Explaining an Obscure Aggadic Passage by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Sukkah 27b records an unusual conversation that took place in the Sukkah of Yochanan ben Rabi Ila’i when the famous Rabi Eliezer came to visit him on Shabbat in his home in the upper Galilee.  The sun was beating down strongly on the Sukkah, and Yochanan asked Rabi Eliezer whether it was permissible to spread a sheet on top of the Sukkah for additional protection from the sun.  Spreading the sheet might constitute a forbidden act of labor on the Shabbat (see Rashi ad. loc. for further explanation). 

Rabi Eliezer was not keen on answering the question since (as Rashi explains) he did not issue Halachic rulings unless it was something that he heard from his Rebbe (see Sukkah 28a and Torah Academy of Bergen County’s Bikkurei Sukkah, number 24).  Instead, Rabi Eliezer changed the topic and made an obscure observation about Sefer Shoftim (this follows Rashi’s explanation of Rabi Eliezer’s response; see the Maharsha and Aruch LaNer ad. loc. for alternative approaches).  He stated that there was no Sheivet (tribe) which did not have one of the Shoftim (leaders) in Sefer Shoftim appointed from it.

Rashi and other Meforshim struggle to find a Shofeit from each Sheivet, and none seem completely successful in their quest.  My Talmidim noted (Bikkurei Sukkah number 22) that this might have been the intention of Rabi Eliezer- to make a short statement that would take Rabi Ila’i a long time to decipher so as to distract him from the burning sun in the Sukkah and thereby avoid the need to issue a Halachic ruling regarding spreading the sheet. 

In this essay, we shall present the explanation of Rashi to this Gemara and then present an interesting approach based on a Shiur delivered by Rav Yoel Bin Nun (Rosh Yeshiva of Israel’s Yeshivat Kibbutz HaDati) to TABC’s Tanach Kollel in June 2004.  I assume all responsibility for any error that I make in presenting Rav Yoel’s Shiur and the slight variations that I shall make in this essay.  Rav Yoel’s explanation is quite interesting and takes a while to fully develop.  This also could have kept Yochanan busy and distracted from the Hilchot Shabbat question that he posed to Rabi Eliezer. 

Rashi’s Explanation 

Rashi (s.v. Shelo HeEmeed) counts the Shoftim from Yeshoshua until Eli the Kohen (who is described as a Shofeit, see Shemuel Alef 4:18).  Rashi identifies the Shoftim as Yehoshua (Ephraim), Ehud (Binyamin), Gidon (Menashe), Shimshon (Dan), Barak (Naftali), Ivtzan (Yehuda; this follows Chazal’s identification of Ivtzan as Boaz of Sefer Rut, see Bava Batra 91), Eli the Kohen (Levi), Tola (Yissachar),  and Eilon (Zevulun). 

We should clarify that Rashi translates the term Shofeit as “Moshia Et Yisrael,” saviors of Israel.  The ad hoc leaders in the period of the Shoftim are not necessarily described as judges.  Thus, the term Shofeit may be translated as “leader”, not necessarily a “judge” (see Daat Mikra’s introduction to Sefer Shoftim). 

Rashi notes that he is not sure from which tribes Otniel, Yiftach, Shamgar, Yair and Avdon come from.  In addition, he did not find a Shofeit for the Shevatim of Reuven, Shimon, Gad and Asher.  Rashi is able to solve the problem partially by expanding Rabi Eliezer’s statement beyond Sefer Shoftim to include Yehoshua and Eli (Rav Yoel’s explanation will not need to expand beyond Sefer Shoftim).  Various Meforshim such as the Maharsha and the Maharatz Chiyut attempt to completely resolve these mysteries with varying degrees of success.   

