Avraham ben Yaakov


* * * Judges 11:1-33 is the Haftara of Parshas Chukas, Leviticus 19:1-22:1 * * *


Like Avimelech, Yiftach (Jepthah) son of Gil'ad, the Tenth Judge of Israel, was also the son of a PILEGESH (concubine). However, despite being rejected by his half-brothers, the sons of Gil'ad's full wife, Yiftach did not follow the example of his blood-thirsty predecessor Avimelech but instead fled from the more "respectable" members of his family and "dwelled in the land of TOV" (="good", ch 11 v. 3). The commentators (Metzudos, RaDaK), explaining PSHAT, the simple, direct meaning of the text, say that Tov was the name of a man, the baron of that region (cf. Ruth 3:13, where Tov may also indicate a man's name). Yet it is clear that our allusive Bible is here teaching us something deeper. Yiftach was not a RASHA (wicked man) like Avimelech. He was a Tzaddik - a "good guy" with truly good intentions. The flaw lay in the fact that his righteousness was not combined with clear understanding of Torah. Yiftach wanted to do the right thing, but not being a scholar he did what he IMAGINED to be right and brought about a terrible tragedy. "Because he was not a BEN TORAH he lost his daughter. Even if a man is a tzaddik, if he does not study the Torah he is left with nothing in his hand" (Tanchuma).


The Ammonite "existential threat" to Israel was described at the end of Chapter 10. The Ammonites were encamped by the town of Gil'ad , which is east of the River Jordan, south of the River Yabok about 30 km north of present day Amman . The broader region of Gil'ad stretches along the entire east bank of the Jordan from the northern tip of the "Dead" Sea up to the Kinneret. This region was part of the huge swathe of territories east of the Jordan which the Children of Israel captured from the Emorite king Sichon and Og king of Bashan as described in the later sections of the book of Numbers (ch's 21 and 32). They were given to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half Menasheh, who took their portions east of the Jordan .

Prior to the time of king Sichon this entire swathe of territories was under the influence of the sister nations of Moab and Ammon. Their lands had been promised by God to Abraham together with that of Edom as part of the "greater" Promised Land (Genesis 15:19-20, see Rashi), but they were only to come under the full possession of Israel in the "final settlement" at the end of days. Until then Moses was enjoined not to take from the lands of Edom (Deut. 2:5) or Moab (Deut. 2:9) or Ammon (Deut. 2:19). Deuteronomy ch 2 describes the primeval tribes of "giants" etc. who dwelled in these territories before their conquest by Edom , Ammon and Moab , and also describes the conquest by Moses of the territories which Sichon had conquered from Moab and Ammon.

The reason why it was permitted for Israel to take possession of those areas previously occupied by Moab and Ammon that Sichon had conquered was because Sichon's conquest "purified" those lands of their association with the children of Lot (Gittin 38a).


The Israelite presence in the areas of Gil'ad taken from Sichon drove a wedge between Ammon, who had been driven into the hinterland east of present-day Amman , and their sister nation Moab , who were left only with their territories south east of the River Arnon, (which meets the tongue-shaped "Dead" Sea approximately in the middle).

This gave the Ammonites strong motivation to seek a CAUSUS BELLI against Israel, and when Yiftach sent messengers to the king of Ammon protesting their aggressions, the Ammonite king replied with an argument that has been repeated endlessly by Israel's enemies until this very day: "Because Israel TOOK MY LAND" (v 3). Moreover, the king promised exactly the same as Israel 's enemies until this very day. "And now, return them." (note how "my land" has seamlessly turned into the PLURAL) ".in PEACE". In other words the Ammonite king proposed exactly the same formula as Israel 's present day Arab friends: LAND FOR PEACE.

The messengers whom Yiftach sent back to the king of Ammon gave him a detailed history lesson the purpose of which was to explain precisely the above-mentioned point: the territories which Israel took east of the Jordan no longer belonged to Ammon or Moab since they had been conquered by Sichon king of the Emorites. This refutation of the Ammonite claim is based on the principle that "the whole world belongs to the Holy One blessed be He: He created it and He gave it to whoever it was right in His eyes to give it. Through His will He gave it to them and through His will He took it from them and gave it to us" (see Rashi on Genesis 1:1).


The Ammonite intransigence in spite of Yiftach's arguments (reminiscent of years of Arab "NO! NO! NO") left him with no alternative but to go to war to prevent them penetrating the very heartland of Israel (see Judges 10:9). The Spirit of God was on Yiftach, who advanced from the northern Gil'ad towards the Ammonite camp.

The practice of vowing to make a dedication to God if He grants one's request goes back to Jacob, "head of those who take vows". After his dream of the Ladder during his flight from the wrath of Esau, Jacob had vowed to give God a tithe of everything if He would bring him home safely (Genesis 28:20ff). Likewise in the wilderness, when Israel was attacked by "the Canaanite" king of Arad (=Amalek, see Rashi on Numbers 21:1), "And Israel vowed a vow to God." (Numbers 21:2). Likewise, as we shall see when we begin the book of Samuel I, Hannah vowed that if she would be granted a child she would dedicate him to God.

"Two vowed and were rewarded; two vowed and lost. Israel vowed and they won. Hanna vowed and she was rewarded. But Jacob vowed and lost, because his wife Rachel died, while Yiftach vowed - and lost his daughter" (Bereishis Rabbah 70).

The fatal flaw that vitiated Yiftah's vow was that it was imprecisely formulated. The mark of the wise man is that "he sees what will develop" (Avot ch 2). Yiftah lacked the wisdom to see the hidden pitfall contained in the vow that he uttered at the height of his inspiration and enthusiasm. The vow was insufficiently articulated, and because its implications were not perceived by Yiftach at the time that he made it, he caused a terrible tragedy.

