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The blessing of stability: Parshat Bechukotai

Just as pirates who lived life on the edge took comfort in the rules of their code, the Torah offers similar security in its equal-opportunity blessings and curses
Painting of privateers attacking Spanish ships by Samuel Scott. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Painting of privateers attacking Spanish ships by Samuel Scott. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve written about two of the most famous individual pirates before – Blackbeard and Henry Morgan. This week I want to speak about the Pirate Code (actually, Pirate Codes, because there were several).

Our story begins with the death of King Charles II of Spain on November 1, 1700. Charles, known as El Hechizado (the Bewitched) was the last Habsburg ruler of the Spanish Empire. For generations, the ruling family had ensured their bloodline remained “pure” by marrying close relatives far too often to be healthy. Charles’ parents, Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria, were uncle and niece. Charles was described by the husband-and-wife historians Will and Ariel Durant as, “short, lame, epileptic, senile and completely bald before 35, always on the verge of death but repeatedly baffling Christendom by continuing to live.” He had inherited the so-called “Habsburg jaw” to such a degree that he was unable to chew his food properly.

Portrait of King Charles II of Spain, by Juan Carreño de Miranda. (Public Domain/ WIkimedia Commons)

From the age of three, Charles was the ruler of Spain, and more importantly, of the enormous Spanish Empire which controlled territories around the globe. Although he married twice, Charles had no children. He declared that his nephew, 16-year-old Philip of Anjou, grandson of French King Louis XIV, should inherit his throne. However, the other European nations did not want the French and Spanish crowns to unite, and almost as soon as Charles died, the rest of Europe went to war. The war became known as the “War of Spanish Succession” and continued from 1701 until 1715. To say it was complicated is an understatement, but basically, the English, Scottish, Dutch, Prussians and Portuguese fought against the French and Spanish, in a series of battles fought around the world.

One of the theaters of war where the Spanish Succession was fought was North America, in what became known (to Americans) as Queen Anne’s War. The English, alongside the Muscogee, Chickasaw and Yamasee native Americans, fought against the Spanish and French who were joined by the Wabanaki, Caughnawaga Mohawk, Choctaw, Timucua, Apalachee and Natchez nations.

The War was fought on four main fronts along the Atlantic coast — Florida and the Carolinas; New England; Newfoundland and Acadia (which became Nova Scotia).

A map depicting the state of European occupation of North America at the start of Queen Anne’s War. (CC BY-SA, Magicpiano/ Wikimedia Commons)

All the warring nations were facing huge bills to fund their militaries. To fund the expensive war half a world away, Queen Anne reinstated a policy made famous by Queen Elizabeth – allowing private individuals to fight alongside the British Navy and keep whatever spoils they won. In Elizabeth’s time, in exchange for a percentage of the loot, the queen encouraged these sea raiders who would attack Spanish ships returning from the Americas laden with treasure. Several of the privateers, including Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, were knighted for their service to the realm, and became national heroes.

Portrait of Queen Anne by Dahl, Michael. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Privateering was banned under James I and Charles I, but soon economics led the monarch to reinstate the practice. Anne encouraged privateering in a bid to defeat the French and Spanish in North America. She didn’t even ask for a percentage from those to whom she granted letters of marque. Queen Anne was such a favorite with the privateers that a few years after her death, Blackbeard named his flagship the “Queen Anne’s Revenge” in her memory.

However, in 1712, Britain and France declared an armistice and the following year they signed the Treaty of Utrecht ending (at least temporarily) the hostilities. Virtually overnight, the privateers, who had been working for the crown, were unemployed. What were they supposed to do with their ships and their crew, not to mention their lifestyle?

Many of them continued their life of attacking and pillaging ships off the Atlantic coast of the Americas. Only now, they were called pirates, and instead of being rewarded for their heroism, they were liable to be hung for their crimes. Yet, this era became known as the Golden Age of piracy, and today, films are made about their exploits. Perhaps the most famous pirate was Blackbeard, who had his base in North Carolina between 1714-1718. Others notorious pirates from the period immediately following the Treaty of Utrecht included Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart), Stede Bonnet (the Gentleman Pirate, the hero of the recent comedy series, “Our Flag Means Death”), Edward Low, William Fly, Black Sam Bellamy and Calico Jack Rackham.

Perhaps because of the confusion of the times and because they were living outside the law, pirates had very strict rules that they lived by. Each ship would draw up its own Pirate Code, and every man who joined the crew would have to swear on a Bible to follow its laws (except for John Phillips’ men, who didn’t have a Bible, so they swore on an axe).

The Pirate Code entitled crew members to vote for the ship’s officers and to take their share of the plunder. There were strict punishments for those who broke the Code. In addition, various activities were forbidden, often on pain of death.

