Judges (Jewish Courts)

During the Israelites time wandering in the desert following the exodus from Egypt, Moses acted as the judge of the people.....

The verse " Tzedek, tzedek tirdof " (Justice, Justice, shall you pursue) from Deuteronomy 16:20 presents the moral foundation of Judaism. One of the seven Noahide laws is the instituting of fair and unbiased courts of justice within a society (Gen. 9:7). During the Israelites time wandering in the desert following the exodus from Egypt, Moses acted as the judge of the people. However, as the population grew, Moses appointed leaders to govern minor matters among the people. After the Israelite conquest of the Promise Land, judges were stationed in every community.

During the period of the Second Temple, the beit din (Jewish court of law, literally "House of judgment") was established. In very small communities, a court of three judges was selected to resolve cases on civil law. Each side was permitted to choose one rabbi and then those two rabbis would select the third. In areas with more than 120 people, a Lesser Sanhedrin, which included 23 judges, ruled on almost all civil and criminal matters.

Take care what you do, for the judgment you give is not human but divine; for when it comes to judgment God will be with you.(2chronicles19:6)

The prince, the ruler, the judge are in honor; but none is greater than the one who fears God.(sirach10:24)

The highest court in Israel was the Great Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) in Jerusalem, which consisted of 71 judges and considered major matters of concern. The Great Sanhedrim was led by the nasi (president) and was the only body that could put on trial "a tribe, a false prophet, and a Kohen Gadol" (Sanhedrin 1:5). The Great Sanhedrin was also responsible for selecting future kings and judges of lower courts, as well as declaring war on other nations. Furthermore, the Great Sanhedrim was required to uphold the death sentence before an execution could take place. The most significant responsibility the Great Sanhedrim performed during the period of the Temples was the expansion and interpretation of the Oral Law, which became the binding authority. The Great Sanhedrin also determined the dates of new moons and festivals within the Jewish calendar and, in 359 C.E., established a fixed calendar.

In Jewish law, there are many requirements an individual must uphold to be a judge or rule a case. Some of these characteristics and regulations include:

Though princes meet and talk against me, your servant meditates on your statutes.(psalms119:23)

Do not seek to become a judge if you do not have the strength to root out crime, Lest you show fear in the presence of the prominent and mar your integrity.(sirach7:6)

- "Judges must be wise and understanding, learned in the law, and......free from all physical defects,......a man of mature age" (Misnah Torah Sanhedrin 2:1-7).

- A judge must be pious and humble as to not fear God.

- A judge must be calm in speech, but strong on justice to uphold integrity and the judicial system.

- A judge must deliberate independently with caution before making his decision.

- A judge may not be "a gambler with dice, a usurer, a pigeon trainer, and traders in the sabbatical year" (Sanhedrin 3:3).

- A judge may not rule a case if he is related to or has a private affiliation with one of the plaintiffs.

- A judge may not favor one plaintiff over the other (Lev. 19:15).

- A judge may not accept bribes from plaintiffs (Exodus 23:8).

- A judge may not make a ruling supporting the poor out of pity or sympathy (Exodus 23:3).

- A judge may not show kindness in punishing a convict convicted of murder or the loss of a bodily limb. (Deut. 19:21).

- A judge may not hear testimony of one plaintiff without the other claimant present.

Do you indeed pronounce justice, O gods; do you judge fairly you children of Adam?(psalms58:2)

They do not sit on the judge's bench, nor can they understand law and justice. They cannot expound discipline or judgment, nor are they found among the rulers.(sirach38:33)

According to Abraham Chill's The Mitzvot, in old times there were ten types of witnesses that are disqualified from testifying in court: women, slaves, minors, the mentally retarded, deaf-mutes, the blind, relatives of the parties involved in the case, those personally involved in the case, a "shameless" person, and a wicked person.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai instituted the beit din at Yavneh to fulfill the duties of the Jewish courts. The beit din at Yavneh achieved its supreme authority under the leadership of Judah ha-Nasi. However, around the third century, the leadership passed to the scholars of Babylonia, where no particular beit din ever gained undisputed judicial authority. Throughout the Middle Ages the beit din served as the judicial branch within the self-ruling Jewish communities. With the breakup of independent Jewish communities and the emancipation of the Jews, the beit din lost much of its jurisdiction.

Today, the beit din acts primarily as a court of mediation and adjudication of Jewish divorces and conversions. In Israel, beit dins have absolute authority over of all matters concerning personal status (e.g., marriage, divorce) of the Jewish population.

For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he it is who will save us. (Isaiah33:22)

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