Sermons and Parsha'iot      Parshat Ki Tetse: Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19


Parshat Ki Tetse ("when you go out to war .") contains 72 mitzvot - far more commandments than in any other single portion. Although they do not appear to be in any order, they seem to be especially concerned with protecting the weaker members of society from suffering abuse at the hands of the powerful. Indeed, this parasha teaches: "everyone who deals dishonestly is abhorrent to Adonai, your God." The portion begins with the laws about the pilegesh, the woman taken as a captive of war. (She is to be awarded a full month to mourn her parents' death before an Israelite can take her into his household as a concubine.) This is followed rapidly by laws about inheritance for the first-born son of an unloved wife; and about the body of an executed criminal, which is not to be left hanging on the gallows overnight since it, too, is a reflection of the Divine image. The Torah commands us to use honest weights and measures in business, and to maintain a distinction between how men and women dress. (Ki Tetse also forbids both men and women to wear garments made of sha'atnez - i.e., the mixture of linen and wool.) It commands us to return lost animals, clothing or other possessions to their rightful owner - but it forbids us to return a runaway slave. If an animal has fallen on the road, we must help its owner lift it up. If we see a mother bird on her nest, we should let the mother go before taking the baby birds or eggs "in order that you may fare well and have a long life." When building a new house, we must erect a railing on the roof so that no one will fall from it. We are forbidden to withhold a worker's pay. If any grain or fruit remains after harvesting wheat in the fields, picking olives from trees or picking grapes in the vineyard, it must be left for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.

The parasha also commands that a widow who has no children shall marry her late husband's brother in order to bear a child. If he refuses, a formal ceremony is held releasing him (you can find an example in the book of Ruth) and the widow is free to marry someone else. Ki Tetse further commands that a stubborn and defiant son be stoned to death. (The Talmud explicitly exempts rebellious daughters, and teaches that "there never has been a `stubborn and rebellious son,' and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward".) The parasha concludes with the ultimate symbol of dishonest, cruel treatment: Amalek, who ruthlessly attacked the weakest of the Israelites - the sick, elderly, women and children who straggled behind - as they left Egypt. Paradoxically, we are commanded to remember Amalek by forever blotting out his memory. 


  • Ki Tetse contains many examples of the important value known as tsar ba'alei chayim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. The example of letting a mother bird go free before taking her young is a classic one. Maimonides claimed that if the mother is let go, she will not be pained by the sight of seeing her young taken away. Nachmanides suggested that this example was given to teach people to be kind and thoughtful, rather than out of the specific concern for a bird's feelings. The reward for doing such a simple commandment is a great one: "... you may fare well and have a long life" (Deuteronomy 22: 6-7). Rashi said that the reward was so great because it was an easy commandment in that it required no preparation. In order to observe it, one must be ready to spontaneously act in a loving and kind way. Other examples of tsar ba'alei chayim in this parasha refer to helping beasts of burden, and not plowing with two different types of animals. Since oxen and mules have different temperaments, strengths, and sizes, requiring two different types of animals to plow together would cause hardship to either or both of them. When told not to muzzle an ox when it is threshing, we should understand this to refer to the threshing process which is still used today in countries without modern agricultural devices. In such cases, the animal is tied to a pivot and walks in circles while treading the grain. It would be cruel to keep a beast from eating when it is working hard to crush the food that it loves to eat. 

  • Deuteronomy 22:1-3 emphasizes the importance of returning lost objects. Sections of the Talmud elaborate on the many ways that we are obligated to do so. We must try our hardest to locate the owners of objects that we find. We must care for these objects until they can be returned or claimed. We cannot profit from our temporary custody of these objects. There is a story about Rabbi Hanina, who once found that some hens that were accidentally left on his doorstep. When the hens began to lay eggs, Rabbi Hanina didn't allow his family to eat them. Instead, he set the eggs and hens aside until there were so many of them that there was nowhere to keep them . So Rabbi Hanina sold the eggs and the hens and with the money, bought goats. When the owner of the hens eventually returned, imagine his surprise when Rabbi Hanina presented him with the goats. What do you do when you find things? How hard do you try to return them to their rightful owners? 

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Which mitzvot in this portion are the most exalting and impressive? Which mitzvot in this portion are the most difficult? 

  2. Elisha ben Abuya was a famous sage who lived at the time of Rabbi Akiva. One day he saw a father ordering his son to climb a tree to fulfill the commandment of chasing away the mother bird before taking her eggs. Two mitzvot are involved here: honoring one's parents, and sending away the mother bird; and for both of them the Torah promises long life. But the boy fell to his death from the ladder. On seeing this, Elisha ben Abuya lost his faith. How would you explain someone dying while fulfilling this commandment? 

  3. Compassion is the feeling of sharing the pain of others by helping or supporting them. Being compassionate is also being sympathetic or kind. If you agree with Nachmanides that this parasha teaches us to be kind and thoughtful to people, talk about how you show compassion for others in your life - for your siblings, your friends, your parents. Can you think of ways that you show compassion to people whom you do not know? If you agree with Maimonides that we should show compassion for the feelings of animals, talk about how you behave towards your pets and the pets of your friends, or other animals that you come across or hear about in the news. Keeping in mind that the definition of an "easy commandment" is one whose performance does not require advance preparation, give examples of easy commandments that you observe. 

  4. This parasha commands us to build protective parapets around the roofs of our houses. How do we make and keep our homes physically, emotionally and spiritually safe? Our tradition teaches that our bodies are homes for our souls, which are given to us as a gift from God. What are the fences that we build to protect our souls? What are some of the aspects of your soul that need protection? What aspects of your soul do you wish to share with the world?

    mitzvah can also be interpreted as preventing the manufacture and sale of cigarettes and perhaps even junk food. Can you identify other substances or ideas that might fall into this category? What are other ways of keeping our bodies safe? 

  5. Often we hear the phrase "build a fence around the Torah." For example, the Torah teaches that dealing with money is not acceptable on Shabbat. Our sages and teachers taught us, as an example of a "fence," that we should not even pick up our wallet because we might be tempted to take out the money and perhaps spend it. Discuss the need to fence the precepts in Torah. Do we need extra protection to maintain our commitment to Torah? In what ways might a fence bring us closer to Torah? In what ways might a fence distance us from our tradition?