִפוּן לָתֵת תֶּבֶן לָעָם לִלְבֹּן הַלְּבֵנִים--כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם:

Don’t continue to provide straw like you have been.

הֵם, יֵלְכוּ, וְקֹשְׁשׁוּ לָהֶם, תֶּבֶן

Let the people go and gather it for themselves. I want the bricks at the same rate I’ve been getting them up until now – but I want you to make them gather the raw materials too.

In other words, pile on the work, and bury them with it.

So here we’ve got our shotrim. And they do sound a lot more shotrim-ish than the ones in Shoftim, right? They sound like enforcers. Pharaoh issues commands, and they’re the ones whose job it is to make sure the people get them done.

So we’ve got shotrim here, in Shmot, and we’ve got shotrim in our parsha. But is that where the similarity ends? Is that the only thing that connects these two stories?

The Power Structure of Biblical Law Enforcement

I don’t think so. Let me ask you: what’s the power structure here in Shmot? Who’s in charge of whom? Well, the Israelites are clearly at the bottom; they’re the slaves. But go back to that verse:

וַיְצַו פַּרְעֹה, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, אֶת-הַנֹּגְשִׂים בָּעָם, וְאֶת-שֹׁטְרָיו

Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters and the officers.

So that means we’ve got these officers and taskmasters in the middle, and at the top, we’ve got Pharaoh, the king, the one making the laws, the one telling his officers what commands to give the people.

Well, what about the structure in Shoftim, in our pre-battle scene? Well, you’ve also got the Israelite people, and the shotrim above them, giving the people directions. And you’ve got the כהן, the priest, who opens the scene with his words of reassurance and inspiration. And, there’s also someone on top of the כהן – someone telling the כהן and the officers what to say, what commands to give the people: God.

And that means that in both places, we’re seeing the same four-level structure: the people at the very bottom, the king at the very top, and in the middle, these two intermediate positions: shotrim, and another role — in Shmot, the taskmasters, and in Shoftim, the כהן.

Studying the Parallels to Law Enforcement in the Bible

And let’s zero in for a minute on the כהן-taskmaster connection. Do you remember the way the Torah introduces the part of the כהן, before his speech? The first thing the כהן is supposed to do is draw close to the people – וְנִגַּשׁ הַכֹּהֵן. Nigash. Nun gimel shin. That’s the same way you spell Noges, taskmaster.

I think the Torah is hinting to us that the כהן and the taskmasters are inverse parallels of each other one is a nigash, someone who draws close to the people to inspire and uplift, and one is a noges, someone who oppresses the people and beats them down.

So we’ve got the shotrim connection, the power structure connection, and the noges nigash connection. And if we read through the story carefully, I think we can see one more connection. If you look through the story in Shmot, there’s a word that keeps coming up, a word that Pharaoh and the Shotrim both use in their commands to the people: Lech. Go.

לְכוּ לְסִבְלֹתֵיכֶם, says Pharaoh:

Go back to your burdens.

 הֵם יֵלְכוּ וְקֹשְׁשׁוּ

Let them go and do the gathering.

לְכוּ קְחוּ לָכֶם תֶּבֶן, say the Shotrim.

Go, take straw.

 לְכוּ עִבְדוּ

Go and get to work.

The word “go” by itself is completely neutral, but in Egypt, it picks up this awful connotation of oppression: go, bear your burdens, and stop complaining because nobody cares.

Now look at Shoftim. Do we find that same word coming up in our scene? We do. It’s in the words the Shotrim say to the people as they’re sending them home: whoever built a new house, יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ – go but not to work. Go home. Leave your work behind. And it’s the same for every line they say – whoever planted a vineyard, whoever is betrothed, whoever is afraid: יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ. It’s that same word that had that oppressive meaning in Egypt – yet here, it means the opposite.

When you add it all up, it sounds like everything about our pre-battle scene in Shoftim – the כהן, the shotrim, the directions to the people – it’s all...based on Egypt. God is taking Pharaoh’s system, and using it as a model for His own system. But why? Why would He do that?

Shoftrim and Pharaoh

Well, I have a theory. And to explain it, I’d like to tell you about a conversation I had a few years ago. I had a friend who ran the billing department of a hospital, and we were talking about some of the things he learned from his job. And he told me that he had this one rule of management that was the most important thing he learned: He said that when someone asks for time off to spend time with a sick relative, or to watch a school play, you always find a way to give it to them. If it means they’ll have to make up the hours, or someone will have to cover shifts, or whatever it is, you figure it out and make it work.

You have to make sure they know that you see them as people, and you have their backs. Because there’s nothing more demoralizing than having a boss who thinks your life doesn’t matter. That all you are is part of the machine, and if your life interferes with that, that makes you worth less, makes you a liability. No one wants to work in a place where the job means everything, and you mean nothing.

But that’s exactly the system that Pharaoh was building in Egypt. He treated the Israelites like they were his brick factory, and the minute they expressed a personal interest, asked for a break to go serve their God, he added more work, until their needs and wants as individual people were crushed under its weight.

What Is the Bible Saying About Law Enforcement?

And so God comes and says, I also have a lot of work for you to do. I’ve got hundreds of commandments for you to follow, so that you can bring about My will. But I don’t see My will the same way that Pharaoh saw his. It’s not supposed to overwhelm you and crush you, until there’s no place left for your personal concerns. I respect you, I see the fundamental dignity of every person, and I want you to be able to experience the personal joys of your lives. And so I have a different law enforcement system.

On the surface, it might look like the same system as Pharaoh. I’m at the head, and I’ve got these officers who see that the people do My will. But instead of a noges, someone who oppresses, I have a nigash, someone who uplifts. Instead of shotrim demanding people get to work, I have shotrim who tell people to go home.

When there are people on the verge of important milestones, like getting married, or breaking in a new house, and if they fight for me, they might never get to have those experiences, I don’t want that. I care about My mission – but I care about My people, too.

The Torah doesn’t tell us anything about what shotrim do, except for this one law about sending people home from the front lines. And I think the reason is that the job of the shotrim is mostly self-evident: if you’re setting up a system of police, then, yeah, obviously they’re going to be expected to enforce the law. But what the Torah did choose to elaborate on was something that wasn’t obvious. The fact that, as the shotrim are going about enforcing the law, it’s also their job to respect and care about the people. And the importance of upholding the law can’t overshadow that.

Do the rules need to be upheld? Of course. But never to the point where you violate human dignity. That’s Pharaoh’s way, not God’s.

Hi there! Thanks for watching. If you want to learn more about the way God distinguishes Himself from the evils of Pharaoh, you should definitely check out Rabbi Fohrman’s video about the lessons of the manna. You can find a link in the description. Enjoy!

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