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The Evolution of Policing: From Ancient Scrolls to Modern Streets

Tracing the Hebrew Roots of Law Enforcement from 133 CE to the 20th Century


In the early 1950s, a cache of documents was discovered in the Judean desert. Among them was one originating from the Bar Kokhba revolt era—a loan guarantee taken by Yehosef Ben Hananiah in the year 133. This document, which he signed, was called a 'שְׁטָר' (Shtar), and it explicitly stated: "and upon me stands all that is written in this שְׁטָר (Shtar)." This is the earliest evidence we have of this word's use.

The word 'שְׁטָר' (Shtar), found throughout rabbinical literature as a legal document, is borrowed from the Aramaic word 'שְׁטָרָא' (Shtara). The Aramaic took it from Akkadian, where words like 'שַׁטָרֻ' and 'שִׁטְרֻ' indicate something written. The Babylonians created these words from the root שט"ר, associated in their language with writing. This root entered Biblical Hebrew as 'שֹׁטֵר' (Shoter), meaning an official. For instance, in the book of Exodus, it's written: "The officers of the Children of Israel, whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had set over them, were beaten" (5:14).

In Deuteronomy, the word is used alongside 'judges': "Judges and officers shall you make in all your gates" (16:18). Based on this context, the commentator Rashi explained 'שוטרים' (Shotrim) as those who ensure the public follows the judges' orders, using sticks and straps to ensure adherence. Rashi's description reflects 11th-century France, where the role of a 'Shoter' began evolving as someone appointed by the authority to maintain public order and enforce state laws.


Later, various policing roles emerged throughout France, granting officers diverse powers. These continued to develop until the 17th century when Louis XIV established the Paris Police Force—the first modern centralized policing body, which became a model for modern police forces. Owing to the significant influence of the French police, the term for police in many languages is derived from the French 'police'. This word is an evolution of the Latin 'politia', meaning governance or regime, which the Romans borrowed from Greek—where 'πολιτεία' (politeia) means citizenship (originating from 'πόλις' (polis) – city).

In the 19th century, Hebrew Enlightenment writers began using 'שׁוֹטֵר' (Shoter) to describe a police officer, although some still used other terms, including 'פקדי פוליציי' (Pekidi Politzii). By the end of the century, there was an attempt to adopt 'מִשְׁטָר' (Mishtar) as the Hebrew equivalent for the German version of the word 'police', frequently used in Hebrew journalism. The word 'מִשְׁטָר' (Mishtar) is from the Book of Job, where it's written: "Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?" (38:33). This word too originates from Akkadian, where 'מַשְׁטַרֻ' means an inscription, and in this verse, it's a poetic reference to stars. The sages, unfamiliar with Akkadian, associated the word with 'שוטר' (Shoter) and interpreted it as governance. Thus, the word took on a synonymy with authority.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda believed the word 'משטר' (Mishtar) was already in use and so chose not to adopt it as the translation for the foreign word 'police'. Instead, he feminized the word, leading to 'מִשְׁטָרָה' (Mishtarah). This term began to appear in Hebrew journalism from 1900 onwards. The verbs 'מִשְׁטֵר' (Mishter) and 'מֻשְׁטַר' (Mushtar) emerged in the early


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