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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shoftim: Here comes the bribe


The Torah instructs us to appoint judges who will judge righteously. The Talmud teaches that bribes could be in the form of words or a benefit that the judge receives. Shmuel disqualified himself from judging in a case after one litigant gave him a hand to cross a bridge. Ameimar did not want to judge once one of the litigants reached over and removed a feather from his head. Rabbi Yishmael Bar Yossi decided he should not judge because he received his own basket earlier than normal. Every time we choose, 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

This week parasha opens with the instruction to appoint judges who will judge righteously. The Torah expressly states 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

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 could be in the form of words or a benefit that the judge receives. The Talmud relates several instances where the rabbis disqualified themselves due to minor benefits they received from one of the litigants.

The bridge

The first instance is about a great sage by the name of Shmuel. Once he was crossing a bridge and someone gave him a hand to help him cross. Shmuel thanked his benefactor and asked him where he was heading. The man told him that he was headed to the court of the Rabbis. When Shmuel heard this, he declared that since he had received a benefit, 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 received a benefit from one party, he could not act as a judge in the dispute.

The sharecropper

A third instance is about Rabbi Yishmael Bar Rabbi Yossi who owned an orchard. He had a sharecropper who used to bring him 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 early. The worker explained that he had to go to court, and since the rabbinical court was only open on Monday and Thursday, he thought he would bring the basket at the same time. The Rabbi did not accept the basket and he told the sharecropper that he would not judge his case. While the sharecropper went to look for another judge, R. Yishmael thought to himself of different ways how the case could be presented to be most favourable for the sharecropper. He realized immediately that he was taking sides and exclaimed, "May a curse come upon those who accept bribery. I didn't accept anything, 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) teaches an additional insight how easily a judge can be "bribed". The Talmud rules that if two people come to court with a dispute and one is affluent and the other a pauper, they must both dress in similar garments. 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 their clothing?" We learn from this, says Rabbi Lopian, even the most righteous judge is affected 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.

We are judges

The prohibition against accepting bribes is not limited to judges who sit 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 affect our judgments.

Greet people not garments

If two strangers would enter 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 in his shabby attire. It 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. He then 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." The pauper should not have embarrassed his old friend; however, this story clearly teaches us how to be sensitive and deal with people based on who they are rather than based on their garments.

Day of Judgment

In all areas of our life we must be straight and honest in our judgments. It is so easy to be influenced by the appearance of people around us. 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 High Holidays are rapidly approaching. In the merit of making the right judgments, may we merit a good judgment on Rosh Hashanah.

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel