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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shoftim: Here comes the bribe
The Torah commands us to appoint judges who will judge righteously. The Talmud teaches that bribes may take the form of words or any kind of benefit that a judge receives. Shmuel disqualified himself from judging a man’s case when he was given a hand crossing a bridge. Ameimar did not want to judge after one of the litigants reached over and removed a feather from his head. Rabbi Yishmael Bar Yossi decided he should not judge as he received his own basket earlier than normal. Every time we choose between different actions or thoughts, we are making judgments. Unconsciously, we are affected by the appearances of everything we see, and these appearances cloud our judgment. The correct Torah behaviour is to see people, not their garments. We must be very careful to look past the exterior, to search out and find the truth, before we pass judgment.
The Torah portion this week opens with the commandment to appoint judges who will judge righteously. The Torah expressly provides that the judges shall not pervert judgment, they shall not favour one litigant over another, and they shall not accept a bribe, “for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make just words crooked” (Devarim 16:18-20).
Any benefit is a bribe
Every society understands the need to prohibit judges from accepting bribes. Most societies do not permit judges to accept monetary payment from litigants, as this is an obvious form of bribery. However, the Torah standard of what constitutes a bribe goes beyond the understanding of other societies. The Talmud teaches that bribes may take the form of words or any kind of benefit that a judge receives and relates several instances where the rabbis of the Talmud disqualified themselves due to minor factors or benefits they received from one of the litigants (Ketuboth 105b).
Shmuel was a great sage and judge. Once he was crossing a bridge when a man gave him a hand to support him. Shmuel thanked the man and asked him where he was heading. When the man told him that he was headed for the court of the Rabbis, Shmuel declared that since he had received a benefit of assistance, he was disqualified from judging the man’s case.
Ameimar was sitting in the court when a feather fell on his head. One of the litigants reached over and removed the feather. Ameimar said that since he had benefited somewhat from one party, he could not act as a judge in the dispute.
Rabbi Yishmael Bar Yossi had an orchard. There was a sharecropper working for him and every Friday the Rabbi received a basket of food from the sharecropper. One time the sharecropper showed up on a Thursday. The Rabbi asked him why he came one day early. The sharecropper said that since the rabbinical court was open on Thursday and he was headed for the court, he thought he would bring the Rabbi his basket a day early. The Rabbi did not accept the basket, told the sharecropper that he could not judge his case, and asked him to find another rabbi to act as judge. While the sharecropper went looking for another judge, R. Yishmael thought to himself of different ways that the case of the sharecropper could be presented to be most favourable to the court. Suddenly, when he realized what he was doing, he expressed, “A curse on the ones who accept bribery. I didn’t accept the bribe, and even if I had, it was product from my own orchard. Nevertheless, I look at the case from the sharecropper’s point of view. How much more someone who accepts real bribery is affected!”
We are judges
The Torah requires that a judge has to be very careful not to receive any benefit whatsoever before rendering judgment. But this applies not only to judges in the courts. We are all judges. Every time we use our minds to choose between different actions or thoughts, we are making judgments. We all have to be extremely cautious not to allow bribes to effect our judgments.
Appearances cloud judgment
The Talmud gives us a further insight into how easily we can be bribed (Shavout 31). If two people come to court with a dispute, one who is affluent and the other a pauper, and they are dressed in garments exhibiting their economic status, the judge must tell them to dress the same. Both must either dress like the affluent one, or both must dress like the pauper. Otherwise, the judgment will be perverted. R. Eliyahu Lopian asks: “What difference does it make; the judge still knows who is who even if they change clothing?” We learn from this that a person is influenced more by what is seen than by what is known. Unconsciously, we are affected by the appearances of everything we see, and these appearances cloud our judgment. Even the most righteous judge is affected by what is seen.
Greet people not garments
Picture two complete strangers entering the room: one who is well dressed and the other who appears shabby. Who will we normally be first to greet? We have to make a conscious effort not to allow appearances to affect our judgment. The Torah commands us to distance ourselves from falsehood. It is a falsehood to judge people by their garments. The correct Torah behaviour is to greet and deal with people based on who they are rather than based on their garments.
Day of Judgment
The Torah commands us not to commit a perversion of justice in making measurements of weight or volume (Lev. 19:35). The Talmud teaches us that anyone who measures anything is a judge (Bava Batra 89). We must be straight and honest in our judgments. We must judge what is right and what is wrong. We must not allow ourselves to be bribed by people around us or by our own evil inclinations. It is all too easy to be bribed by the appearances of what we see. We must be very careful to look past the exterior, to search out and find the truth, before we pass judgment. The path of our good inclination may at first appear to be less exciting, but once we look past the exterior difficulties, we will see that the truth takes us along a beautiful road paved with many benefits both in this world and the world to come. The Day of Judgment is rapidly approaching. May we make right judgments to merit a good judgment.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network