Parashat Ki Teitzei (When you go out) Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
In this week’s Torah portion one reads about the punishment of forty lashes. The text states,
“When there is a conflict between people, they shall approach the judge and they will judge them. And they will vindicate the righteous one and they will condemn the guilty one. If it shall be that the guilty one (is deemed to warrant) lashes (blows) the judge will put him down and strike before him (the judge) because of his guiltiness by a count. Forty (blows) he will strike and not more, lest the strike him beyond these a greater punishment (than the sentence) and your brother humiliated in your eyes.” Deuteronomy 25:1-3
Torah law is concerned about both parties in a conflict. Even after the decision concerning the conflict is determined; both parties (the guilty and the vindicated) are still given equal consideration. If the punishment is corporal, i.e. lashes, it is the responsibility of the judge (even though the word judge appears in the singular there were usually three judges who ruled on a matter; this is seen in the text by the fact the verb which modifies the word judge is in the plural) to make sure that the number of lashes were in relation to the seriousness of the crime. The maximum amount of lashes that one could be sentenced to was forty. The text warns in verse three that the punishment could never exceed this number. A tradition developed that only thirty-nine lashes were ever given so as to make sure that one never received more that forty.
This tradition finds its way into the New Covenant, as one reads concerning Paul,
“From the Jews (the term here is not a reference to the Jewish people in general, but it refers to a sect which resided in Judea and ascribed to the traditions of the elders) I received forty lashes minus one, five times.” 2 Corinthians 11:24
Since the sages decreed that one could only receive thirty-nine lashes, why was it always referred to with the phrase, “forty lashes minus one“? The answer has to do with the significance of the number forty. This number in Hebrew numerology conveys the idea of change. Hence, the punishment was for the purpose of bringing a change to the guilty one, hopefully so that he would not continue to behave in such a manner in the future.
Another aspect in the passage is that the punishment would be appropriate for the offense and not in excess, so the guilty one would not feel humiliated. In other words, if the punishment was not just, it could cause the convicted one to believe that the judicial system is also corrupt and he would not respect it and not adhere to it in the future. This was true if the punishment was too harsh; however, if it was too lenient, the guilty one might feel crime pays and continue in the same behavior.
The next verse seems to be totally unrelated to our passage, but this is not the case. The verse states,
“You shall not muzzle an ox during its threshing.” Deuteronomy 25:4
It is only proper that as the ox works that he should be allow to eat to receive the energy to do his labor. This is fair. If one were to muzzle the ox, then he would soon learn that the ox does not work nearly as well and it will rebel more frequently against the commands of the farmer or hired hand. In the end, it requires much more effort on the part of the individual to get the ox to complete the work. This is simply an example, which would have been understood by all. When justice or fairness is ignored, then it is much more likely that rebellion against the authority will occur.
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