Conflict of Interest
The Torah teaches that Yitzchak loved Esav because ציד בפיו….
Question #1: Conflict of Interest
Does the Torah discuss a government official having a conflict of interest?
Question #2: Cash or Credit?
Is there any violation of shochad if someone receives a service that does not have a market value?
Question #3: Friend or Enemy?
Are you permitted to judge a case in which a friend of yours is one of the litigants? What about someone who davens in the same shul? Or someone who consistently rubs you the wrong way?
There are three places where the Torah mentions the prohibition against accepting a bribe, once in parshas Mishpatim, a second time at the very beginning of parshas Shoftim and again in parshas Ki Savo. In parshas Mishpatim, the Torah states: “Do not accept a bribe, because bribery blinds those who see clearly and corrupts just words” (Shemos 23:8). In parshas Shoftim, the Torah states: “Do not pervert justice… do not accept a bribe, because bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts just words” (Devorim 16:19). And in parshas Ki Savo, the Torah states: “Cursed is he who accepts a bribe.” Thus, we see that not only is there a lo sa’aseh prohibition, mentioned twice in the Torah, for accepting a bribe, it is also accompanied by a curse, one that was declared by the entire people of Israel.
We all recognize that paying a judge to rule in one’s favor is forbidden and, in the contemporary world, can lead to fines, imprisonment or both, as well as a tarnished reputation. We will soon learn that what halacha prohibits under the category of the taking of shochad, bribery, is much more far-reaching than what anyone would consider bribery in today’s world. Virtually all cases that we would consider “conflict of interest,” which is a lesser crime in today’s world than straightforward bribery, are prohibited by the Torah as shochad. In other words, making a decision on the basis of a “conflict of interest” is just as forbidden in halacha as receiving a direct bribe on the matter. Both are severe Torah prohibitions; violating either invalidates the individual from being permitted to be a judge or even a witness, and both are included in the curse that the Torah metes out in parshas Ki Savo.
A very exclusive club
We see in Chazal that even minor reasons were considered sufficient for a judge to disqualify himself. The Gemara (Kesubos 105b) notes several instances in which great scholars excluded themselves from being judges:
1. Shmuel was crossing a stream, probably on some type of unsteady rope bridge (or, according to the Rambam, he was exiting a ferry), when a passerby extended a hand to steady him. Shmuel, realizing that the passerby was not someone he knew locally, inquired as to what brought the visitor to town. The passerby replied that he had a din Torah with someone.
Shmuel informed the visitor that, since he had assisted Shmuel on the rope bridge, Shmuel was excusing himself from being a judge in the case (Kesubos 105b). Shmuel pointed out that it is inappropriate to be a judge in any situation when the judge has a tendency to look at one side more favorably than the other. Note that there was no conflict of interest or any implied bribery in this case, since there is no indication that the service was rendered in anticipation of better treatment in beis din. Also note that Shmuel would not gain anything if he ruled in favor of the passerby or against him. From this we see how careful a judge must be to avoid a case where he may have a conflict of interest, even as little as a debt of gratitude for a minor favor, which might influence his decision.
According to the Rambam (Hilchos Sanhedrin 23:3), in this case, and the three cases I will be quoting next, the judge is invalid min hadin, whereas, according to Tosafos, these dayanim were permitted to judge the situations, but chose not to.
2. Ameimar was sitting as a judge, probably in some outdoor venue, when a feather landed on his head. A well-doer quickly removed the feather from Ameimar’s head. Ameimar asked him what brought him to beis din, to which he replied that he was waiting his turn for his own litigation. Ameimar then informed him that he, Ameimar, now did not consider himself objective enough to be the judge in the case, since the well-doer had performed a chesed for him. In this case, Tosafos rules that Ameimar was halachically permitted to be the judge, since we do not assume that such a small kindness would render it more difficult for the judge to maintain his objectivity. However, Ameimar withdrew himself from litigating, considering it difficult for him to judge the case objectively, since the well-doer had done him a favor.
3. Some spittle was lying on the floor in front of Mar Ukva, when a passerby saw and covered it. When Mar Ukva asked the passerby what brought him to town, he answered that he had some litigation. Mar Ukva then replied that he (Mar Ukva) could no longer serve as a judge in the passerby’s litigation, since the latter had helped him and he would be inclined to favor him.
At this point, we can address the second of our opening questions: Is there any violation of shochad if someone receives a service that does not have a market value?
The answer is we see that there certainly could be a violation, if it was done intentionally to influence the decision that a dayan will be making.
4. The sharecropper of Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosi paid his rent with a basket of fruit, brought every Friday. One time, he showed up with his fruit on Thursday, instead. When Rabbi Yishmael inquired why the rent was paid a day early, the sharecropper answered that he had some litigation to attend to, and since the beis din was open only on Monday and Thursday, he brought his rent money early, to save himself the trip.
Rabbi Yishmael was a judge in the beis din in this town. Notwithstanding that the sharecropper had paid a day early because of his own convenience and was completely forthcoming that he was not expecting any favors in the litigation as a result, Rabbi Yishmael notified the sharecropper that, because the payment was earlier than required, he was not accepting it. In addition, Rabbi Yishmael disqualified himself from judging the case. Instead, Rabbi Yishmael appointed two other scholars to serve in his place as the judges. (The commentators discuss why he replaced himself with two other judges, but answering that question takes us away from our topic.)
