18-5770 Mitzvah N-80

Torat Emet
18-5770 Mitzvah N-80
March 22, 2010

Negative Mitzvah 80 – This is a negative commandment: Do not take revenge on one’s fellow-man

Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “you shall not take vengeance” (Lev. 19:18). Revenge means repaying a person who has harmed someone, according to his own act: for example, if one asked his neighbor, “Lend me your axe,” and he would not lend it to him; and the next day his neighbor has to borrow something from him, whereupon he tells him, “I will not lend it to you, just as you refused me when I wanted to borrow from you.” This is revenge, whereby he exacts vengeance from the other, repaying him according to his own evil action.
This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.

Compare the example of the Hafetz Hayim to this Midrash from the Talmud (Shabbat 82a): Once a man from Galilee hired himself for three years to a man in the south. On the afternoon before Yom Kippur he said, “Give me my hire; I will go and nourish my wife and children.” His boss said, “I have no money”. The hired man said, “Then give me produce.” And the boss said, “I have none.” “Give me land.” And the boss said, “I have none.” “Give me cattle” And the boss said, “I have none.” “Give me mattresses and coverlets” And the boss said, “I have none.” Then the hired man put his possessions on his back and left in despair. After the fast, the boss took the man’s wages and three donkeys laden with food, drink and all manner of delicacies, and went to the hired man’s home. After they had eaten and drunk, and he had given him his wages, he said to the man, “ when you asked me for your wages, and I said I had no money, in what suspicion did you hold me?” The man replied, “I thought you had bought goods cheaply, and had so used up your money.” “And about the cattle?” “I thought perhaps you had hired them all out.” “And about the land?” “I thought that you had rented it all out.” “And the produce?” “ I thought that it had not yet been tithed. “And the mattresses and coverlets?” “I thought that perhaps you had consecrated all your property to God.” Then the boss said, “And so it was. I had vowed away all my property, because my son does not occupy himself with the study of the Law. But I went to my colleagues, and they freed me from my vow. As you have judged me favorably, so may God judge you.”

It is one thing to judge a person favorably. Even when things do not go as well as we want them to, we have a choice. We can believe that the whole thing is a plot against us and the other person is a scoundrel, or we can judge that person favorably and assume that there is some perfectly valid reason for his actions. In the case of our Mitzvah, perhaps there is a reason that the man cannot lend out the ax. I am sure that we can think of many good reasons he might want to lend the ax but can’t do it right now. Perhaps he has already rented it to someone else. Perhaps it is broken and in need of repair. Perhaps it is collateral on a loan and he cannot let it out of his possession. We could think of many other reasons that the person may not be able to lend out the ax right now.

Now we can understand why this kind of revenge is not permitted. When the tables are turned and the neighbor comes looking to borrow a different tool, our angry man gives a reason why he will not lend it to his neighbor. There is no assumption that there might be a reason that the tool cannot be borrowed; he has given his reason; that he is angry over the incident of the ax the previous day and is punishing the neighbor in a measure for measure manner that may be uncalled for. This is how a feud between neighbors begins, all over the need for revenge over a slight that may or may not be warranted.

The entire issue is contained entirely in our mind. We can be angry over the refusal of the ax and carry it with us, determined to get even some day in the future, or we can judge our neighbor favorably, assuming that there must be a reason he can’t lend the ax today, and let the incident go, so as not to carry the anger forward. I can add that even if we know that the neighbor is stingy and never will lend a tool, we should still not seek revenge; we should lend out our own tools if asked, so as to teach that person, the right way to act as a neighbor. We have to do this with our actions and without any malice, since if we say, “I will do for you what you refused to do for me” we will be in violation of the next Mitzvah.

