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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 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 conduct 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.

Appoint judges

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 perverts words of justice" (Devarim 16:18-20).

Any benefit is a bribe

Every society understands the need to prohibit judges from accepting bribes. In most countries, judges are not permitted to accept monetary payment from litigants, as this is an obvious form of bribery. However, the Torah standard of what constitutes a bribe goes way beyond the understanding of other societies. The Talmud (Ketuboth 105b) teaches that bribes may take the form of words or any kind of benefit that a judge receives. The Talmud relates several instances where the rabbis disqualified themselves due to minor factors or benefits they received from one of the litigants.

The bridge

The first instance is about a great sage and judge by the name of Shmuel. Once when he was crossing a bridge, someone gave him a hand of assistance. Shmuel thanked him and asked 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 felt disqualified from judging the man's case.

The feather

The Talmud continues to relate about another great sage, Ameimar, who was sitting in the court when a feather fell on his head. One of the litigants reached over and removed the feather. Ameimar immediately said that since he had some benefit from one party, he could not act as a judge in the dispute.

The sharecropper

The third instance is about Rabbi Yishmael Bar Rabbi Yossi who owned an orchard. A sharecropper who worked for him used to bring the Rabbi a basket of fruit from the orchard every Friday. One time the sharecropper showed up already on Thursday. The Rabbi asked him why he came one day early. The worker explained 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 at the same time. The Rabbi did not accept the basket. He 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 could be presented to be most favourable to the court. As he realized what was happening he exclaimed, "May a curse come upon the ones who accept bribery. I didn't accept any bribe, and even if I had, it was product from my own orchard. Nevertheless, I am biased and look at the case from the sharecropper's point of view. How much more would someone who accepts real bribery be affected!"

Appearances cloud judgment

The Talmud (Shavuous 31) gives us an additional insight how easily a judge can be "bribed". The Talmud rules that if two people come to court with a dispute, they must both dress the same. If one who is affluent and the other a pauper, both must dress like the affluent one, or both must dress like the pauper. Otherwise, the judgment will be perverted. Asks R. Eliyahu Lopian: "What difference does it make; the judge still knows who is who even if they change clothing?" We learn from this, says Rabbi Lopian, that a person is influenced more by what he sees than by what he knows. 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 he sees.

We are judges

The prohibition against accepting bribes is not limited to judges who appear in court. We are all judges. Every time we make a decision it is based on our judgments. Just as the Torah requires that a judge has to be very careful not to be biased before rendering judgment, we also have to be extremely cautious not to allow bribes to effect our judgments.

Greet people not garments

If we imagine two strangers entering a room: one well dressed and the other in shabby clothes, who would we greet first? There is no doubt that our initial inclination is to greet the well dressed person first. However, we must make a conscious effort not to allow appearances to affect our judgment. The Torah commands us to distance ourselves from falsehood and it is a falsehood to judge people by their garments. I once heard a story about a pauper who was invited to a fancy wedding in a famous hotel. As he arrived, the doorman told him that he could not allow him to enter as his shabby attire did not fit the hotel's dress code. Since the father of the bride had been a close friend of his in his youth, he decided to go and rent a decent suit. When the pauper came back, he was allowed in and shown to his seat at one of the tables. After a little while he was served the first course. As he ate, it seemed that he deliberately spilled the food on his suit. The father of the bride noticed what had happened and rushed over to his old friend and asked if he was okay and arranged for one of the waiters to clean him up as best as possible. But when the same thing happened again with the soup, the host got upset at the unusual behaviour of his guest, and asked him why he kept embarrassing him. "I am very sorry", said the pauper, "but I was under the impression that it was the suit that was invited to dinner rather than me." This story clearly teaches us the correct Torah behaviour how to greet and deal with people based on who they are rather than based on their garments.

Day of Judgment

The Torah instructs us not to commit a perversion of justice in one more instance: when making measurements of weight or volume (see Lev. 19:35). The Talmud (Bava Batra 89) teaches that anyone who measures is a judge, and as such must be careful to judge honestly. In all areas of our life we must be straight and honest in our judgments. It is so easy to be bribed by the appearance of people around us or by our own evil inclinations. However, we must always search for the truth before we pass judgment. The path of truth may at first be thorny, but once we get past the initial difficulties, we will see that the truth takes us along a beautiful road paved with many benefits both in this world and in 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
Jerusalem, Israel