It is hard when we enthusiastically make some commitment to stop for a moment to ask whether we will really be able to stand up to it. Sometimes people make wild offers and some MAZAL enables them to get out clean, but if the person lacks MAZAL it can lead to disaster. "Four asked improperly; to three He gave properly, but to one He gave improperly" (Ta'anis 4a). The four were Eliezer, servant of Abraham, Calev, Saul and Yiftach. Eliezer said that the first girl who offered to water his camels would be Isaac's wife - how did he know that she wouldn't be some lowly waif who was not fit for him? When Calev offered his daughter to whoever would capture Kiryat Sefer, how did he know that the man would not be disreputable. The same applies to King Saul's offer of his daughter to whoever would kill Goliath. Eliezer, Calev and Saul all had some MAZAL that ensured that despite their imprecise wording, they were not answered improperly. However, Yiftach apparently lacked something. He IMAGINED that the one who would first come out of the doors of his house to greet him on his safe return from the war would be some FAT OX or FAT LAMB that would make a fitting thanksgiving sacrifice to God, and it did not occur to him that perhaps it would be his own DAUGHTER.


The laws of vows and oaths and their proper formulation is the subject of three entire tractates of the Talmud - NEDARIM, NAZIR and SHAVUOS. Had Yiftach been more of a TALMID CHACHAM (Torah scholar), he would have known that in fact he was under no obligation to offer his daughter as a sacrifice. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 60) presents an intricate discussion between Rabbi Yochanan and his student-chaver Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) whose meaning is readily comprehensible to those with some background in the above laws. Rabbi Yochanan maintains that Yiftach could have redeemed his daughter for money which he would then have dedicated to the purchase of a sacrificial animal, while Reish Lakish maintains that even this was unnecessary since "One who says of an impure animal or of an animal with a blemish that it is a burnt offering has not said anything" since these animals are not eligible as a sacrifice anyway. The same applies to Yiftach's daughter.

Yiftach is an example of the many people who have very high principles but lack the detailed knowledge of the Torah to know how properly to apply them in practice. Yiftach IMAGINED he was bound by his vow, and his high-minded determination to carry out what he thought was his obligation brought him to an unparalleled perversity. Even Abraham was not commanded to KILL Isaac, and indeed according to the commentators, Yiftach did not actually KILL his daughter. Rather, she was condemned to remain unmarried in a state of permanent HISBODEDUS (isolation) and divine service except for the few days of the year when her maiden friends would come to comfort her (see Metzudos David on v 37 and RaDaK on v 40).

The Midrash brings out the absurdity and criminality of Yiftach's condemning his only child to a life of celibacy, thereby destroying the continuity of his own line. Not only was Yiftach criticized but so too were all the rabbis and scholars of his time and even Pinchas the High Priest (who according to tradition was still alive despite the passage of over 300 years since he entered the Land with Joshua).

Through a mixture of high principles and pride, Yiftach would not go to Pinchas to nullify his vow, although the HALACHAH specifically permits this. Likewise Pinchas would not go to Yiftach to nullify the vow, reasoning that his own status as Priest required that Yiftach should come to him. Between the two of them, the poor girl "died". Pinchas was punished with the withdrawal from him of holy spirit (Chronicles I, 9:20 - "HaShem was with him PREVIOUSLY"). Yiftach was punished with an illness akin to leprosy in the modern sense of the term, which caused his limbs to drop off one by one while he was still alive. For this reason "he was buried IN THE CITIES of Gil'ad" (ch 12 v 7) i.e. in several different places.

Yiftach's daughter said to him: "Leave me for two months and I will go AND I SHALL DESCEND UPON the mountains" (ch 11 v 37). Since when do you DESCEND upon a mountain - first you have to GO UP??? These were not regular mountains. What she was really saying was, Let me go down to the elders of the Sanhedrin (who are called Mountains) in case they can find some release clause (PETACH, an "opening") from your vow.

The Tanna deVei Eliyahu puts the responsibility for the tragedy squarely on the shoulders of the Sanhedrin. "Anyone who has the power to protest and does not do so carries responsibility for all the blood shed in Israel . The great Sanhedrin that Moses left behind him should have girded their loins with metal chains and lifted their garments above their knees and gone round to all the cities of Israel, one day in Lachish, one day in Eglon, one day in Hebron, one day in Beit El, one day in Jerusalem. and that way they could have taught them the proper way of doing things (DERECH ERETZ) in one, two, three, four or maximum five years until the land would have been properly settled. Instead, after Israel entered the Land, each one ran to his vineyard and olive tree and said, Peace be upon my soul - let me not have to make too much effort."


The ruffled pride of the Ephraimites who felt that Yiftach had not involved them in the war against the Ammonites led more to bloody consequences. There is a suggestion in the above-quoted passage from Tanna deVei Eliahu that the Ephraimites that were killed if they could not pronounce SHIBBOLETH properly were involved in some kind of idolatry, because "SIBOLETH" is an idolatrous term, as when a man says "SA BEIL" ("Exalt BEIL", this being the name of a Babylonian god, as in Belshazzar in the book of Daniel.)

Little is known of the succession of Judges enumerated in the latter part of Chapter 12, except for IVTZAN from Beith Lechem (verse 8), whom the rabbis identified with BO'AZ, known to us from the Book of Ruth. The Midrash tells that Bo'az lost all his thirty sons and thirty daughters because he did not show hospitality to Manoah, father of Shimshon, and thus he was childless when he married Ruth, who conceived Oveid, father of Yishai, the father of King David. As we thus approach the threshold of the dawn of David's kingship, the Bible steadily delineates the national crisis into which Israel had sunk, from which David would come to save them.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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