17-5770 Mitzvah N-79

Torah Emet
17-5770 Mitzvah N-79
March 15, 2010
Negative Mitzvah 79 – This is a negative commandment: Do not shame another person.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “and you shall not bear sin because of him.” (Lev. 19:17) – and all the more certainly so in public. It is a great wrong; the Sages of blessed memory said “Whoever shames his fellow man in public has no share in the world-to- come.” (Talmud; Bava Metzia59a) We must therefore take care not to disgrace anyone, be he of low or high stature. Nor should we call him by any name of which he is ashamed. This applies, however, specifically to a matter between one man and his fellow-man. In matters of Heaven, though, if a person [sinned and he] did not repent when he was rebuked in private, he is to be shamed  publicly, and his sin is to be made known in public, until he returns to the good path.   
     This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.
Shaming another person, according to the Sages is similar to killing that person. The Hebrew term for embarrassment implies that his face has turned pale, that all the blood has rushed out of his face. That is why they compare embarrassment to shedding blood. What actually constitutes shaming another person may depend on who that person is, what they are doing and their status in the community. And yet, all of these differences are not relevant to our discussion. If it is embarrassing to another person in any way, we should keep as far away from it as we can.
If someone once had a nickname that he or she has outgrown or if there was a school yard name or street name that he or she was once known by but now does not use, these names should not be used anymore lest you shame the person who was once called by that name. We all outgrow our childhood/adolescent nicknames, and they should not be a source of embarrassment when we mature beyond them.
The restriction on this law has to do with a person who ignores a ritual law (law between one man and Heaven). The rule is that when a person publicly violates a ritual law, it is assumed that he or she did it in error and should be advised, privately, about the error and given a chance to repent and to correct their action. If, after being advised privately, and rebuked privately, he or she continues to ignore the ritual law, it is then permitted (according to the Hafetz Hayim and other sages) to publicly shame that person into compliance. For example, if a person were to violate the laws of Shabbat and make purchases on the holy day, that person should be privately advised that spending money, making purchases and conducting business is all forbidden on Shabbat. If after this, that person continues to go shopping on Shabbat, he or she can be publicly admonished in synagogue that this behavior is not permitted, and this person can be disqualified from communal office and the reason, violating Shabbat, can be given as the reason for the disqualification.
In our modern era, I find this last restriction disturbing. In a world where Jews lived together, worked together and prayed together, this kind of public chastisement might have made a lot of sense. But today, when there are so many options for Jews to find community and to operate in the free open market, such a tactic to promote “conformity” in ritual seems to be counterproductive. It will not draw a Jew to reconsider ritual observance; it seems to me such a stance will drive that Jew farther away from his faith. Perhaps in insulated communities public embarrassment may work, but in the modern world of self-directed faith, such public embarrassment will not motivate anyone to change their behavior and may, instead, in the realm of public opinion, embarrass Judaism as a religious way of life.  

16-5770 Mitzvah N-78

Torah Emet
16-5770 Mitzvah N-78
March 8, 2010

Negative Mitzvah 78 – This is a negative commandment: Do not hate in your heart any decent Jew.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” (Lev. 19:17) – and should one man sin against another, he should not bear hatred for him in his heart and keep silent. Instead, it is a religious duty for him to inform the other person and tell him, “Why did you do thus-and-so to me?” And he should erase the hatred from his heart. If, however, he saw the other person committing a sin, whereupon he warned him, but the other did not turn back, it is then a religious duty for him to hate the other one (since he does not conduct himself as “your brother”).
This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.

When human beings live in proximity to one another, there is always the danger of conflict, sometimes serious conflict. Our news is filled with men and women who go berserk in their hatred and their need for vengeance and who open fire on the people they hate and on innocent people as well. Since it seems to take some time for anger to grow into murderous rage, this Mitzvah is designed to cut that possibility off before it can begin.

It is impossible to pass a law that forbids Jews from hating each other; that would be too hard for any person to bear. The fact is that we get angry at others all the time and the hatred is just a byproduct of that anger. The trick here is to cut the anger off from the beginning. This is best accomplished, says the Hafetz Hayim, by asking questions and getting an explanation of what has occurred from the point of view of the other person. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people jump to terrible conclusions when there were easier and more logical explanations of what had occurred. When we stand before the one who has made us angry and ask for an explanation, in the vast majority of cases, we will find that it is all a misunderstanding and that there was no real reason for the anger and the hurt. Even if the explanation is not enough, the fact that there is an alternative way of seeing the incident will help end the animosity and cut off the hatred. It is important to cut off the hatred in your heart before it can amplify into something far more dangerous.

