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    Yiftach was a fool

    "Jephtha's Rash Vow", James Gundee & M Jones, 1807

    Yiftach (Jephthah), the leading figure of the Haftarah for Chukkat, is not everybody’s favourite hero.

    Who can have much time for a father who, because of a whim, placed his only daughter at grave risk (Judges 11)?

    He had vowed to sacrifice to God whatever came out of his house first when he came back home victorious. Unfortunately it was his daughter who came out first.

    The Biblical text recognises his self-caused anguish but adds that his daughter accepted the fact that a solemn vow had to be kept, and the women of Israel lamented for her four days in every subsequent year.

    The rabbis, however, strongly disapproved of his imprudent vow (Ta’anit 4a) and said that he was a fool.

    Even if his vow had been valid, it would have been possible, they said, to commute it by a payment to the Temple treasury, or he could have applied to Pinchas, the kohen gadol, to be absolved. (Pinchas himself was criticised by the sages for his false pride in not going to Yiftach to try to diffuse the situation).

    According to one aggadic view which reflects the age-old Jewish abhorrence of human sacrifice, Yiftach’s daughter asked her father how it was permitted to immolate a human being, but he was a proud man and remained adamant that his vow had to be kept.

    Another sage wondered what Yiftach would have done if an unclean animal had come out of his house – how could such an animal be brought to the altar?

    With so many personality problems, Yiftach’s reputation as a military hero, national judge and acknowledged diplomat, counted for nothing in the eyes of Jewish tradition.

    Yet the Talmud says he was also a halachist: Yiftach b’doro kiSh’muel b’doro, say the rabbis – “Yiftach in his generation is like Samuel in his” (RH 25b).

    Nonetheless this does not mean that Yiftach and Samuel were on a par. The comparison arises out of a verse in which they are mentioned together – I Sam. 12:11 – but the sages denied that the two were on the same level of eminence.

    They said that the juxtaposition of the two names was “to teach that even an unworthy person like Yiftach, when appointed to leadership, has to be regarded as one of the greatest”.

    The Torah says, “You shall come to the judge who shall be in those days” (Deut. 17:9).

    The Talmud asks, “Can we imagine that a person should go to a judge who is not in their own days? This shows that you must be content to go to the judge who is in your days. Scripture also says, ‘Say not, How was it that the former days were better than these?’ (Kohelet 7:10).”

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