The Source for Rabi Eliezer  

Rav Yoel asserts that the source for Rabi Eliezer’s statement is a Pasuk in Sefer Shemuel Bet (7:7), where Hashem describes Sefer Shoftim as a time when, “I walked among all of Bnei Yisrael.”  In addition, this Pasuk continues, “Did I speak a word to the rulers (Shivtei Yisrael) whom I commanded to be shepherds over my people Yisrael saying, ‘Why do you not build me a house of cedar?’”  Most interestingly, the parallel Pasuk in Divrei HaYamim Alef (17:6) presents the exact same words, except the phrase used to describe the leaders changes from “Shivtei Yisrael” to “Shoftei Yisrael”.  The leaders of Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Shoftim are described interchangeably as either Shivtei Yisrael or Shoftei Yisrael, the tribes of Israel or the leaders of Israel.  This serves as a source for Rabi Eliezer’s assertion that each Sheivet contributed one of the leaders during the period of the Shoftim. 

The phrase “I walked among all of Bnei Yisrael” also fits into this idea, as Hashem seems to refer to the fact that He arranged for leaders to emerge from all of Bnei Yisrael, meaning from each of the Shevatim.  This is a vitally important message because during the time of Sefer Shoftim, Bnei Yisrael were hardly ever united, and even engaged in two tragic civil wars.  Although we were a fractured people, Hashem’s subtle hand arranged for us to remain a united nation.   

A Geographic Pattern 

Rav Yoel further explains that we may discern a geographic pattern among the Shoftim to further explain the phrase “I walked among all of Bnei Yisrael.”  This pattern demonstrates that Hashem was behind the appointment of the Shoftim even though no Navi actually appointed any of them.  Moreover, it shows that Hashem was seeking to unify the nation, as there would be a deliberate pattern for the leaders to emerge from the different sections of Eretz Yisrael.  (The following section will be clearer if one looks at a map such as the one that appears in Atlas Daat Mikra p.167).

The pattern of Shoftim is as follows: Otniel (Yehuda; see Shoftim 1:8-15, which clearly indicates that Otniel lived in Yehuda, even if he was not from that tribe), Ehud (Binyamin, the next tribe to the north of Yehuda), Devorah (based on Har Ephraim to the immediate north of Binyamin, see Shoftim 4:5), Gidon (Menashe from the town of Ofra right above Ephraim), followed by Gidon’s son Avimelech, who (regrettably) served as a leader in Shechem to the immediate north of Ofra.  Tola ben Puah, the next Shofeit, was from Yissachar, whose land is in the Jezreel Valley immediately north of Menashe.  Yair HaGiladi and Yiftach HaGiladi were, as their names indicate, from the Gilad area, a portion of Shevet Menashe (see the Maharatz Chiyut to Sukkah 27b) which lies to the east of the Jordan river.  Thus, whereas until now Hashem was “walking” in a northern direction along the center of Eretz Yisrael, at this point He moves east of the Jordan.  At this point Hashem moves to Beit Lechem, where Ivtzan served as the Shofeit.  This is not, according to Peshuto Shel Mikra, the Beit Lechem where Rut and David come from, as that Beit Lechem is almost always referred to as Beit Lechem Yehuda.  Instead, the Beit Lechem of Ivtzan seems to refer to the Beit Lechem that is located in the southwestern Lower Galilee, in the portion of Zevulun (see Daat Mikra Shoftim 12:8).  Another indication that Ivtzan is not from Yehuda (according to Peshuto Shel Mikra) is a general theme of Yehuda bowing out of its leadership responsibilities in Sefer Shoftim after the early part of the era (as implied by the absence of Yehuda in Shirat Devorah).   Rav Yoel suggests that Ivtzan is perhaps from Asher, as the northern Beit Lechem (what is referred to in Israel today as Beit Lechem HaGelilit) is located near the border of Asher.  Next, Eilon HaZevuloni is from Zevulun, perhaps from an area that lies south of Beit Lechem HaGelilit.  Avdon ben Hillel, the next Shofeit, is from Piraton (located in Ephraim’s section), which the Kaftor VaFerach identifies as the present-day Arab village of Feratta (see Daat Mikra to Shoftim 12:13).  Rav Yoel mentioned that the Western- Samarian Jewish community of Kedumim is located in the immediate vicinity of Feratta, which lies southwest of Shechem in an almost straight line south of Beit Lechem HaGelilit and almost directly north of “Between Tzorah and Eshta’ol,” the location of Shimshon, the final Shofeit. Accordingly, Hashem once again “walks” in almost a straight line in steps nine to twelve in a north-south direction. 

