• June 19, 2024
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The Principles of the Beit Din

The Principles of the Beit Din

Looking for a people’s court? Try the Beit Din. Rabbinical courts (Batei Din) have become the object of media attention in an unprecedented manner. They have been attacked as inefficient (at best) or vice-ridden (at worst). Nevertheless they are supposed to serve an important purpose. In this series of shiurim Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman will explore the principles which guide Rabbinic courts, to hopefully understand the hows and whys of their operation.

October 20, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Principles of the Beit Din: Lesson 1
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Welcome to the Web Yeshiva course on the Laws of Beit Din.

The Torah encompasses two areas of law; there are the laws regarding our obligations to God and the laws which regulate our relationships with other people. Both areas of law are equally sacred.  I think that since we live in a secular society in which commercial activity is governed by secular law we have formed the mistaken impression that our dealings with difficult storekeepers is of no interest to God.

The truth is that nothing could be further from the truth. The fourth portion of the Shulchan Aruch is titled חושן משפט and it covers all areas of commercial law. When you go through its table of contents you find headings such laws of loans, estate law, employment law, laws of burglary and robbery, laws of damages and every other form of interaction which can lead to a dispute between people. These laws are as integral to the Shulchan Aruch as are the dietary and Sabbath laws, and together they form the Torah.

Over the past few semesters we covered some areas of the Halacha’s commercial law (which is referred to as דיני ממונות). Besides the laws of usury, we discussed the laws of inheritance, employment law and privacy law. In the coming z’man we will discuss the court system. We will cover the role of the courts in Jewish society and how the courts operate.

To those of you who live in isolated communities these classes may be more theoretical than practical since you will probably never have an occasion to appear before a Beit Din either as a claimant or as a respondent. Nevertheless I think that it is important for all Jews to know how our court stem works. We need to know the Torah’s (which is of course the expression of Hashem’s will) rules for the administration of justice. The Torah is the Divine blueprint for the organization of our lives. Disputes over property are part of life and are not inherently “profane” or otherwise unworthy of the Torah’s consideration.

Chazal said:

רי”ף מסכת שבת דף מד עמוד ב

דאמר רב המנונא כל האומר ויכולו כשהוא מתפלל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו נעשה שותף להקב”ה במעשה בראשית

And we also find:

מכילתא דרבי שמעון בר יוחאי פרק יח

כל הדן דין אמת לאמתו מעלה עליו הכת’ כאלו שותף במעשה בראשית


So we see that the administration of justice, as well as the Sabbath, makes us partners with God in maintaining the Creation. That is why I think it is so important for all of us to know the Torah of justice, and to understand that this is not something that does not concern us as Jews.

To everyone who is new to Web Yeshiva I want to say, “Welcome aboard.” Web Yeshiva is a wonderful forum for people from all over the world to learn Torah together.  Whether you participate “live” or listen to the shiurim via the archives I look forward to hearing from you. Since we don’t meet physically it is difficult for me to know how well I am teaching or how clearly I am making my points. I therefore ask that anyone who has any sort of comment or suggestion should write to me at


I look forward to meeting with you this coming  Tuesday. Stuart Fischman

October 27, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Principles of the Beit Din: Lesson 2
Class description
November 3, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Principles of the Beit Din: Lesson 3
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Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we discussed the procedure by which the court arrives at its verdict. Rabbinical courts sit as panels of three judges. The rule  for having specifically three judges is based on דרשות which are found in masechet Sanhedrin. Since we are not studying maechet Sanhedrin I chose not to cover the דרשות during the shiur.

The Shulchan Aruch says that after the judges have heard all the witnesses they dismiss all the parties from the courtroom and then the judges sit decide on the verdict.  The rule is that “the majority rules” but this is not as simple as it sounds.

