THROUGHOUT THY TRIBES. “This refers to the expression [at the beginning of the verse] shalt thou make thee. This teaches that courts are to be set up in each and every tribe, and in each and every city.” This is Rashi’s language, and so it is also stated in Tractate Sanhedrin. But I know not the meaning of this text, for, since we have appointed courts in each and every city, there are many courts in every tribe [thus making it redundant to specify “throughout thy tribes”]! Perhaps the intent of the verse is to state that if there is a city belonging to two tribes, such as Jerusalem in which there is a share for [the tribe of] Judah and [for the tribe of] Benjamin, that we are to seat two courts therein. And so the Rabbis concluded in Chapter Cheilek that they may divide one city among two tribes, and so, indeed, was Jerusalem shared by Judah and Benjamin.
And it is possible to explain that Scripture obligated [the nation] to appoint a court [exercising authority] over the whole tribe and it is to judge all [its people], and then we are to appoint a court for each and every city that is to judge that [particular] city. Now, although all these courts were alike in number of judges, consisting of twenty-three in criminal cases and three in civil cases, [people] most superior in wisdom among them were appointed over the whole tribe, while those inferior to them [were designated for the courts] of each and every city. Parties to a suit could force one another to adjudicate only before the court in their city, not before the court of another city. Even if both parties happened to be in another city one could still say, “Let us go before the court of our own city.” But the [supreme] court of the tribe could force any of the people of that tribe to stand trial before it. And even if the litigants are in their own city one can still say, “I want to go to the Great Court of the tribe.” Similarly, if the courts of the cities are in doubt [concerning the law], they are to come before the Great Court of the tribe and request [its decision]. Thus just as a Great Sanhedrin [of seventy-one judges] was appointed over all courts of all Israel, so one [supreme] court was to be appointed over each and every tribe. And if [the judges of that court] found it necessary to ordain or decree any matter for their own tribe, they were empowered to so decree and ordain and, to that tribe, their word was equivalent to the decree of the Great Sanhedrin over all Israel. This is “the court” mentioned in Tractate Horayoth wherein we are taught, “If the court of one of the tribes rendered a decision [that was unwittingly contrary to a negative commandment, punishable by excision] and that tribe acted according to their word, that tribe is obligated [to bring the prescribed offering], but the rest of the tribes are not liable.”
And by way of the plain meaning of Scripture the sense of the verse is [to be inverted as follows]: “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee throughout all thy tribes in all thy gates,” the verse stating that they are to appoint judges over their tribes, and they are to judge in all their gates. Thus the judges of the tribe are to judge in all its cities.