Friday, August 9, 2013

How Did Officials Become Policemen?

Question of the Week, Parashat Shoftim: 

What is the meaning of the word 'shoter' found in the first verse of this week's parsha:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ


The JPS translates this verse (Deuteronomy 16:18) as follows:  

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes. 

According to this translation, the term shoter (pl. shoterim) means “official.” It is a rare Biblical word, and it's interesting to look at the few places it can be found. 

The word's first appearance is in the story of the Exodus, where the shoterim were Israelite foremen, and served as part of the Egyptian slave-labor system. The Israelite slaves were organized into groups, each headed by a foreman (shoter) from among their own, and he, in turn, was subordinate to the Egyptian taskmasters. The shoterim were beaten for not carrying out their assignment which was to record work quotas and see to it that they were forcibly filled: 

And the foremen of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had set over them, were beaten. "Why," they were asked, "did you not complete the prescribed amount of bricks, either yesterday or today, as you did before?" (Exodus 5:14) 

Later, we are told, these shoterim cried out to Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelite slaves, and when that didn't help, they turned their anger toward Moses, accusing him of bringing harm to the people. Thus, the shoterim were leaders who heroically challenged the cruelty of Pharaoh to alleviate the suffering of the slaves. 

The word next appears as the Israelites began to form an independent nation in the desert, and the elders – as national leaders – also served the function of shoterim. In Deuteronomy 1:15 we find them described as leaders with administrative duties: 
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 ten, and officials (shoterim) for your tribes.

The word also appears in Joshua 1:10: the shoterim are assigned the task of commanding the people to prepare to cross the Jordan river. 

In our current reading, Parashat Shoftim, we encounter, for the first time, the administrative pair of words: magistrate (shofet) and official (shoter). Pinhas Artzi, Bar Ilan University professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, shows that this is a new stage in urban civilization. Every judicial and administrative center in every city was to have a legal system: a magistrate and his assistant (the shoter) whose job was apparently to draft legal documents and maintain proper legal procedure.

In Proverbs 6:7, where the ant is praised for its diligence, we told that it does its work without the discipline of “leaders, officers or rulers," and - matching with the Hebrew text - we see that shoter has the meaning of "officer": 

לֵךְ-אֶל-נְמָלָה עָצֵל;    רְאֵה דְרָכֶיהָ וַחֲכָם
  אֲשֶׁר אֵין-לָהּ קָצִין שֹׁטֵר וּמֹשֵׁל

Here the meaning leans more toward people with authority to enforce the laws. This leads us to Rashi, the pre-eminent Biblical commentator, who translates the shoterim in our parsha as "bailiffs"  and gives the following colorful description, perhaps reflecting the practice of 11th-century France: "Those who chastise people at the judge’s order, beating and binding the recalcitrant with a stick and a strap until he accepts the judge’s sentence.”

In modern Hebrew, the word shoter took on a very definite and specific meaning. When you see a shoter motion to you to stop, you better listen, because today shoter means "police officer" and you don't want to mess with the mishtara -police:)  

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