Proper Judgement

Bechorot (4:4) | Alex Tsykin | 14 years ago

Our Mishnah provides us with a number of related halachot:

  1. If a bechor animal was slaughtered under the supervision of someone who was not appointed by Beit Din to oversee the slaughtering of a bechor, that person must pay for the bechor as the owners cannot now receive benefit from the carcass.

  2. If a person who was not appointed by Beit Din to pass judgement on a monetary matter but did so in any case and made a mistake, he must pay the injured party for the mistake

  3. If a person who was appointed by Beit Din to pass judgement on a monetary matter and made a mistake, he is not obligated pay the injured party for the mistake

The Mishnah here is seemingly quite difficult to explain. Justice would seem to demand that a person be obligated to pay for their mistakes, irrelevant of who appointed them, for they were not forced to take upon themselves that duty. However, here we see that the process of appointment, seemingly a technicality, is important in the final result.

The Bartenura explains that the reason for this distinction is because ‘if he were an expert appointed by Beit Din... he is exempt [from paying] for we may not say to him: “Why did you rule in this matter for you were not knowledgeable in the Halacha?’” It would appear from here that the problem is one of a lack of due process. While the Bartenura does seem to emphasise the aspect of a lack of expertise, he states earlier that this Halacha applies even in the case of one knowledgeable in the halachot in question. Also the Rambam states in Hilchot Sanhedrin (6:3):

If the one [who made the judgement] was an expert and he did not receive permission [to make the judgement]... if he took from one and gave to the other, what is done is done and he must pay from his property.

From here it is clear that even if the person who made a mistake was an expert in the Halacha, we would still obligate him to pay. Therefore it must be that the reason he is not obligated to pay is like the simple meaning of the Mishnah –he was not appointed to make this judgement.

However, there remains a question as to why judicial process would be so important that we penalise someone for making a mistake only if the process were not followed. The answer is one of public confidence. A problem which greatly worried Chazal was that people might because of rabbinical mistakes come to treat the prohibitions of the Rabbis lightly. This sentiment is strongly expressed in the Mishnah in Avot (1:11):

Avtalyon said: “Sages, be careful of your words, for you might cause the imposition of an obligation of exile, and you will be exiled to the place of the bad waters, and the students who come after you will drink and die, and it will be that Hashem’s name will be desecrated.”

It is noted by the various commentators there that the bad waters mentioned are an incorrect teaching, and the students drinking them are those who learn the mistake as though it were correct, and this in turn leads to the desecration of G-d’s name. Also, the Bartenura there notes that the Sages should “be careful of their words so as to not give any opportunity to the heretics to mistake your meaning.” Even more strongly, Rashi in his commentary on Rosh Hashanah (17a) equates one who ridicules the sages to a heretic.

Because of the enormous importance place on the words of the sages, if they are found to act incorrectly, people may come to ridicule them, and this in turn will “destroy the entire structure of Torah” (Ma’amarei HaRa’ayah page 56). As such the sages insisted on due process when passing judgements, because the process that has been crafted acts to prevent one who would be likely to make mistakes from passing any judgement at all. However, because it is important that Rabbis will feel comfortable making a ruling, and be prepared to do so, it was decided that if they made a mistake however the correct process was observed, they would not be liable, for in this way the risk is minimised without introducing a disincentive to rule on halachic matters.


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