10-5770 Mitzvah N-71
January 24, 2010
Negative Mitzvah 71 – This is a negative commandment: A judge should not accept a bribe.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “And you shall take no bribe” (Ex. 23:8). Even to render a true judgment a judge must not accept a bribe. The judge is duty bound to return it. And even a bribe of words (flattery) is forbidden. Whoever gives it violates the prohibition against putting a stumbling block before the blind (see Lev. 19:14; we will cover this in a few weeks) As for payment for being idled, since it is evident that he is interrupted from his work while he is occupied with the judgment, it is permissible for him to take a fee from both litigants equally.
Almost every legal system forbids a judge to accept a bribe. Unfortunately, this is a law that all too often is honored in the breach. The very essence of a corrupt society is that it looks the other way when a judge accepts a bribe. Once justice can be bought, it is only a matter of time before all officials of the government can be bribed and soon all members of society are only looking out for themselves, and getting what they want, to the detriment of those who do not have the money or the clout to buy the correct decision.
There are some interesting extensions of this law as described above. While it notes that a judge must return a bribe, it is also a part of the legal system, should a judge accept the bribe inadvertently. That is, he takes a gift from a friend only to discover the next day or so that the friend is appearing before him in court. In this case the gift must be returned and the judge may recluse himself because there may still be the appearance that he has been tainted by the bribe (or the friendship). This is true even if the judge is being bribed to give the “correct” verdict. If the judge is ready to rule and then there is an attempt by a litigant to “pay” for that same verdict, the judge still cannot accept the bribe since it still gives the appearance that the verdict has been “bought”. This law also applies if the bribe is words of flattery. The judge must not accept anything that could, in any way, affect the verdict of the case.
In a few weeks we will see that the one who attempts to bribe a judge is also guilty of a sin, if for no other reason, he is attempting to make the judge sin. This reflects a cynical view that any person has their “price”, that is, if we give them enough money, they will do whatever we request. This may or may not be true in every case, for there are honest people who will always resist this kind of bribe; but the law does not rely on it. It is a sin to offer the bribe as it is a sin to accept it.
The final clause deals with court costs. Jewish courts really don’t cost the litigants at all. Justice is not only blind, but it must be open to all no matter how much they can pay. The court would meet in the market or at the city gate and the rabbis would sit in judgment and rule on any case that was brought to their location. We do have to remind ourselves that rabbis, in ancient times, were not paid to be rabbis. Jewish law forbids making a crown out of Torah. Rabbis are not to be paid for their services. Rabbis in the ancient world all had jobs; some were landowners and farmers, others had occupations that involved skilled or unskilled labor. This work was their sole means of support. If a case would take along time, the rabbis on the court would be away from their jobs for a long time. This would mean that they would suffer a financial loss. To prevent this potential loss from limiting the ability of a rabbi to adjudicate a case, the litigants could be required to equally pay for the time the rabbis sit in judgment.
Courts of law are crucial to creating a civilized society. Bribes are one of the main ways the law can be subverted; thus it is a serious crime to accept a bribe.