First we need to ask if we always follow the majority. The Ramban quotes Rav Hai Gaon who held that we follow the majority when all the judges on the panel are of equal stature. However one of the judges is of much greater stature than the others we need to study the opinions of both sides before deciding on which opinion to accept. The Ramban disagrees with Rav Hai Gaon. The Ramban says we always accept the majority opinion. He shows that the Gemarah teaches that when the Sanhedrin voted in capital cases the order of the vote went from the most junior judge to the most senior judge.  We see from there that even though there were judges of greater and lesser stature, the votes of all the judges were of equal worth.

If the vote is 2-1 then the verdict will be as the majority voted. The surprising idea in the Halacha is that if the vote goes 2-0 with one judge abstaining then the case needs to be heard by a panel of five judges. The original three judges need to invite two new judges to rule with them on the case.

The question is of course why can’t the two judges who reached a decision issue the verdict since they are after all the majority? The סמ”ע  on the Shulchan Aruch explains that when a judge abstains from giving a ruling it is as if he was not present at all . Had the third judge stated an opinion opposed to the majority, it is possible that he would have persuaded them to accept that view. The court needs to hear all possible views.

The פתחי תשובה brings a discussion among the פוסקים  regarding the rule of inviting additional judges. If a judge feels that his fellow judges are wrong may he abstain from voting so that two new judges will arrive and perhaps vote in accordance with his opinion which he holds to be correct?

The שבות יעקב says that it is permitted for the third judge to do this. If the third judge is convinced that the truth is on his side then he may lie and say “I don’t know” when asked for his opinion. The prohibition against lying is ignored when lying would advance the cause of peace. The שבות יעקב points out that the justice system only exists to champion peace so it is permitted to lie when the truth would lead to a perversion of justice ad a lack of peace.

The פתחי תשובה  goes on to quote מרן החיד”א. מרן החיד”א takes the strongest exception  to the ruling of שבות יעקב. מרן החיד”א says that it is the duty of the judge to state his opinion and he may not lie about his view.  If he is outvoted then he must accept that the law is not as he sees it. A verdict issued by a panel of competent judges cannot be viewed as “unjust” since the Torah commands us to accept the view of the majority. The third judge needs to understand and to accept that he may be wrong.

The son of the נודע ביהיודה  was asked a question regarding the determination of the majority view. In a certain case, A sued B for a sum of money. He claimed that half the sum was due to him because of actual damages caused by B, while the  other half was due to him because of incidental costs incurred due to the actual damages. One judge totally acquitted B. The second judge found B liable only for the actual damages and the third judge found B liable only for the incidental costs.

The rabbi who submitted the question asked, “How should we count the votes?”  We could say that two out of the three judges agreed that B owes A half of the sum and so B must pay A the half sum. On the other hand we could say that each judge who said to pay half the sum was outvoted 2-1, since two judges said to pay a different part of the original claim and the other judge said that A gets nothing. The rabbi who sent the question was inclined to say that B pays nothing to A.

The son of the נודע ביהודה said that B pays A the half sum. First he quoted a halacha which discusses  the following case. A claims that B borrowed from him 100 coins, and A brings one witness who says B borrowed 50 coins on Sunday and a second witness who says that B borrowed 50 coins on Monday. A would like to recover from B 100 coins. The court cannot award A the entire sum since he does not have two witnesses who saw a particular loan. However since there are two witnesses who agree that B owes 50 coins we combine the disparate testimonies and order B to pay 50 coins. Here too we can combine the disparate verdicts and say B pays the half sum.

The son of the נודע ביהודה  raises a case which would seem to contradict this ruling. If in the case of the loan each witness would insist that there was only one loan (either on Sunday or Monday) then B would pay nothing since witnesses who contradict each other are dismissed. Here too by the conflicting verdicts each judge insists that B owes either the direct damages or the incidental costs but no judge ruled that B owed both. How then can we combine the rulings?

So the son of the נודע ביהודה explained that there is a difference between contradictory witness and judges. When witnesses contradict each other one of them is lying. Since we cannot determine which witness is lying we need to dismiss both of them. In the case of the judges neither judge is lying. Two judges agree on the verdict of paying the half sum, they only disagree about the reasons for this.  This being the case we can combine the opinions to arrive at a verdict.