I am not sure I agree with the second part of this Mitzvah. A Jew who sins is still a Jew. It does no good to harbor hatred against him, even if he is a sinner and has ignored attempts to bring him back to the right place. No matter if he (or she) is a good Jew or a bad Jew, we must not hate a fellow Jew in our heart. I just can’t see how we could ever consider a fellow Jew NOT to be our brother, for even an instant. There is always the possibility of repentance and change.

While I know that there are non-Jews who hate Jews so much that they are dangerous to know and too dangerous to ignore, we must indeed fight against them on every front and at every opportunity. This is not a matter of hatred; it is a matter of the survival of our faith and the preservation of our lives. I also know that much of what passes for hatred of Jews today, is based mainly on ignorance of what Judaism is and what it stands for. Here too, asking the question, “Why did you do thus-and-so to me?” can go a long way to help educate a bigot and thus change his or her mind. It really does no good for any Jew to really harbor hatred in his or her heart. Hatred will not cause someone else to change for the better, we can only work toward making others think before they do or say something rash, and work hard to let others know the pain and hurt that hate causes. Love is more powerful than hate, and we need to work to help remove hatred from our hearts against any other human being.

15-5770 Mitzvah N-77

Torah Emet
15-5770 Mitzvah N-77
March 1, 2010

Negative Mitzvah 77 – This is a negative commandment: Do not tell anyone things that another person said against him.

Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “You shall not go about as a tale-bearer among your people.” (Lev. 19:16) – Even if he speaks the truth, a person thus brings ruin into the world. It is an enormous wrong, which causes the murder of lives among the Jewish people, as we find with Do’eg the Edomite. Now there is a criminal act very far worse than this, included under the prohibition, and that is evil gossip. This means that a person speaks disparagingly about his fellow-man even though he tells the truth; for a person who speaks falsehood is called “one who spreads a bad report.” It is evil gossip when one says, “So and so did this and that. Thus and so were his forefathers. This is what I heard about him.” And so he relates matters of disgrace. Regarding this, the Writ says, Hashem will cut off all unctuous lips, the tongue that speaks proud things (Psalms 12:4).


The Sages of blessed memory taught (Yerushalmi Peah) “For three transgressions, punishment is exacted from a person in this world, and he has no share in the world to come: idol worship, incest or adultery, and bloodshed. But evil gossip is equal in seriousness to them all.” Our Sages further taught (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 656) “If someone relates evil gossip, it is as though he denied the main principle [of the one and only God].” And our Sages of blessed memory said too, (D’varim Rabbah v.10) “Evil gossip kills three; the one who tells it, the one who hears it and the one about whom it is told. But the one who accepts it is affected more than the one who tells it.”


There are certain matters that constitute a “shade” of evil gossip. For example, “If only someone would tell so and so that he should always be as he is now” or if one says, “Do not talk about so and so. I don’t want to tell what has happened with him.” So also if one speaks well of another person before someone who hates him, because that makes that person speak in disparagement of him. So too if someone speaks evil gossip by way of a joke. And so likewise if it is told in a way of guile and deceit, as if he does not know that this matter is evil gossip.


It is all one whether a person tells evil gossip in the other’s presence or in his absence. So too, if a person tells things that cause trouble if they are conveyed from one man to another, harming his fellow-man physically or through his possessions, or even [merely] distressing or frightening him – and there is no need to add, if one informs on his fellow-man before a government officer and thus causes him to take the other’s items of monetary value. It is as though he killed him and the wife and children who depend on him for he is an informer [in effect}. Purgatory will finish, and he will not be finished [with his punishment]. (The Hafetz Hayim has written many books on Sh’mirat haLashon on the enormity of this crime of evil gossip, and its punishment).

This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.

As we see from the end of this long lesson, The Hafetz Hayim has written extensively on the problem of evil gossip and this is a subject in which he has a lot to say. Our Mitzvah lesson is only a much abbreviated form of one of the most important topics in Judaism, the commandment not to spread evil gossip.

The real issue here is that so many people spread such gossip and do so feeling fully justified in spreading the story. We make up all kinds of excuses why we can say such terrible things about another person. All the excuses we offer are of no value. There is no excuse for such an abuse of language. Anything we relate to another person that is designed to harm that person, directly or indirectly, including physical harm, monetary harm or public embarrassment, whether or not the information is true or not, in the presence of the subject or in his/her absence, it is all forbidden.

