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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 12
A Tragic Civil War

In the previous chapter we learnt about Yiftach’s victory over the Ammonite enemy. However, the tribe of Efraim were insulted not to have been included in the battle. They approached Yiftach, aggressively claiming that he had excluded them. He responded with violence and a tragic civil war broke out.


The tribe of Efraim had a unique way of pronouncing a specific type of grain. Instead of saying “shibbolet”, they would say “sibbolet”. Yiftach’s men took advantage of this. When they saw someone fleeing from battle, they would ask them to say the word “Shibbolet”. If they pronounced it “Sibbolet” that confirmed their Efraimite roots and they would be killed. In total, 42,000 people were killed from the tribe of Efraim. This staggering number far exceeds any other casualty amount recorded in the book of Shoftim!

Interestingly, this story provides the etymology of a modern-day English word. Shibboleth is used to refer to a phrase or custom, knowledge of which can prove membership of a specific group.


This was not the first time the tribe of Efraim had claimed that a shofet had excluded them from a battle. They had made a similar claim against the shofet Gidon, in Chapter 8. He managed to deal with issue with modesty and tact. However, Yiftach was not like Gidon. He was a brigand who had quarrelled with his own brothers. A champion warrior, but he did not have the ability to unite the Jewish tribes. His response to the similar claim was to descend into aggression and violence, with tragic consequences.


Nothing else is recorded of Yiftach’s six years of rule. Whilst he achieved the goal of defeating the enemy, the reason he was made a Shofet, his real legacy is his failings. His reckless words led to the downfall of his daughter and the death of tens of thousands of his fellow kinsmen. He is strongly criticised for these actions. Indeed, the text records that he “was buried in the cities of Gilad” (12:7). The plural “cities” implies that he received more than one burial. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba Chapter 60:3) explains that he suffered a terrible illness where his limbs withered away and fell off one by one, each limb being buried in the city he was in at the time. It is also possible that our Sages are alluding to Yiftach’s ability to sow discord among the tribes, who could metaphorically be called the body of the Jewish people.


The chapter concludes with the brief description of three further judges who ruled for short periods. Firstly, Ivtzan of Beit-Lechem ruled for seven years. Secondly, Elon of Zevulun ruled for ten years. Lastly, Avdon son of Hillel ruled for eight years. Little is recorded of these three judges. The Sages link Ivtzan to Boaz of Beit-Lechem, the hero of Megillat Rut, which we read on the festival of Shavuot (Talmud Bavli Tractate Bava Batra 91a). The story of Rut takes place during the period of Shoftim and, by linking these two characters together, our Sages are reminding us of the positive and righteous characters that did exist during this dark and chaotic time. Despite Yiftach’s major failings, there is still hope that better leaders can rise in the future.

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