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Parashat Shofetim 5758/1998
"You shall appoint magistrates and officials ... in all your settlements" (Deut. 16:18)
Prof. Pinhas Artzi
Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages
Department of World History
What was meant by the term shoter (pl. shoterim; rendered in the New JPS translation as "officials"), in ancient Israel?
(1) The first noteworthy point is that this word only occurs in a few books of the Bible, namely Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Chronicles, and once in Proverbs. What all these occurrences of the word have in common, as we shall show below, is that they all concern administration and relate to the term shoter only as an administrative post. The shoterim were professionals holding a subordinate position in a hierarchical administrative society.
(2) Now let us consider the roles of the shoterim, in the order that they appear in Biblical and Talmudic sources:
(2.1) Shoterim during the bondage in Egypt and wandering in the wilderness (Ex. 5:10-14): the Israelite's shoterim, "foremen" in the JPS translation, were subordinate to the Egyptian administration, to the nogesim or "taskmasters," those professionals in charge of overseeing forced labor. The shoterim were beaten for not carrying out their assignment, which apparently was to record work quotas and see to it that they were forcibly filled. The nature and type of work described here matches what has been found in Egyptian sources.
(2.2) The beginning of Israelite internal organization is reflected in Numbers 11:16 and in Deuteronomy 29:9. The elders as national leaders also served the function of shoterim. Did this mean keeping administrative records and maintaining public order? Deuteronomy 1:15 provides an answer: "So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, and officials (shoterim) for your tribes."
(2.3) Along these lines, let us jump momentarily to Joshua 1:10: the shoterim are assigned the task of commanding the people to prepare to cross the Jordan River.
(2.4) The current weekly reading, Parashat Shofetim, brings us to a new stage of urban civilization, and here, for the first time, we encounter the administrative pair of words: magistrate (shofet) and official (shoter). "You shall appoint magistrates and officials ... in all your settlements (lit. gates)" (Deut. 16:18). In other words, every judicial and administrative center in every city was to have a legal system: a judge and his assistant (collectively, the staff), whose job was apparently to draft legal documents and maintain proper legal procedure. We reach this conclusion from the fact that the sofer, scribe, is not mentioned here, and likewise in Joshua 23:2: "Joshua summoned all Israel, their elders and commanders, their magistrates and officials."
"Gates" is the parallel term in the western part of the ancient Orient for the Mesopotamian urban institution known as babtu which served as the judicial center in every urban neighborhood.
(2.5) In Chronicles, a book whose trend is to glorify the Davidic line, the shoterim, along with other administrative officials such as scribes and magistrates, performed roles related to enforcing public order. They were in charge of "the work of the House of the Lord" that David set up (I Chron. 23:4), and of the "army of warriors" (II Chron. 26:11). There it is mentioned that Maasseiah was commander of the shoterim, serving alongside the commander of the scribes. These two commanders were subordinate to one of the king's officers (generals). The large number of shoterim in relationship to the size of the units involved in the work force and the armed force is an indication of their task: a sort of military police. The shoterim also had the function of writing government documents.
(2.6) Proverbs, chapter 6, emphasizes the contradiction between civilization which is coercive and individual wisdom. In the parable of the ant, this animal is described as having no leaders (shofet), officers (shoter), or rulers (moshel) (vv. 6-7). Within this triangle lives the ordinary citizen, deprived of liberty.
(2.7) The shoter in the Talmudic period: Shalom Albeck's study shows that the combination of shofet-dayan, magistrate-judge, along with the shoter was deeply ingrained in the constitutional consciousness. In actual practice, however, employment of shoterim depended on the decision of the judge. In this era the function of the shoterim was to enforce order.
(3) The shoter in exegesis and Targum: in his commentary on Exodus 5:14, Rashi says that the Israelite's shoterim were supposed to press the people to do their work but had pity on them. Consequently they were beaten by the taskmaster. Therefore they were rewarded by becoming the Sanhedrin, i.e., the elders (cf. 2.2, above).
Onkelos translated shoterim as a sort of "keepers of order." The Septuagint renders this term as grammateis or grammatoeisagogeis, a teacher, scribe, and learned person.
The function of shoter is also somewhat known from Punic,a dialect of Phoenician from the end of the first millennium B.C.E. In sum we can say that the root sh-t-r occurs in many ancient Semitic languages, meaning one who writes and composes documents, tablets, or records and lists, to assign people to various tasks, similar to the function of the scribe or the grammatikos. [Aramaic shetar is a document]
The prototype of the term under discussion is the Sumerian sar, "to write." The regional administrative dynamic in western realms caused the shoterim to be removed from the function of writing and transferred to roles of the type of the Sumerian maskim, whose many functions included being a servant of the court. Although I have not researched the matter, it seems that the modern shoter, or police, is a direct continuation of the ancient shoter both in terminology and function.