Bartholomew Roberts with his ship and captured merchant ships in the background. from A History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson c. 1724. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Code of Bartholomew Robert forbade boys or women to be brought aboard. Anyone caught seducing a woman was to be put to death. Men were not permitted to fight on board – all arguments had to be settled on land. And the musicians were given the day off on the Sabbath.

John Phillips included many of the same rules in his Code, but also banned smoking and outlawed theft. Edward Low added to his list that anyone guilty of “Drunkenness in time of Engagement shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit.”

One article that all the Codes shared was compensation for injury. These were always a fixed amount. For example, Henry Morgan’s Code said:

A standard compensation is provided for maimed and mutilated buccaneers. “Thus they order for the loss of a right arm six hundred pieces of eight, or six slaves; for the loss of a left arm five hundred pieces of eight, or five slaves ; for a right leg five hundred pieces of eight, or five slaves ; for the left leg four hundred pieces of eight, or four slaves ; for an eye one hundred pieces of eight, or one slave ; for a finger of the hand the same reward as for the eye.

Other pirate captains offered similar compensation. Black Bart’s Code stated that:

If… any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.

John Phillips’s Code said:

If any Man shall lose a Joint in time of an Engagement, shall have 400 Pieces of Eight; if a Limb, 800.

And Edward Low wrote:

He that shall have the Misfortune to lose a Limb in time of Engagement, shall have the Sum of Six hundred pieces of Eight, and remain aboard as long as he shall think fit.

I find it interesting that there were fixed amounts for such compensation. It made no difference whether the person injured was the captain of the ship or one of the most junior crew members. In a sense this made things more fair. But at the same time, one would imagine that objectively, some people were more important and valuable to the running of a ship than others. For some, an injury would end their career. For others, it would necessitate a prosthetic limb, which may make them even more fearsome than before.

I wonder if the chaos of a pirate’s life and the political climate in which the ships operated led them to formulate simple and straightforward rules, and to tend towards equality. They all risked being hanged for their crimes, so in a certain sense they were all equal.

This week (in Israel) we read Parshat Bechukotai. The portion begins listing the blessing that the Israelites will receive for keeping the laws of the Torah (Leviticus 26:3-12):

If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit… You shall dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land… And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people.

Following that, the major part of the portion lists the terrible punishments the Children of Israel will receive if they do not follow the Torah laws. Leviticus (16:14-17) states:

If you do not listen to Me, and do not observe all these commandments… but break My covenant… I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish; and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. And I will set My face against you, and you will be defeated by your enemies; those that hate you will rule over you; and you will flee though nobody is chasing you.

The Torah continues in this vein for several dozen more verses. When the Jews sin, things will go from bad to worse, and chaos will rule. The chapter ends (Leviticus 42:46) with:

These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which God made between Himself and the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai in the hand of Moses.

This would have been a good place for the book of Leviticus to end. But there is one more chapter, which at first appears to be a non-sequitur. It details the laws of Arachin – a specific type of monetary vow based on a standard valuation of a person based on their gender and age. Leviticus (27:2-4) states:

When a man shall clearly utter a vow of persons to God, according to your valuation; then your valuation shall be for the male between twenty and sixty years old, the valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver… And if it is a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels.

The Torah continues, giving set values for men and women over the age of 60, and for boys and girls below the age of 20. These valuations apply regardless of whether the person is a month-old baby or the queen of Israel. Within the gender and age guidelines, everyone is the same.

The Torah then lists other items that could be donated to the Temple – animals and land – which are to be valued by the priests. The Torah stresses (Leviticus 27:10) that a donated animal may not be substituted for an inferior animal, but also not for a better-quality animal. “He shall not alter nor change it, not good for bad nor bad for good.”

After the terrible warnings of punishment for breaking the laws, the Torah gives “consolation” by the most seemingly mundane laws. Then the chapter ends with almost identical words to the end of the previous chapter (Leviticus 27:34):

These are the commandments which God commanded Moses for the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai.

I wonder if the stability of fixed valuations is the most appropriate consolation the Torah can offer after the terrors of the curses. Perhaps the opposite of the horrors of punishment is not the ecstasy of blessing but the comfort of stability. Maybe it is not the extremes of reward after punishment that we crave, but the knowledge that things have fixed value.

The 18th century pirates lived life on the edge, constantly struggling to avoid any number of horrific deaths. They were comforted by the knowledge that they had the rules of a code which gave them all a measure of equality and security. The Torah in Parshat Bechukotai offers us a similar security by juxtaposing the blessings and curses with mundane laws that teach us that in a certain sense we are all equal.

My current series on WebYeshiva is live every Tuesday and about personalities from the Book of Ruth based on the Talmud and Midrashim. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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