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur. Stuart Fischman.

November 10, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Principles of the Beit Din: Lesson 4
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we discussed the admissibility of women’s testimony in Beit Din. “Classically” women cannot testify in court. As the Beit Yosef says this exclusion is learned from the verse:

דברים פרק יט

(יז) וְעָמְדוּ שְׁנֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם הָרִיב לִפְנֵי ה’ לִפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַשֹּׁפְטִים אֲשֶׁר יִהְיוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם:

From the Rambam it would seem that there is no exception to this rule. This is what he writes:

רמב”ם הלכות נזקי ממון פרק ח הלכה יג


אין הנזקין משתלמין ואין חייבין בכופר ואין הבהמה נהרגת אלא בראיה ברורה ובעדים הכשרים להעיד, שלא תאמר הואיל ואין מצויין באוריות הסוסים וברפת הבקר וגדרות הצאן אלא העבדים והרועים וכיוצא בהן אם העידו שבהמה זו היא שהזיקה את זו שומעין להן או אם העידו קטנים או נשים שאדם זה חבל את זה או העידו בשאר נזקין סומכין עליהן, אין הדבר כן, אלא לעולם אין מחייבין ממון על פי עדים עד שיהיו עדים הכשרים להעיד שאר עדיות ויעידו בבית דין ויחייבו בית דין המזיק לשלם.

Even if the exclusion of large population groups from the pool of prospective witnesses would lead to victims of injurious attacks not receiving compensation the Rambam holds that we cannot deviate from the Halacha’s rules for judicial procedure.

Other authorities disagree. Medieval Ashkenazic authorities permitted the courts to accept the testimony of women in certain circumstances. This permission was attributed to earlier Ashkenazic authorities such as Rabbeinu Tam and Rabbeinu Gershom:

דרכי משה הקצר חושן משפט סימן לה אות (ג)

(ג) וז”ל המרדכי סוף הלכות נדוי אף על גב דמנדין בלא התראה מכל מקום אין מנדין עד שיודע הדבר בעדים כשרים ובראיה גמורה כו’. ולי נראה דאף על גב דאפשר דמדינא הנשים אינן נאמנות אפילו במקום שאין אנשים שכיחי כדברי הרמב”ם והרשב”א מכל מקום תקנות קדמונים הם מרבינו תם ז”ל כמו שכתב מהרי”ק שורש (ק”פ) [קע”ט] דאשה יחידה או קרוב או קטן נאמנין בענין הכאות או בזיון תלמיד חכם ובכל דבר קטטה שאין רגילים להיות עדים מזומנים בדבר זה ואין פנאי להזמינם והוא הדין במסירות וכל זה כתב שם מהרי”ק בשם רבינו תם ז”ל וכ”כ הכלבו סימן קי”ו מתקנות רבינו גרשום מאור הגולה…..

The Ashkenazic authorities held that in circumstances where male witnesses are not regularly found the testimony of women is accepted. The Terumat Hadeshen (a 15th century Ashkenazi authority) gave two examples of cases where the testimony of women would be accepted. One case would be a dispute between two women over possession of seats in the women’s section of the synagogue. Another case would be a dispute between a widow and her children over the possession of clothes when the widow says the clothes are hers and the children say they belong to the estate. In both cases women are the people who would have the information needed by the court to make a decision.

In the 20th century Rav Uziel zt”l who was the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel wrote that the Rabbinical Courts in Israel can and should accept the testimony of women in civil matters. Rav Uziel wrote that while bearing in mind the Rambam’s disqualification of women as witnesses there is an abundance of precedents which would support permitting women to testify in civil matters. This being the case we can apply the rule found in Shulchan Aruch that communities can vote to accept only particular people[1] to serve as witnesses in commercial matters. Such decisions are valid even though they would necessarily require relatives to serve as witnesses in matters affecting family members. It follows that if communities can choose to accept the testimony of relatives they can choose to accept the testimony of women as well.

Rav Uziel emphasized that he would not permit women to testify in “religious” matters (e.g. marriages and divorces).

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman

[1] In effect this is the role played by notary publics in our society.

November 17, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Principles of the Beit Din: Lesson 5
Class description

Hello  Everyone,

In yesterday’s class we discussed one of the exceptional aspects of the Jewish system of jurisprudence; the emphasis on seeking compromise and the resistance to pronouncing verdicts.

The Talmud relates several stories about great scholars who refused to rule on monetary disputes. Rav was certainly one of the greatest authorities of the Talmudic period. He certainly was an expert in the Law and was more than qualified to rule in monetary cases. Nevertheless, when Rav would leave for the court he would say about himself that he is willingly going to his death.

What lies behind the trepidation of the greatest sages to rule on matters of civil law?

The Gemarah tells us that judges have the opportunity to be God’s partners in Creation. However if they fail to carry out their duty then they can cause correspondingly great harm:

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל דיין שדן דין אמת לאמיתו משרה שכינה בישראל, שנאמר אלהים נצב בעדת אל בקרב אלהים ישפט. וכל דיין שאינו דן דין אמת לאמיתו – גורם לשכינה שתסתלק מישראל, שנאמר משד עניים מאנקת אביונים עתה אקום יאמר ה’ וגו’. ואמר רבי שמואל בר (נחמן) אמר רבי יונתן: כל דיין שנוטל מזה ונותן לזה שלא כדין – הקדוש ברוך הוא נוטל ממנו נפשו שנאמר אל תגזל דל כי דל הוא ואל תדכא עני בשער כי ה’ יריב ריבם וקבע את קבעיהם נפש. ואמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: לעולם יראה דיין עצמו כאילו חרב מונחת לו בין ירכותיו, וגיהנם פתוחה לו מתחתיו…..[1]

When a judge issues a verdict he is using the authority of the court to compel one party to make a payment against his will to his opponent. If the court’s verdict is wrong then an injustice has occurred and God will bring about its correction. If however the judges succeed in persuading the parties to the suit to accept a compromise then any ruling is done with the approval of both litigants, and the final award  cannot be viewed as .”שלא כדין”

So one reason for the reluctance of the דיינים to announce verdicts is to avoid the possibility of their unjustly taking away people’s property.

שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות דיינים סימן יב

סעיף כ

צריכים הדיינים להתרחק בכל היכולת שלא יקבלו עליהם לדון דין תורה.

ערוך השולחן חושן משפט סימן יב

“…שראוי להרחיק א”ע מדין תורה מפני עומק הדין…”

For all that the judges are learned and experienced, as the Aruch Hashulchan puts it, no one can say with confidence that he has plumbed the depths of “.עומק הדין”

There is another reason that the courts prefer mediation to judgement. The Gemarah records two opposing views on the proper role of the courts. One group says that the role of the courts is to apply the Torah, which is God’s law, to human disputes. God’s law is true and any deviation from it is blasphemous:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף ו עמוד ב

רבי אליעזר בנו של רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר: אסור לבצוע, וכל הבוצע – הרי זה חוטא, וכל המברך את הבוצע – הרי זה מנאץ, ועל זה נאמר בצע ברך נאץ ה’, אלא: יקוב הדין את ההר, שנאמר כי המשפט לאלהים הוא, וכן משה היה אומר יקוב הדין את ההר

Judges are not social workers. If the law requires the judges to rule against a poor they may not rule in his favor since that would  be a betrayal of the trust placed in them to accurately apply the rules of the Torah to the case brought before them.

The second group says that the role of the court is to aid in the maintenance of a peaceful society. This group sees the aim for absolute justice as incompatible with the need to maintain harmonious relationships within society. Justice is a zero-sum  pursuit. One side wins and the other side loses, and the loser will probably be embittered by the verdict. Peace is a greater good that justice. By promoting the mediation of disputes the courts can balance the rights of victims to be compensated with the need of society for it citizens to be on good terms with each other.