Hashem did not “travel” along the Mediterranean coastline in Israel because we had not conquered that portion of Eretz Yisrael at that time, even though that is the most densely Jewishly populated area in present-day Medinat Yisrael.  Rav Yoel explains parenthetically the difference between today and the period of Sefer Yehoshua and Shoftim is that our ancestors entered Eretz Yisrael from the east, so the westernmost portions of the country were not conquered very quickly.  In the past century, on the other hand, we entered the country most often from the west, and therefore most Israeli Jews today live near the Mediterranean coast.    

Rav Yoel and Rashi 

There are two advantages to this approach to Rabi Eliezer’s statement.  Although not every Shevet contributes a Shofeit, the total number of Shoftim does number 12, indicating that they represent all twelve Shevatim (see Shemot 24:4 for an example of the number twelve representing the twelve tribes).  In addition, Hashem embraces all the territory occupied by the twelve Shevatim during His “travels” in Sefer Shoftim. Thus, we do not need to search for a Shofeit from every Sheivet, as Rabi Eliezer’s statement need not be understood literally but rather as teaching that Hashem unified the twelve Shevatim through the geographic progression (“travels”) and number of Shoftim.  Indeed, some of the Shevatim were unworthy of leadership, such as Reuven (see Divrei HaYamim 1:5:2 and Shoftim 5:16) and Shimon (see Bemidbar 25:14, Rashi to Bemidbar 26:13, Devarim chapter 34, Yehoshua 19:1 and Maharatz Chiyut to Sukkah 27b). 

We find a similar geographic south-north progression when Moshe Rabbeinu gave his Berachot on the final day of his life (Devarim chapter 34).  The geographic order there also serves as a unifying message.  Perhaps Rabi Eliezer chooses this statement in order to explain his policy of not rendering a Halachic decision that he had not heard from his Rebbe.  Since Rabi Eliezer had an inclination for iconoclastic opinions (see Bava Metzia 59b), perhaps he felt that if he issued his own rulings, it would serve as a divisive factor among Bnei Yisrael.  Thus, he felt he should imitate Hashem and promote unity among His people.

Rav Yoel does not include Yehoshua or Eli in the list of Shoftim because it seems that Rabi Eliezer’s statement refers only to Sefer Shoftim, and he is not locked into finding a Shofeit for each Sheivet.  Rav Yoel also does not include Shamgar and Barak since they are not described as Shoftim.  Shimshon and Devorah, by contrast, are described as being Shoftim, and Avimelech is described as having led (VaYasar) Yisrael. Rashi perhaps did not come to Rav Yoel’s conclusion since he did not have access to much of the geographic information that we have today, such as the precise location of Piraton.  In fact, the Ramban (Bereishit 35:16) changed his mind regarding one of his interpretations after visiting Beit Lechem Yehuda when he made Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, indicating the value of Israeli geography for interpreting Tanach.      


Rav Yaakov Meidan (a Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion) once taught me that a principle of Biblical interpretation is that if one is asking a question and cannot find an answer, he may be asking the wrong question.  In our case, the search for a Shofeit from each Sheivet might be unsuccessful because this is not the intent of Rabi Eliezer’s statement.  Indeed, only a slim majority of the Shevatim actually contributed Shoftim, but Hashem embraced all of the Shevatim symbolically by appointing a total of twelve Shoftim who represented all the areas inhabited by Am Yisrael at that time. 

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