David Curwin
Author of "Kohelet - A Map to Eden"

Between Re’eh and Shoftim

The ending of Parashat Re’eh and the beginning of Parashat Shoftim share a common keyword. Parashat Re’eh ends with the laws of the holiday of Sukkot. Included in those laws is the obligation to include everyone in the celebration:

“You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements.” (Devarim 16:14)

Parashat Shoftim moves away from the laws of holidays and instructs about judicial institutions. It begins:

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Devarim 16:18)

The Hebrew word translated in both verses as “settlements” is “shaar.” The literal translation, however, would be “gates.” From that meaning, the word came to mean “the public square near the city gate” and eventually began to represent the city itself. All three meanings can be found in the Bible, and in the two verses quoted here, the word shaar refers to the city.

These aren’t the only cases where the word shaar has that meaning. Shaar (generally in the plural, and second person possessive – shearecha, “your gates”) is found throughout Parshat Re’eh and Parashat Shoftim. Using AlHatorah’s Tanakh Lab, we can see that shaar appears 19 times in these two parashot (specifically Devarim 12-18) – three times more frequently than the rest of the book of Devarim, and six times more frequently than the rest of the Bible! Why is this word so concentrated in these few chapters?

I think perhaps we can get an answer if we look at the other examples of its use in the Torah. Outside of verses related to the gates in the mishkan, shaar makes almost no appearances in Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar. However, it does appear a number of times in Bereshit. In almost all of those cases, it refers to Abraham’s descendants inheriting the “gates” of their enemies (Bereshit 22:17, Bereshit 24:60) or gates of the cities of Sedom (Bereshit 19:1), Chevron (Bereshit 23:10,18), and Shechem (Bereshit 34:20,24). The usage here for the gates of the enemies in the abstract or of specifically wicked cities should be a sign to us that the Torah is perhaps warning us about the nature of these “gates.”

This ambivalence towards the “shaar” appears to be part of a larger polemic against cities in general. The most prominent example of this is the story of the Tower of Babel (Bereshit 11) where the people built a city, and God prevented its completion. Other dubious figures in Bereshit like Kayin (Bereshit 4:17) and Nimrod (Bereshit 10:11) were also associated with building cities.

Later in the Torah, we see that the Canaanites were living in fortified cities (Bamidbar 13:28, Devarim 3:4-5). None of these would appear to be models that Israel is intended to emulate.

And yet, Israel did live in cities when they settled the land. They were not to be nomadic shepherds like the Avot, but farmers, rooted in the soil. To do so, they would need to establish communities, with everything that cities entail. Some aspects of the cities were positive, like the shared resources and markets, but others could be much more dangerous.

Israel was about to enter the land, and take over many of these existing Canaanite cities. They could not afford to descend into the immorality of Sedom or Shechem, nor could they be allowed to be tempted by the arrogance of the builders of Bavel. Therefore, the Torah, specifically in Parashot Re’eh and Shoftim, repeated the use of shaar over and over again in the context of the mitzvot.

Israel would have cities, they would have “gates”, but these would be gates of justice and kindness. In these gates, the “stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” would be protected and nurtured. “Magistrates and officials” would be appointed to ensure that justice was carried out in those cities. And so on, regarding all the mitzvot in these chapters.

Only by doing this, would Israel distinguish themselves from the previous inhabitants of the land, and avoid their fate.

About the Author
David Curwin is an independent scholar, who has researched and published widely on Bible, Jewish thought and philosophy, and Hebrew language. His first book, “Kohelet – A Map to Eden” was published by Koren/Maggid in 2023. Other writings, both academic and popular, have appeared in Lehrhaus, Tradition, Hakirah, and Jewish Bible Quarterly. He blogs about Hebrew language topics at A technical writer in the software industry, David resides in Efrat with his wife and family.
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