In the rabbis’ eyes, the most reliable testimony comes from two adult male witnesses, both uninvolved in whatever is being litigated. But in real life, that’s not always possible — and sometimes, the case is serious enough that the litigation needs to move forward anyway.
In these cases, as we have seen, all kinds of imperfect witnesses are considered, though their testimony may eventually be overturned by more reliable witnesses down the road. Still, young children, women, a single witness (instead of the usual corroborating pair) can sometimes be used. We saw too that impressions and memories can be considered. For instance, in the absence of a verified ketubah, the style of a wedding, as remembered by the guests, can prove that a bride was a virgin and her payment ought to be 200 dinars.
On the last daf, the rabbis bent the rules of testimony to solve a big moral dilemma: Women who had endured captivity were automatically considered to be rape victims. Most of these women would not have solid proof (two male witnesses) to the contrary. In the face of moral and social injustice (wives of priests may not remain married to their husbands if they were raped) it makes sense for the rabbis to bend the rules. But in this next mishnah, in which they discuss priests of uncertain lineage, will it be prudent to bend the rules of testimony in this case as well?
The mishnah states:
And likewise, (similar to two captive women testifying on each other’s behalf) with regard to two men (whose lineage is unknown) if this man says: “I am a priest,” and that man says: “I am a priest,” they are not deemed credible. And when this man testifies about that man that he is a priest and vice versa, they are deemed credible.
Rabbi Yehuda says: One does not elevate a man to priesthood on the basis of one witness.
Rabbi Elazar says: When (is that the ruling)? In a case where there are challengers to his claim that he is a priest. However, in a case where there are no challengers, one elevates a man to priesthood on the basis of one witness.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says in the name of Rabbi Shimon, son of the deputy high priest: One elevates a man to priesthood on the basis of one witness.
Indeed, the mishnah suggests that we ought to bend the rules of testimony in order to confirm priestly lineage.
Priests cannot testify to their own status because they are naturally interested parties, as priestly status comes with prestige and food gifts. Someone else must bear witness. However, despite Rabbi Yehuda’s reiteration of the general rule that we must not trust a single witness, the mishnah concludes with two more statements to the contrary. Both come from priests. Rabbi Elazar adds the caveat that as long as no one actively contests the man’s own claim to priesthood, then we only need one witness to corroborate his status.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel quotes a tradition from Rabbi Shimon the son of Rabbi Hanania Segan HaKohanim — the deputy to the high priest, who served in the Temple before its destruction and often describes Temple practice in the pages of the Mishnah. Rabbi Shimon unequivocally states that one witness is enough.
We might expect priests (in this case, rabbi-priests) to guard the status of priesthood carefully, and to demand a high standard of evidence for proving that status. But the opposite is the case. Why did these two priestly rabbis bend the rules of testimony to validate a man’s priestly status, especially nearly a century after the Temple was destroyed?
Some of the questions that arise on this daf (and next) about different types of admissible evidence may give us a clue: If a priest is already eating terumah, which means that the neighboring farmers bring him their tithes, can we assume that they investigated his heritage? If a loan document was witnessed and signed by “Reuven the priest,” or if a contract states “I, Shimon the priest, borrowed such and such amount of money,” do they constitute proof of status? What about a person who rises in synagogue to bless the community during the priestly benediction? Do we assume that the community has verified his background, or do we leave open the possibility that they tactfully have refrained from double-checking and just took him at his word?
What emerges from these questions, all of them discussed on today’s page and tomorrow’s, is that priestly status, even long after the destruction of the Temple, was a significant marker in society, part and parcel of people’s names, identities and their social and religious practice. The priestly community was ever more distant from serving in the actual Temple, and the proof of lineage must have started to get spotty. Yet to open every case of self report, or presumed priesthood, could crumble the traditional system and possibly weaken the links to the historical Temple. Perhaps this is why the mishnah ends with two powerful priestly voices speaking in favor of acting leniently and trusting priestly lineage.
Read all of Ketubot 24 on Sefaria.