Rabbi Shmuel Wise, Maggid Shiur at RealClearDaf.com
How do we scare the witnesses from bearing false testimony?
On 29a, the gemara made several suggestions as to what we say to the witnesses in order to instill fear in them from giving false testimony. Rav Yehuda proposes that the court cites Proverbs 25:14 to the witnesses: “Clouds and wind – but no rain – when a man takes pride in a false gift.”
The verse means that if people testify falsely, it causes the rain to be withheld from the world. Rava questions this approach. Why would this scare witnesses plotting to give false testimony? “So what if our sin causes a drought?” they will say to themselves, “we’re not farmers – we make a good living as professional false witnesses – a famine won’t affect us!”
Rava therefore suggests that the court cites a different verse from Proverbs (25:18): “A club, a sword, and a sharp arrow, when a man testifies falsely against his fellow.”
This verse teaches that if people testify falsely it brings a deadly plague to the world. Surely the risk of death would make these witnesses think twice! Yet Rav Ashi says that the witnesses will remain unfazed. “Eh!” they will say to themselves, “plague shmague! Nobody dies before their time.”
We learn from this gemara just how irrational people can get when in the grips of the yetzer hara (evil inclination). For a rational person would surely understand that, first of all, when there is widespread famine, everyone is impacted. And the rationalization that a deadly plague shouldn’t worry them if it’s not their time to die yet is also ludicrous. For the whole idea of a retributive plague is that the sinners have “forced G-d’s hand” to destroy them before their original mazel (predetermined fate) dictated!
So how does Rav Ashi suggest that we scare the witnesses? Rav Ashi says that the court cites from I Kings (21:10). This verse is part of the narrative of Queen Izevel’s evil plot against an innocent man, Navos, whose vineyard was desired by King Achav. The queen proposed to have Navos killed by having witnesses falsely testify that he cursed G-d and the king. Rav Ashi says that we quote this verse in which Queen Izevel refers to the commissioned false witnesses as, “בְּנֵי-בְלִיַּעַל” which we can translate as: low-lifes.
“You see?” the court tells the witnesses, “even your employers think you are low-lifes! If you give false testimony, no one will have any respect for you.”
Astounding! According to Rav Ashi, the witnesses’ attitude is: “We’re okay with causing world-wide famine and deadly plagues; but to be looked down upon by others – that we can’t live with!”
Can a court verdict be reversed?
The mishnah on 32a taught us that by monetary cases the court can change any verdict whereas in capital cases only a guilty verdict can be reversed. The gemara on 33a cites the mishnah in Bechoros that appears to contradict our mishnah. The mishnah there states that if a judge cannot reverse a verdict in a monetary case – and might even have to make restitution to the litigant who lost as a result of the erroneous ruling.
The gemara advances several possible resolutions all of which suggest that indeed a court verdict can be reversed – but only under certain conditions (and the case in Bechoros is a case where those conditions have not been met). Rav Nachman’s theory is that a court ruling can be reversed through the authority of a higher court (“greater in wisdom and numbers”).
Rav Sheshes proposes that a court ruling can only be reversed where the error was the result of overlooking an explicit and halachically accepted teaching (e.g. from a mishnah or even a ruling issued by a contemporary sage). The logic here is that a verdict that overlooks an established halachic ruling is viewed as null and void. As opposed to a ruling that is only considered erroneous on the level of incorrectly “weighing the opinions” which the mishnah in Bechoros teaches cannot be reversed. For example, the judge rules like an earlier opinion that appears more reasonable to him, but it turns out the consensus among halachic decisors is like the other view. Although the ruling is considered erroneous (and the losing litigant therefore has a legitimate complaint), being that the ruling does not contravene an officially accepted opinion, we do not regard the ruling as null and void.
Rav Chisda theorizes that in general monetary court verdicts can be reversed unless the judge gave extra strength to his erroneous ruling through a demonstrating act. For example, upon ruling that the defendant was liable to pay, the judge physically took the money from the defendant and gave it to the plaintiff. Such a demonstration serves to make the ruling irreversible. The gemara wonders: how would Rav Chisda explain the case where the judge ruled that this person is exempt from paying? The gemara initially suggests that where the judge rules “exempt” simply telling the defendant, “You are exempt,” is as strong as physically handing the money to the plaintiff by a ruling of “liable.” The gemara’s argument here is that since no further action must be taken by a ruling of “exempt” (for the defendant just keeps the money in his pocket) the judge’s words, “You are exempt,” have the same finality as handing the money to the plaintiff in a “liable” case.
The gemara raises some serious problems with this answer in terms of fitting it into our mishnah’s wording, but Ravina then comes up with a brilliant new defense of Rav Chisda. How could the judge strongly demonstrate a ruling that exempts the defendant? Ravina explains: suppose the case involved a loan and the borrower had given something to the lender to hold as collateral for the loan. Should the judge rule that the loan is not owed, he could demonstrate that ruling by physically taking the collateral from the lender and handing it to the borrower!
So the next time someone asks you about the issue of a beis din reversing its rulings, tell him: it’s complicated. Go work on Sanhedrin daf 33!