רבי יהושע בן קרחה אומר: מצוה לבצוע, שנאמר: אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם. והלא במקום שיש משפט – אין שלום, ובמקום שיש שלום – אין משפט. אלא איזהו משפט שיש בו שלום – הוי אומר: זה ביצוע. וכן בדוד הוא אומר ויהי דוד עושה משפט וצדקה, והלא כל מקום שיש משפט – אין צדקה, וצדקה – אין משפט, אלא איזהו משפט שיש בו צדקה – הוי אומר: זה ביצוע.

Strong arguments can be made on behalf of both sides to this debate but the  Halacha comes down strongly on the side promoting compromise:

שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות דיינים סימן יב

סעיף ב


מצוה לומר לבעלי דינים בתחלה: הדין אתם רוצים או הפשרה; אם רצו בפשרה, עושים ביניהם פשרה. וכשם שמוזהר שלא להטות הדין, כך מוזהר שלא יטה הפשרה לאחד יותר מחבירו. וכל בית דין שעושה פשרה תמיד הרי זה משובח. במה דברים אמורים, קודם גמר דין, אף על פי ששמע דבריהם ויודע להיכן הדין נוטה, מצוה לבצוע. אבל אחר שגמר הדין ואמר: איש פלוני אתה זכאי, איש פלוני אתה חייב, אינו רשאי לעשות פשרה ביניהם. אבל אחר, שאינו דיין, רשאי לעשות פשרה ביניהם שלא במושב דין הקבוע למשפט. ואם חייבו בית דין שבועה לאחד מהם, רשאי הבית דין לעשות פשרה ביניהם כדי ליפטר מעונש שבועה. ( ואין בית דין יכולין לכוף ליכנס לפנים משורת הדין, אף על פי שנראה להם שהוא מן הראוי) (ב”י בשם ר”י ובשם הרא”ש). ויש חולקים (מרדכי פ’ ב’ דמציעא).

Compromise, which enables the litigants to leave the court without enmity, must be the goal that every court sets for itself. It requires great diplomatic skill and patience to persuade the parties to accept compromise. Even if the judges feel after having heard from both parties that the law is on the side of one of the parties, the judges should still seek to mediate between the sides. This is not unfair to the stronger side, nor is it misleading, since as the סמ”ע puts it, the value of peace is greater than the value of the larger award which the stronger party may have received[2].

The need for compromise is not limited to civil suits. Courts are asked to adjudicate in community disputes. The נצי”ב  (the great Rosh yeshiva of Volozhin in the end of the 19th century) was asked to hear the dispute between two sides in a community. Each side thought (not surprisingly) that it was right and its opponents wrong.

The נצי”ב told them that this inclination to see the world as black and white is destructive. People need to accept that the people with whom they are arguing are also motivated by ideals and that we should respect each other’s values. The Talmud says that the Second Temple was destroyed because the people insisted on the strict application of the Law. Their failure to be flexible, their unwillingness to ever compromise led to their destruction. Verdicts which do not lead to peace between the parties must be abandoned in favor of compromise.[3]

I think that we live in in a time when factionalism is rearing the Jewish people apart. It seems to me that the advice of the Netziv is as important now as it was when he wrote it, 128 years ago.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman

[1] סנהדרין דף ז עמוד א

[2] סמ”ע סימן יב ס”ק ט

ט] ויודע להיכן הדין נוטה. ואין בזה משום מטעה לחבירו, כי נוח לחבירו שיוותר מה לבעל דינו כדי שיתווך השלום ביניהם:

[3] שו”ת משיב דבר חלק ג סימן י

אבל אם הדין אינו יכול להביא לידי שלום. ההכרח לעשותו פשרה

November 24, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Principles of the Beit Din: Lesson 6
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s class we learned about the latitude afforded to the judges when they weigh the facts brought before them as they arrive at a verdict. Specifically, we learned about the place afforded to circumstantial evidence and the place afforded to the judge’s instincts and impressions.