The “shade” of evil gossip (often called the “dust” of evil gossip) is just as bad. Even if we don’t say anything about a person but only hint that there may be more to the story than we are telling, we are guilty of evil gossip. Even if we are only joking at the expense of another person, it is evil gossip in that is makes people think less of the person who is the subject of the joke.

There is a story of two brothers who were arguing over which one was taller. The younger brother would not submit to a back to back test claiming that the other brother was older and they needed to correct for his age. He suggested that the older brother stand in a ditch before going back to back and then see who is taller. Their father, who was watching this argument commented, “Why does it always have to be that to build ourselves up, we have to put someone else down. It would be just as easy for you to stand on a box rather than put your brother in a ditch.” So it is with all people; it is easier to put others down so we will look better, rather than just doing the right thing and raising ourselves up.

It is forbidden to be disparaging to another, but you can, and should, speak well of all people. We should look for things in each other to praise, rather than looking for that which will put someone down. The gossip sections of the newspaper and the internet are always busy with people looking to see how important and famous people will be knocked off their pedestals. But who pays attention to the rich and famous who give to charities, who work with the disadvantaged and who play by the rules? No, it is far more interesting to see who was arrested, who was jilted and who got caught with a hand in the cookie jar. This is why the Hafez Hayim insists that while three people are killed, it is the one who “accepts” gossip who is affected more. Without the listener, the cycle of gossip is broken and the teller of tales will have no one interested in his or her “wares”.

There are some who think that it is not gossip if they tell the tale in the presence of the victim and not behind his or her back. This is wrong. If the information is embarrassing to someone else, we have no business to repeat it to anyone else.

Sometimes, to gain an advantage over another, it is suggested that someone is actually guilty of a crime in order to begin an investigation, causing pain, anguish, public humiliation and damage to their good name. This kind of informing to the government is not only evil gossip; it is a whole crime in itself. You can’t try to eliminate your competition by reporting to the IRS that he didn’t pay his taxes, figuring that by the time he clears his name, the damage will be done and you will reap the rewards of his lost business. According to the Sages, when a person dies, most of his or her sins (including the sin of murder) find atonement with the death itself. There are some sins, however, that go beyond death, which is why all Jews spend some time in Gehenna (Jewish Hell). The time there is for those sins for which death does not atone. The limit is 12 months. Gehenna is so bad that it can atone for most terrible sins in 12 months or less. After that, almost everyone merits Gan Eden (Jewish Heaven). But there are a few sins that are so bad that even Gehenna will not atone for them. These are the deeds of someone so wicked that he oppressed the weak, taking advantage of poor women and children and anyone of the defenseless people in society. The Sages imagined all kinds of punishment for these wicked people. We see at the end of this Mitzvah, that Gehenna is not enough to atone for the sin of informing against a Jew unjustly to the government. Such actions often lead to pogroms, anti-Jewish rioting and expulsion of the entire community. This is why this kind of gossip is rated as an enormous crime, for which all the fires of Hell could never atone.

It is best to follow the example describe in Psalms (34:13-14); “Who is the man who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.”

14-5770 Mitzvah N-76

Torah Emet
14-5770 Mitzvah N-76
February 21, 2010

Negative Mitzvah 76 – This is a negative commandment: Do not cause your fellow man to stumble over anything.

Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “nor shall you put a stumbling-block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14) – Which means that if the other person is blind about something and he comes to ask advice, we are not to give him counsel that is not right. This includes everything, whether in worldly matters or in matters of Torah. It is forbidden, too, to bring someone, or to help him or cause him to come, into the power of sin. It is even forbidden to bring a heathen to transgress the laws of the Torah for which he is enjoined to observe (any of the seven commandments for all descendants of Noah). This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.

If we were to take our verse alone, that it is forbidden to place a stumbling block before the blind, we would have a law that forbids cruelty to the disabled. It is a worthy ethical principle alone. The Sages, however, had more in mind when they read this law. It was not just about the physically blind, but it is about anyone who is blind to what you are doing to them.

This is also more than not giving someone bad advice. Sometimes we don’t know if the advice we give is good or not and that is just the chance someone takes when they come to us asking for our advice on a matter.

