Ketubot 105

I’ll be the judge of that.

Given the emphasis Jewish tradition places on justice, it’s not surprising that there are strong guidelines about what judges can and can’t do. Laws are all well and good, but it’s in the execution of those laws that the rubber of justice meets the road, and judges are a key part of that process.

Among the constraints on judges is the commandment in Exodus 23:8, “And you shall take no bribe,” which has spawned pages and pages of commentary in traditional Jewish texts. According to the Gemara, bribery with money is so obviously unacceptable that it’s not even worth mentioning — though, of course, the Gemara does mention it, reviewing various examples of how money can tilt the scales of justice. Perhaps less expectedly, on today’s daf the rabbis declare that verbal bribery is also prohibited and provide some examples:

What are the circumstances of bribing with words? By that (episode) involving Shmuel, who was crossing on a ferry. A certain man came and gave him a hand. Shmuel said to him: What are you doing (in this place)? The man said to him: I have a case (to present before you for judgment). Shmuel said to him: I am disqualified from your case.

In this story, a man who was bringing a case before Shmuel for judgment helps him to disembark from a ferry boat. The man’s action seems small: All he did was help Shmuel off the boat. But even a small act like that can be construed as a kind of bribe and precludes Shmuel from sitting in judgment over his case.

The next two examples relate similar understandings:

Ameimar was sitting and judging a case when a feather floated on his head. A certain man came and removed it. Ameimar said to him: “What are you doing (here)?” He said to him: “I have a case.” Ameimar said to him: “I am disqualified from your case.”

There was spittle lying before Mar Ukva. A certain man came and covered it. He said to him: “What are you doing (here)?” He said to him: “I have a case.” Mar Ukva said to him: “I am disqualified from your case.”

As in the first example, here both Ameimar and Mar Ukva disqualify themselves from presiding over a case because the litigants did them favors, in one case removing a feather from the judge’s head and in the other covering up spittle. 

Finally, the Gemara offers up an example showing that even if a judge is perfectly entitled to what a litigant is offering, the offer itself — let alone an acceptance — can be disqualifying:

A certain man brought Rabbi Yishmael bar Elisha the first shearing.

Rabbi Yishmael said to him: “From where are you?”

The man said to him: “From such and such a place.”

Rabbi Yishmael said to him: “And from there to here was there no (other) priest to give (the shearing to)?”

He said to him: “I have a case, and I said (to myself) along my way I will bring to the master (the first shearing).”

Rabbi Yishmael said to him: “I am disqualified from your case and did not accept from him.”

In this case, a man with a case pending before Rabbi Yishmael decides to kill two birds with one stone. He’s on his way to the court anyway, so he decides to also bring Rabbi Yishmael the first cut of his wool, which he was obliged to offer to a priest. Because Rabbi Yishmael was a priest, he had a right to the first shearing and, under normal circumstances, it would have been perfectly fine to accept it. But since the man in question had a case pending, taking this offering would have violated the rule against verbal bribery. Indeed, Rabbi Yishmael is so cautious that he both rejects the first shearing and disqualifies himself from sitting in judgment over the case at hand.

We typically think about bribery as money changing hands to warp justice. Today’s daf highlights how bribery can be undertaken by other means and how broad the possible definitions of bribery can be.

Read all of Ketubot 105 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 20th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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