There is a famous story in the Gemarah about circumstantial evidence:

תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת סנהדרין פרק ד

אמר ר’ שמעון בן שטח אראה בנחמה אם לא ראיתי רודף אחר אחד נכנס לחורבה נכנסתי אחריו ומצאתיו הרוג וזה יוצא וסייף מנטף דם אמרתי לו אראה בנחמה שזה הרגו אבל מה אעשה שאין דמך מסור בידי אלא היודע מחשבות יפרע מאותו האיש. לא הספיק לצאת משם עד שהכישו נחש ומת.

This exclusion of circumstantial evidence is not limited to capital crimes. There is a similar law in the Gemarah regarding claims for property damage:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף צג עמוד א

שור שהיה רועה ונמצא שור הרוג בצדו, אף על פי שזה מנוגח וזה מועד ליגח, זה מנושך וזה מועד לישוך – אין אומרים בידוע שזה נגחו וזה נשכו; רבי אחא אומר: גמל האוחר בין הגמלים ונמצא גמל הרוג בצדו – בידוע שזה הרגו

In in Baba Batra there is a dispute between the חכמים and  ר’ אחא about the admissibility of circumstantial evidence and the Halacha is like  חכמים who proscribe it. It follows that cases can only be settled on the basis of witnesses’ testimony.

רמב”ם הלכות סנהדרין פרק כ

הלכה א

אין בית דין עונשין באומד הדעת אלא על פי עדים בראיה ברורה, אפילו ראוהו העדים רודף אחר חבירו והתרו בו והעלימו עיניהם או שנכנסו אחריו לחורבה ונכנסו אחריו ומצאוהו הרוג ומפרפר והסייף מנטף דם ביד ההורג הואיל ולא ראוהו בעת שהכהו אין בית דין הורגין בעדות זו ועל זה וכיוצא בו נאמר ונקי וצדיק אל תהרוג, וכן אם העידו עליו שנים שעבד ע”ז זה ראהו שעבד את החמה והתרה בו וזה ראהו שעבד את הלבנה והתרה בו אין מצטרפין, שנאמר ונקי וצדיק אל תהרוג הואיל ויש שם צד לנקותו ולהיותו צדיק אל תהרגוהו.


שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות נזקי ממון סימן תח

סעיף ב

שור שהיה רועה, ונמצא שור הרוג בצדו, אף ע”פ שזה מנושך וזה מועד לנשך, זה מנוגח וזה מועד ליגח, אין אומרים בידוע שזה נגחו או נשכו. ואפילו גמל האוחר בין הגמלים ונמצא הרוג בצדו, אין אומרים בידוע שזה הרגו, עד שיראוהו עדים כשרים.

There are exceptions to this rule, and they are based on the concept of “דין מרומה”-the “fraudulent case.” The Halacha has rules of judicial procedure just like every other judicial system ( l’havdil).However the judge may not obey these rules blindly. If after hearing the witnesses and cross-examining both them and the litigants he may not issue a verdict based on the rules if his conscience is uncomfortable with the findings. The judge needs to listen critically to the witnesses and if he has a feeling that one of the sides to the suit is lying he must not ignore that feeling. The judge is not free to say, “I have done my duty and the lying side should bear the burden of the sin.”

How should the judge proceed when he suspects that either one (or both) of the litigants and/or the witnesses are lying? First the judge should question the parties over and over again in order to uncover the truth. If after extensive questioning the judge is still uncomfortable with the testimony he must recuse himself from the case and tell the litigants that they should seek a judge who feels that he is capable of issuing a verdict in their dispute. This is the opinion of the Rambam. The Shulchan Aruch adds the practice of the Rosh. When the Rosh was convinced that the plaintiff’s claim was fraudulent the Rosh would dismiss the case and give to the defendant a letter stating that no other court should hear the case. This would protect the defendant from future harassment by the plaintiff. When the defendant is lying the matter is more difficult to resolve. Merely dismissing the case benefits the defendant who lied to the court. On the other hand the court cannot find for the plaintiff when the rules of procedure point to a verdict in favor of the defendant. Therefore the Shulchan Aruch says that in such a case the judge needs to make every effort to prove the duplicity of the defendant. If the judge cannot prove that the defendant is lying and if the judge feels that the circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly favors the plaintiff then he may find for the plaintiff. This extraordinary freedom to ignore the testimony of the witnesses in favor of the circumstantial evidence is only given to the judge who possesses great expertise and is the foremost scholar of his generation. As the Rema puts it:

שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות דיינים סימן טו סעיף ד

כי אין לדיין באלו הדברים רק מה שעיניו רואות

We saw last week that the Gemarah heaps praise upon judges who rule correctly. The judge needs to follow both the rules of procedure and to look into the hearts of those who appear before the court. It is understandable that the renowned sage Rav Shimon bar Yochai said with relief that he is not qualified to judge according to דין תורה. The responsibility to arrive at the correct verdict is very great and the obstacles to discovering the truth are formidable.

We ended the shiur with a discussion about “lie detectors” and their admissibility in the courts. Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l heard a case in which a husband accused his wife of having had a romantic relationship with her employer. The wife admitted to having been alone with the employer but she said it was during work hours and she had never had the slightest idea of committing adultery. The husband was not persuaded by his wife’s denial and asked the court to instruct her to have a polygraph examination. The wife refused to have this test and the case was brought before Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l for a ruling.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef pointed out that “lie detectors” do not actually detect lies. These machines measure various bodily  functions ( such as blood pressure and heart rate) which when elevated may be signs of stress. This being the case, the results of the test need to be interpreted by an “expert” who gives his impression to the court. This, according to Rav Ovadiah Yosef is certainly not “testimony” that a person has lied. It is at best circumstantial evidence ( known as אומדנא) and it is not even persuasive circumstantial evidence. This is because the device measures stress and the exam itself is stress-producing so the test is not really indicative of anything that the court could find informative or valuable.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef cited a case where a rabbi disallowed the testimony of two witnesses who failed a polygraph test. This rabbi felt that the results of the polygraph test were admissible as circumstantial evidence and therefore the case needed to be dismissed as a דין מרומה because the rabbi could not determine which side was telling the truth. Rav Ovadiah Yosef wrote that this rabbi erred in giving so much weight to the polygraph test. With regard to the case in question, Rav Ovadiah Yosef ruled that given the limitations of the polygraph test there is no basis for ordering the wife to undergo the test and the husband should make the effort to re-establish a peaceful relationship with his wife.

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur. Stuart Fischman

December 1, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Principles of the Beit Din: Lesson 7
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s ( December 1) shiur we discussed the subject of bribery. The Torah’s prohibition against bribery is absolute, even if the judge is absolutely certain that his opinion won’t be swayed by the bribe he may not accept it.

(יט) לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים וְלֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם:

רש”י דברים פרשת שופטים פרק טז פסוק יט

ולא תקח שחד – אפילו לשפוט צדק:

כי השחד יעור – משקבל שחד ממנו אי אפשר שלא יטה את לבו אצלו להפוך בזכותו:

דברי צדיקים – דברים המצודקים, משפטי אמת:

The prohibition against bribery is addressed to the judge. The prohibition against giving a bribe is based on the broader prohibition against causing others to sin. This prohibition is known as “.לפני עור לא תתן מכשול”

The prohibition against bribery applies not only to judges but to all holders of public office. All public officials have the obligations of judges and are required to exercise their authority with only the public’s welfare in mind. This is the rule of the Rema:

שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות עדות סימן לז סעיף כב

“…טובי הקהל הממונים לעסוק בצרכי רבים או יחידים, הרי הן כדיינים…”

The prohibition against bribery is rather straightforward. However, during the course of our exile among hostile governments where it was difficult for a Jewish litigant to obtain a fair hearing from a non-Jewish judge, some Jews felt that the only way that could obtain justice was by giving the non-Jewish judge a bribe. Might this be permitted?

We saw yesterday that the first authority to address this question was the חוות [1]יאיר . The חוות יאיר  wrote that his brother-in-law ( Rabbi Itzik) was the rabbi of Mannheim and was asked by the local duke (Karl Ludwig) to explain why it is that Jews bribe the local judges. Rabbi Itzik answered that if Jews are bribing the judges they are doing so out of a sense of desperation. He then explained why the Jews felt that they must give bribes to the judges:

1)  The reality may be that the judge had already been bribed by the other party to the suit so the bribe paid by the Jew is only meant to restore balance to the trial.

2) The bribe is not given to give an incorrect verdict. Rather the bribe is given to “encourage” the judge to look into the matter thoroughly and to not overlook facts that are in the Jew’s favor.

3) “אין שנאה כשנאת הדת”- there is no hatred like the hatred based on religion. It is a fact that Christian judges favor Christians over Jews. If the Jew would not bribe the Christian judge there would be no possibility of receiving a favorable verdict.

Neither Rabbi Itzik nor the חוות יאיר  permitted bribing a judge. They only wrote that when a person is facing a biased (if not already corrupted) judge then paying a bribe may be excused:

“…רק שהנותן אם יודע שזה שכנגדו עובר עליו הדרך ומכחש לו ומבקש את שלו פטור מדיני שמים וכן בדבר התלוי בשיקול הדעת.”

The ברכי יוסף was asked ,if a person who knows that his opponent in a trial has already bribed the judge can he also bribe the judge in order to obtain a fair hearing? The ברכי יוסף   ruled that it is forbidden to do so.

We began the shiur with an article from the publication תחומין which is an annual publication on Halacha published by the Tzomet Institute in Alon Shvut. The article discussed a question posed by an industrialist whose factory is located in חוץ לארץ.

This industrialist had submitted on many occasions bids to obtain contracts from a foreign government but had never been awarded a contract. He learned that the only way to even be considered for a contract is to bribe the officials who sit on the committees which review the bids. The bidding system is corrupt and the other manufacturers all pay bribes to the officials. The manufacturer asked if he may pay bribes as well.

The author of the essay  (Rav Avraham Sheinfeld) reviewed all the aspects of the prohibition of bribery ( bribing a non-Jew, bribing to ensure a fair hearing, bribing when the judge/official had already been bribed by the other parties, and the issue of לפני עור). Rav Sheinfeld added a discussion on the subject of חילול ה’ (the desecration of God’s name). Whenever a Jew’s behavior will lead to public disgrace of the Jewish people this is an instance of חילול ה’  which is one of the most severe sins in the Torah. We must remember that as Jews we are God’s representatives and our behavior must never reflect negatively on God or the Torah. Should a Jew be caught bribing a public official, the non-Jews will say “look at the dishonest Jews.” Regardless of the level of corruption in the society as a whole the Jew who offered the bribe can expect to be singled out for condemnation should he be caught. The risk of causing a חילול ה’  is reason enough to prohibit bribing the officials in charge of the bidding process.

Rav Sheinfeld ended his response with w citation from the essay אמונה ובטחון  which was written by the Chazon Ish zt”l. We are taught that our livelihoods are determined by Hashem on Rosh Hashanah. It is true that we may not sit idly and wait for Hashem to send us our needs. We must make an effort to secure our livelihoods but the effort must be honest. A person who thinks that by cheating he will achieve a competitive advantage is deluding himself. Our eyes and our hearts may lead us astray and we need to keep this in mind.

The temptation to make “backroom deals” is real and always present. Anyone who doubts this only needs to read the news to see the latest examples of public officials who are found to be corrupt. It is for this reason that the Tur and Shulchan Aruch write that judges must be “very very” careful not to accept bribes.

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur. Stuart Fischman.

[1] The שו”ת חוות יאיר was written by Rav Yair Bachrach zt”l who lived in Germany in the 17th century

December 15, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Principles of the Beit Din: Lesson 8
Class description

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman graduated from Yeshiva University in 1980 and the dental school of Columbia University in 1985. In 1989 he began studying and teaching at Yeshivat Hamivtar and now studies and teaches at Yeshivat Machanaim in Efrat. He has rabbinic ordination from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.