This is about purposefully leading someone astray. Perhaps they are seeking information about a job and you are also applying for that job. Perhaps they are asking about an investment and you are part of the team and not an uninvolved party to the transaction. Perhaps your advice will bring you more business, or help you turn a profit. Perhaps you did not have a good experience with this company and you will send your friend away with an unfair opinion. Or maybe your opinion will constitute insider trading or other insider information that could bias your advice.

There are more nefarious reasons to give bad advice. You dislike this person and see an opportunity to get revenge. You have a low opinion about this person and want to see them look silly or foolish. Perhaps this person is a competitor and you would like to see his business fail. Perhaps you would advise him to do something illegal so he will go to jail or have his reputation ruined. Perhaps you see him as a rival and would want his relationship to fail so you could date his ex

In matters of Torah, you might advise someone that something is permitted that is really forbidden. You could advise someone that the law is one way when you know it is different because you want him to fail an exam or seem foolish before his peers, or to get him in trouble with his Rabbi. All of this because you have an underlying scheme that the person asking advice does not know about and if he or she found out about it, he or she would not be asking you for advice. All of these are forbidden by the law of not placing a stumbling block before the blind.

This law even goes beyond the bounds of your fellow Jew. It applies to all human beings. It is forbidden to give tainted advice that will cause someone else pain, anguish, cause him to sin or create for him extra trouble. If you cannot give meaningful and true advice, then the law tells us it is better to give no opinion and send that person off to get advice elsewhere.

13-5770 Mitzvah N-75

Torah Emet
13-5770 Mitzvah N-75
February 15, 2010

Negative Mitzvah 75 – This is a negative commandment: A court cannot accept testimony from a man of sin.

Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “You shall not set your hand with the wicked to be a malicious witness” (Ex. 23:1) – if one unqualified witness knows that the other one is wicked while the judges do not recognize his sinfulness, he is forbidden to give testimony with the other – even true testimony – on account of the prohibition, “You shall not set your hand with the wicked.” There is no need to add that if he knows that the second witness is going to give false testimony, he is forbidden to testify with the other. It applies everywhere, in every time.

Proper courtroom procedure in a Jewish court demands that there must be two witnesses to a crime of any kind in order for the court to proceed with a verdict. Our issues here relate to one of the witnesses to the crime. A court is not allowed to accept testimony from a wicked person. Usually this is defined as someone who is a known criminal, trickster, swindler, perjurer, robber or gambler. A tax collector, who is not paid a salary but gets a percentage of the taxes he collects (perhaps what we might call a bill collector) is also considered untrustworthy. Jewish law does not consider them honest enough to give testimony as they may try and sell their account to one who will pay them for saying what may not be true. Thus if one witness is a known wicked person, then the court just will not accept the testimony and they will have to find a different, more honest witness.

But our case is that of the court which does not know that one of the two witnesses is a wicked man and his testimony is not to be trusted. The other witness, who may be qualified to give testimony, does know the background of the other witness and knows that he is unqualified; if this is the case, the true witness must not testify in court, even if he knows that his own testimony is true. Why? Because if the other witness is found to be lying there could be an assumption that the true witness was lying as well. Or that the lying witness will be believed and the true witness will be considered to be a liar. Our true witness does not want to be associated with the wicked man and therefore must refuse to testify in order that the qualifications of the other witness be examined before testimony is given and the wicked man is exposed. Even if the wicked man may intend to offer true testimony, he is not to be allowed to testify. If the true witness knows that the wicked man intends to give false testimony, then certainly he must not testify with the wicked man.

The laws of witnesses also do not allow the testimony of a woman, since she was considered to be under the influence of her husband or family, or was too easily threatened to testify falsely. In the ancient world, this may have been true. In our day and age, when women are free agents in society, their testimony should be considered generally as trustworthy and this law would not apply to one who refuses to testify

12-5770 Mitzvah N-73-74

Torah Emet
12-5770 Mitzvah N-73-74
February 7, 2010

Negative Mitzvah 73 – This is a negative commandment: Testimony can not be established as certain by the word of one witness.

Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “a single witness shall not stand up against a man for any iniquity or for any sin.” (Deut. 19:15) – which means to impose punishment on the word of one witness. It applies everywhere, in every time.

Negative Mitzvah 74 – This is a negative commandment: A court can not accept the testimony of a close relative.

Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “Fathers shall not be put to death through children.” (Deut. 24:16) Which means through the testimony of the children; and the law is the same for other near relatives.

Proper courtroom procedure in a Jewish court demands that there must be two witnesses to a crime of any kind in order for the court to proceed with a verdict. It should also be noted that the minimum number of judges in any case was three. The three judges could not proceed with a trial of any kind unless there were two witnesses who would appear in the court. Judges might be able to try a case with less than three if one of the judges was considered an expert in the area about which the trial would be judged. But one does not rely on only one witness in any case. Testimony must be corroborated by a different witness.

As far as I know, the only case where one witness was accepted was in testimony regarding the death of a person at sea. Without this testimony a wife would have to remain married to a missing person because the man was not present to grant her a divorce. If a witness came along and testified to the satisfaction of the judges, that the person had died at sea (if on land, there would be a grave to visit and others to testify about the death and burial; at sea, there might be no grave and no burial) the court might accept that testimony and the wife would be permitted to move on with her life. This exception proves our rule; to have a trial and to announce a verdict, it must be based on the testimony of no less than two witnesses.

The second Mitzvah in this pair teaches us that relatives cannot testify at a trial. This would restrict relatives of the litigants, relatives of the witnesses and relatives of the judges could not offer testimony in a trial. This rule ran both ways. It prevented relatives from having to testify against close family members against their will and it prevented the relatives from giving false testimony to exonerate their relatives. Having a relative testify in court implies huge conflicts of interest. The Torah only speaks about children testifying on behalf or against their father. The later Sages included a large number of other near relatives who are not permitted to testify on anything in court. These laws help avoid the appearance of injustice in Jewish courts.

11-5770 Mitzvah N-72

Torah Emet
11-5770 Mitzvah N-72
February 1, 2010

Negative Mitzvah 72 – This is a negative commandment: A judge should have no fear of any party to a lawsuit.

Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “you shall not be afraid of the presence of any man.” (Deut. 1:17). Even if a man on trial is powerful, he should not be afraid of him that he may harm him. Now, as long as the judge does not know in which direction justice tends in the case, he can remove himself from the judgment, saying, “I am not bound to you [to have to try your case].” But from the time he hears their statements and knows which way the justice tends to lie in the case, he has no right to remove himself because he fears one of them, that he may injure him. Included in this is the rule that if a disciple is sitting before his master (when the master is trying a case) and he sees a point in favor of a poor man and to the disadvantage of a rich man, and he remains silent, he violates this prohibition. It applies everywhere, in every time.

As long as there have been judges, there have been those who seek to pervert justice by intimidating the court. Herod tried it with the Sanhedrin, showing up in court with a company of armed soldiers. Powerful and rich men sometimes try and get all the justice that they can buy. No matter what the cost, it seems that buying a judge, for some, is just part of doing business. It is all too often the case in many corrupt countries where the judges are not honored nor paid a living wage that they resort to taking bribes because the judges think that nobody important will care if they pervert justice.

Our Mitzvah tells us that even if nobody else cares if justice is bought, God cares. God looks out for those who are oppressed and if they are oppressed through corruption of courts, then God will look out for them and see to it that they get justice. If the judge is afraid for his life, then God will defend that judge as long as justice is assured. A judge must be fearless in dispensing justice.

There are times when a judge should not render a verdict. In cases where the judge is related, indebted or invested in one of the litigants, then the judge should recognize that even if they are committed to justice, there is an appearance that justice has been perverted. Therefore the judge should refuse the case from the beginning. If there is any relationship between a judge and one of the litigants, then the judge should refuse the case so there will be no question when the verdict is rendered. According to our Mitzvah, once the trial has begun, and testimony has started, the judge can no longer remove himself from the case since it would appear that he is afraid of the verdict and wishes to avoid the threat from one of the litigants. He would then be in violation of this Mitzvah.

