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Hukkat 5773

Haftarah Parshat Hukkat
(Judges 11:1-33)
June 15, 2013
7 Tammuz 5773

Jephthah’s role as a leader of his people was born of a moral dilemma. He was born the son of an illicit relationship between an Israelite man named Gilad and a “prostitute” (isha zonah). Gilad’s other children were born to him from a woman to whom he was married. At some point, Gilad’s other children rejected their brother Jephthah as a legitimate heir to their father, forcing him to live on the fringe of society. As the story progresses, Jephthah developed into a capable military leader, able to save his people from their enemies but having been spurned by family and society; the negotiations over his leadership role proved difficult. He won his way back into society despite the injustice done him.

Commentators debate over the nature of Jephthah’s lineage and whether there was a reason for his being rejected. Was his mother a prostitute? Targum Yonathon, the Aramaic translation of the Prophets, seems to want to avoid the issue, calling her a “pundikita” – an inn-keeper. Rabbi Isaiah from Trani (13th century Italy), who is known for being a “pashtan” or plain sense commentator, however, voiced Jephthah’s brothers’ concern in these words: “You (Jephthah) are the son of a prostitute. Perhaps your mother had relations with a man other than our father and became pregnant from him and you are not the son of our father!”

Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence), however, returns to the Targum’s translation giving it a new twist: “Jephthah was the son of Gilad’s concubine. She was called a ‘zonah’ because Gilad was not her husband since he did not marry her with kiddushin or ketubah so it was as if she was a ‘zonah’, even though Gilad had a serious relationship with her (concubine). [Why then did Jephthah’s step-brothers mistreat him?] It was because the original custom in early Israel was that property was not to be transferred from one tribe to another. As a result, a man could not marry a woman from another tribe. So, if a woman from one tribe loved a man from another tribe, she would have to leave her family home without any property and people would call her a “pundikita”, that is to say, that she loved a man who is not from her tribe. This was the case with Jephthah’s mother. This explains why the brothers said that he would not inherit along with them. The brothers were, according to Talmudic law, legally wrong to do what they did, since according to law, the son of a concubine inherits from his father, as the rabbinic sages note in the Mishnah (Yevamot 2:5): One who has a son from a concubine[sic!], from any woman, except from a slave woman or a non-Jewish woman, the child is his son for all purposes. The Talmud explains: ‘For all purposes’ – what are its legal parameters? This includes for inheritance and to obligate a kohen to ritually defile himself for him should he die. (Yevamot 22b) This proves that the brothers acted improperly.” (Adapted translation)

Kimche recasts the brothers’ rejection of Jephthah as more than just the rejection of an “illegitimate” brother. He puts their rejection within a historical context (as he understands it) and then dismisses it as morally and legally wrong based on rabbinic law. The brothers had no right to reject Jephthah. Kimche’s interpretation is a biting indictment of the brothers’ behavior. In the context of the biblical story, it also could have spelled disaster.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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