Who are they? What are their qualities?
The law of lex talionis--"life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Deut. 19:21) was designed to prevent the Mesopotamian practice of allowing wealthy perpetrators who intentionally caused bodily injury to someone from the lower class to escape with only a fine. In the Bible, punishment in kind applied to all classes of victims (except for slaves; Exod. 21:26-27).
This policy was changed in the Talmud, which ruled that monetary fines are to be levied for all crimes except murder. Rashi observed that a judge should not say, "One person was already killed, what is the point of killing a second-so that two Jews will be killed?" According to Nachmanides, compassion for a murderer only leads to further bloodshed, both because it frees the person to commit more crimes and because it encourages others who may be tempted to follow the murderer's example.
A judge may not listen to one litigant in the absence of the other. Such a private conference generally results in the litigant presenting false evidence that, since the other party is not present to contradict it, will lead the judge to form an inaccurate or untrue view of the case. A judge must deliberate with care before finally pronouncing his verdict, but may not unduly delay justice.
Rather than relying on the opinion of a fellow judge in convicting the guilty or acquitting the innocent, each judge must come to his own conclusion based on an independent understanding of the evidence and the law. According to Rashi, a judge must not alter his opinion merely to agree with the majority of his colleagues if he thinks they either are in error or are intentionally misinterpreting the law. Indeed, a judge who cannot justify his decision on the basis of his own learning and reasoning ability is guilty of rendering a "false judgment" (Sanh. 4:6).
Under rabbinic law, 10 types of witnesses were disqualified from testifying in court: (1) women (who were thought to be too emotional to render a reasoned judgment), (2) slaves, (3) minors, (4) the mentally retarded, (5) deaf-mutes (who could not hear questions nor speak in response to them), (6) the blind (who clearly could not be "eyewitnesses"), (7) relatives of the parties involved in the case, (8) those personally involved in the case, (9) a "shameless" person, and (10) a wicked person (such as a compulsive gambler, pigeon racer, thief, or userer).
After the fall of Jerusalem, the legal, political, academic, and cultural center of the Jewish world became the beit din established by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh. The prestige and authority of this central institution increased under his successor, Gamaliel II, and attained its greatest influence under Judah Ha-Nasi, the compiler of the Mishnah. In the third century, however, leadership of the Jewish world gradually passed from the beit din of the nasi in the Land of Israel to the scholars of Babylonia, where no single beit din ever attained unquestioned authority (even for Babylonia alone) because of the intense rivalry between the two major talmudic academies at Sura and Pumbedita.
During the Middle Ages, the beit din was the judicial branch of the self-governing kahal (community), and Jews were strictly prohibited from litigating cases among themselves in gentile courts. However, with the disintegration of the autonomous Jewish community as a result of the Emancipation in the modern era, Jews increasingly brought their disputes to the general civil courts.
Today, the beit din in most countries deals with a variety of religious matters (such as divorce and supervision of the dietary laws) and serves as a court of arbitration (provided that all concerned agree to its jurisdiction), with its decisions upheld by the secular law of the land. The major exception is the State of Israel, where an extensive network of bein din courts (under the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem) exercises complete jurisdiction over the Jewish population in all matters of personal status (such as marriage, divorce, and conversion).
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