I can see that once testimony begins and the judge realizes that he has a relationship with one of the litigants that the judge was not aware of, that they are both invested in the same partnership or the litigant is a silent partner in some venture in which the judge has a vested interest, as soon as this is discovered, the judge should step down from the case. Otherwise, once the case has started, the judge must see it through to the end.

This Mitzvah would apply if a litigant threatened the judge bodily or financially. Justice must be dispensed fearlessly.

In the final part, the student of a judge is listening to the testimony being given to his master/teacher and realizes that a point of law has not been brought up in the case that would clearly tilt the verdict from favoring a rich man to favoring a poor man. If the student does not speak up on behalf of the poor man, that student is guilty of violating this Mitzvah since we assume that he refuses to speak up because he fears the rich man.

For there to be true justice, then justice must be fearless

10-5770 Mitzvah N-71

Torah Emet
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.

9-5770 Mitzvah N-69; 70

Torah Emet
9-5770 Mitzvah N-69; 70
January 18, 2010

Negative Mitzvah 69 – This is a negative commandment: Do not be unjust in rendering justice.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “You shall do no injustice in judgment” (Lev. 19:15). This means not to declare the guilty innocent or the innocent guilty. Included in this prohibition is the rule not to delay the verdict. After it has become evident to the judge where justice lies, if he dwells at length on clear matters in order to cause one of the litigants distress, this is in the general category of injustice.

Negative Mitzvah 70 – This is a negative commandment: Do not show honor to an eminent man in a court judgment.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “nor shall you favor the person of the mighty (Lev. 19:15)” This means that if people come before a judge in a lawsuit, one great and one small (in importance etc.) he is not to honor the great one and is not to treat him cordially. He is not to greet that one to any greater extent than the other one. It applies everywhere and always.

One of the hallmarks of a courtroom is the pageantry and the formal process that are required when court is in session. The judge only enters when all are present in the room. All rise when he or she enters and only sit after the judge sits. The attorneys are always called “counsel” and the litigants are referred to in the third person as plaintiff and defendant. Woe to the person in court that breaks with protocol. There can be swift justice for those who do not follow the rules and then ignore the judge’s instructions to bring “order to the courtroom”.

These two Mitzvot come to teach us that not only do the “visitors” to the courtroom have to follow the rules, so to, the judges must follow proper courtroom etiquette. Since there were no jury trials in Israel, all cases were heard by one, three, twenty-three or seventy-one judges (rabbis), the judges must not “adjust” a verdict in order to accomplish any other objective. This applies all the more to changing a verdict because of any outside influence. Once it is determined who is guilty and who is innocent, there can be no changing the verdict for any reason. This is a most obvious form of injustice. While a judge has great leeway in trying to discover the truth, once the truth is determined, the judge must find according to the law, and not according to any other process.

In addition, once the truth has been determined, the ruling should be given quickly and without long, complicated opinions. A judge should not make the litigants wait a long time to discover their verdict. This applies especially if the judge knows that one of the litigants needs to know the verdict quickly and the judge just wants to make that person wait. This too is injustice since it involves the judge using personal preferences to “afflict” one of the parties to the case.

This leads the Hafetz Hayim to introduce a whole string of Mitzvot that relate to these kinds of injustice based on passages in the Torah. Mitzvah 70 deals with the case when an important person is one of the litigants. The judge must not make obvious or subtle gestures to acknowledge the importance of that person, nor make any comment on the lower status of the other litigant. This would give the appearance that the judge would be favoring the important person, even if he had no intention of favoring anyone. Any action that would acknowledge the importance of one litigant over the other leaves the impression that the judge might favor one over the other.

It may also be true that the judge may intend to do justice, but by acknowledging the important litigant, that judge may then unconsciously favor the testimony or the argument of the one who is more important. There can be no favoritism at all, not even the appearance of favoritism. Procedure is to be followed without respect for the persons in the court. This is hard under the best of circumstances, and when there is acknowledgement of the inequality of the litigants, it points to possible injustices that cannot be tolerated. Both parties to the lawsuit are to be treated the same.

I should also add that this also applies outside the courtroom. If the judge has any connection to the important man outside of the court, he must step out of the case and turn it over to a more impartial judge. There is still the appearance of injustice if at night the judge is buddies with a litigant, and the next day that “buddy” appears in court looking for justice. Judges must be above all doubt.