Jewish Judges

Who are they? What are their qualities?

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, by Ronald L. Eisenberg, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

According to Maimonides, Judges must be wise and understanding, learned in the law, and versed in many other branches of learning...such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy and astrology; and the ways of sorcerers and magicians and the superstitious practices of idolaters [so as to be competent to judge them];…[a judge must be] neither a very aged man nor a eunuch ... or childless; ... just as he must be free from all suspicion with respect to conduct, so must he be free from all physical defects, ... a man of mature age, imposing stature, and good appearance, and able to express his views in clear and well-chosen words and be conversant with most of the spoken languages...[so there is no need] of the services of an interpreter.
jewish law
The seven fundamental qualities of a judge are "wisdom, humility, fear of God, disdain of gain [money], love of truth, love of people, and a good reputation." A judge must have "a good eye, a lowly [humble] spirit, must be friendly in intercourse [pleasant in company], and gentle in speech and dealings with others; he must be very strict with himself and control his passions; he must have a courageous heart to rescue the oppressed from the hand of the oppressor, cruelty, and persecution, and eschew wrong and injustice."

According to the Talmud, those who "are ineligible [to be witnesses or judges include] a gambler with dice [i.e., any type of gambler], a usurer [one who loans money at interest], a pigeon trainer [who races birds], and traders [in the produce] of the sabbatical year" (Sanh. 3:3).

Judges must be scrupulously fair and honorable to preserve the integrity of the judicial system, not departing from the Torah-mandated principles of guilt and innocence. "He who does not deliver judgments in perfect truth causes the Divine Presence to depart from the midst of Israel" (Sanh. 7a). A judge is forbidden to handle a case if he is related to one of the litigants or has any other personal relationship (Sanh. 3:4-5).

A judge may not favor one of the litigants in a trial (Lev. 19:15) and must maintain absolute equality before the law. If one litigant is a man of high rank and distinction, the judge is must not afford him any special honor or treat him with more deference and respect (Shev. 30a-31a). Accepting gifts (bribes) from litigants is expressly forbidden (Exod. 23:8), even if the judge renders a judgment that "acquits the innocent and condemns the guilty."

However, according to Sefer haHinnukh, a judge who was not paid by the community for his services and was forced to take time off from his usual occupation to preside over a court was permitted to accept a fee, as long as it was paid equally by both parties in the litigation (i.e., considered as just compensation rather than a bribe).

A judge must not decide in favor of poor people because of pity and compassion for them (Exod. 23:3; Lev. 19:15). Despite the temptation to render a verdict that would allow the poor to receive money from the rich (who would not miss it), one cannot pervert the law regardless of how admirable the purpose. Justice must be rendered with complete impartiality, whether the person is "rich or poor, sinner or saint."

Similarly, a judge must not allow his decision to be influenced by the past criminal record of the defendant. The defendant must be judged for the crime for which he or she is now being tried, not for any past transgressions. Only God may judge all the actions of people, both past and present. A judge is forbidden to have compassion in sentencing a person convicted of committing murder or causing a victim the loss of a limb: "You must show him no pity. Thus you will purge Israel of the blood of the innocent" (Deut. 19:13).

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Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.