The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 21 July 2018 / 9 Av 5778

Who is Fit to Be a Judge?

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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“You shall not show favoritism in judgment; small and great alike shall you hear; you shall not tremble before any man, for the judgment is G-d’s….” (Devarim 1:17)

On a basic level the above verse enjoins judges not to show favoritism to one litigant over the other for any reason. Instead, he must judge the case based solely on the facts. Our Sages (Sanhedrin 7b) derive another law from this verse. They explain that when appointing a judge it is forbidden to choose someone who is not well versed in Torah Law. A judge who lacks a clear and complete grasp of the Torah and its application to the various cases brought before him may end up acquitting the guilty and convicting the innocent; he can cause a person to lose his money and another to take money that does not rightfully belong to him.

In addition to having expert Torah knowledge, a judge residing on a Beit Din of three judges must also possess at least these seven good qualities: wisdom, humility, the fear of G-d, a loathing for money and a love for truth. He must be a person who is beloved by people at large, and must have a good reputation.

The transgression of this commandment by appointing a judge because of his wealth, good attributes, because he is a friend or due to his high stature, is a grave transgression for which the punishment it very severe. This is so because the transgressor who appoints such a judge is seen as responsible for all of the wrongful judgments that occur as a result of the judge’s ignorance of the correct laws.

Also included in the above verse is an injunction against perverting the correct ruling out of fear of one of the litigants. This rule applies even in the face of danger, and certainly if faced with the threat of monetary loss. In fact, the Sifri explains, based on the phrase in the above verse, “You shall not tremble before any man,” that one must rule in accordance with the truth even at the risk of death. Another application of this law is in a case of a student sitting before his rabbi while the latter was presiding over a case, and the student notices that his rabbi has wrongfully ruled in favor of a poor person, awarding him money. The student also must speak up, in accordance with the verse, “You shall not tremble before any man.”

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