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.
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).
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).