Several pesukim in this week’s parsha discuss the administering of malkos
(lashes) to an individual who had violated specific mitzvos of the Torah.
There are numerous halachos that govern the conduct of the shaliach Beis
Din (officer of the court) as the malkos were to be given.
Among them is the instruction to give the malkos judiciously, counting
each one carefully and stopping after the proper number of lashes. In
fact, if even one extra lash was willfully given to the perpetrator
(Devarim 25:3), the shliach Beis Din would himself be subject to lashes
for violating his mandate to carefully administer the malkos.
Why Forty – or Thirty-Nine?
The Ramban offers two explanations as to the symbolism of forty lashes. He
notes that the one receiving lashes violated the Torah that was given in
forty days. Another reason for the number forty would be that this
corresponds to the number of days that it takes a child to develop in the
mother’s womb. According to this line of reasoning, the perpetrator is
given lashes for failing to fulfill his purpose in being created (in forty
The exact number of lashes given, and the manner in which the number is
presented in the Torah is the subject of some discussion. The gemorah
(Makos 22a) explains that although the Torah states, “Arbaim yakenu –
forty [lashes] shall he strike him” (Devarim 25:3), the actual number of
lashes given was only thirty-nine. The gemorah notes that this is due to
the fact that shliach Beis Din was instructed by the Torah to stop the
lashes when we reached a count of forty – but before the fortieth lash was
A Powerful Message
Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chasam Sofer, maintains that the two
reasons for the number forty offered by the Ramban offer a fascinating
insight into our potential for spiritual growth.
He notes that the Torah was given after Moshe was in Mount Sinai for forty
complete days (we see this from the miscalculation of the Jews regarding
the exact timing of Moshe’s descent from Har Sinai; Shmos 32:1, see
Rashi). The formation of a child takes place during the fortieth day – or
after 39 full days. Therefore, says the Chasam Sofer, since the number of
lashes delivered was actually thirty-nine, we can infer that the not
realizing one’s potential is a greater sin than violating the Torah!
I would like to suggest that this theme of spiritual growth – and the
temporary failure to achieve that goal as it relates to the one receiving
malkos – might be the reason for the insertion of the pasuk “Lo sachsom
shor bedisho” (Devarim 25:5) immediately following the halachos of malkos.
The Torah’s instruction to a farmer not to muzzle an ox while he is in the
midst of threshing seems jarringly out of place in this sequence of
pesukim. What is the connection between the two seemingly disparate topics
of malkos and refraining from muzzling an animal?
I would like to suggest that the Torah is addressing the future of the
person receiving the malkos. He had erred and hopefully will be looking to
mend his ways and resume on his path to spiritual growth. He will be
seeking guidance from the Torah – a road map to ensure that he will not
stray from the proper path in the future.
The Torah offers the one who recently sinned a powerful image – that of an
ox in a threshing room. The Torah commands a farmer to refrain from
muzzling an ox in the threshing room since it would be considered cruel
and unusual punishment to surround it with millions of kernels of grain
and restrain it from eating any of them.
So too says the Torah to the sinner. It will be nearly impossible for you,
surrounded by so many temptations in this materialistic world, to
simply ‘muzzle yourself’ and refrain from all illicit activities. What a
Torah Jew needs to do is to elevate him or herself from the animalistic
tendencies we are born with and raise our eyes and hearts to Hashem. When
we concentrate on our elevated neshama (soul) and focus on our spiritual
growth, it will be so much easier to avoid sin and live a meaningful Torah
Rabbi Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, NY, as well as the founder and Program Director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), which helps at-risk teens and their parents. He is a popular lecturer on teaching and parenting topics in communities around the world, and is the author of several best-selling parenting tape and CD sets. For more information on Rabbi Horowitz's parenting tapes, visit http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/ or call 845-352-7100 X 133.