Rabbi Yishmael remained in the courtroom as a spectator. While the two parties were sparring with their claims and counterclaims, Rabbi Yishmael found himself thinking of legal arguments that the sharecropper could use – in other words, he felt himself reacting to the litigation as the sharecropper’s advocate, rather than as a bystander who could judge objectively. This, of course, justified Rabbi Yishmael’s earlier decision to withdraw from judging the case. In summary, he noted: “Those who accept bribes should have their bodies swollen. Look how I lost my objectivity, notwithstanding that I did not accept the early payment, and it was money that was legitimately owed me. How can anyone possibly expect to judge properly any matter in which he has a conflict of interest?”
The Gemara points out that bribery does not necessarily have to be cash, but can be a different form of benefit. It also explains that any time a judge receives benefit from one side in litigation, this creates a conflict of interest that distorts the judge’s objectivity and may disqualify him from rendering objective judgment.
Note that had the sharecropper not brought payment a day earlier, there would be no halachic problem for Rabbi Yishmael to judge the case, even though it involved a person who worked on his field.
Conflict of interest
At this point, let us discuss our opening question: Does the Torah discuss a government official having a conflict of interest?
Several major authorities rule that anyone with communal responsibility must be very careful not to receive any remuneration from an interested party in an issue that he is deciding (Pilpula Charifta, Sanhedrin, 3:17; Shu’t Chasam Sofer; Pischei Teshuvah, Choshen Mishpat 34:27; Aruch Hashulchan, Choshen Mishpat 9:1). This should also affect issues of conflict of interest when fundraising for political purposes.
Friend or enemy?
The Gemara (Kesubos 105b) states that a person should not be a judge for a case involving a close friend or an enemy. The rishonim dispute whether this law is true only when the party to the case is a very close friend or a true enemy (Tosafos ad loc.), or even if he is not his best friend or biggest enemy (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 23:6). The Rambam adds that the best situation is when the judge does not know either party.
It is permitted to be the judge for a case involving a business associate or a neighbor, provided the judge feels that he can be truly objective. If he feels a bias toward one side or the other, he should refrain from judging the case.
Paying a bribe
It is interesting to note that the violation of bribery applies only to the judge who receives the bribe. Unlike interest, where the Torah prohibits not only the lender from receiving interest, but also the borrower who pays interest with a specific lo saaseh¸ the individual who bribes a judge or official to provide him with a benefit to which he is not entitled violates only the Torah’s general prohibition of causing someone else to sin (lifnei iveir lo sitein michshol) [Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 9:1].
The Gemara makes a very interesting comparison regarding the foolishness of people. It is not uncommon for a person to expend copious sums of money on the possibility of finding a cure to alleviate some visual issues from which he is suffering. Yet, the same person will allow himself to have a conflict of interest, notwithstanding that he has blinded his ability to see the matter objectively (Kesubos 105a).
There is another situation in which someone should not be a judge because of a subtle conflict of interest. If a person always needs to borrow things and has nothing to lend in return, he is disqualified from being a dayan (Kesubos 105b), even if he has not yet borrowed anything. If the judge has something that he can lend when the lender needs it, then he (the judge) feels no outstanding obligation to that person. However, if he has nothing to lend him, he feels a sense of debt to the person who assisted him that makes it difficult for him to be objective when he is forced to judge him.
“If the judge is comparable to a king who has no need ever to borrow an item from someone else, he will succeed in holding up the world through proper justice” (Kesubos 105b, based on Mishlei 29:4). However, the opposite is true if the judge is poor. As the Gemara expresses it, he can be compared to a kohein who visits the silos of those who have recently brought in their harvest, in the hope that he will receive the gifts coming to the kohein because he is in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, having a dayan who is very poor may easily result in justice being skewed.
The Gemara discusses whether the judicial practice of the amora Karna was acceptable according to halacha. Karna was not a salaried judge, but a Talmudic scholar whose livelihood came from smelling wine to determine whether it was beginning to sour. In order to judge a case, Karna would charge each litigant one sela (Kesubos 105a with Rashi). The Gemara, in discussing why Karna could charge this money, rules that payment for judicial services may fall under three categories, two of which are always forbidden, and the third of which is sometimes permitted. They are:
Someone being paid for a favorable decision involves shochad, even when both litigants pay him. According to the Derisha (Choshen Mishpat 9:1), this means that both litigants paid the judge to be certain to rule correctly, if their argument is justified; yet, this is forbidden min haTorah, because it is still considered a form of shochad.
B. Wages to rule
The Mishnah (Bechoros 4:6) rules that a judge is forbidden to be paid money for the expertise of rendering a judicial decision, even when both litigants pay him equally (Kesubos 105a). This is forbidden because we are required to observe mitzvos without financial remuneration. This is a vast topic germane to many other areas of halacha, which we will leave for a different article.
C. Lost time
It is possible that the dayan is paid what is called sechar batalah, payment for the time he has lost while involved in the case. The Gemara’s conclusion is that if taking time off from his livelihood to judge the case caused him to lose money, the dayan is entitled to sechar batalah.
The Gemara chooses a couple of examples of this ruling. In addition to the above-mentioned case of Karna, another case it mentions was the practice of Rav Huna, who told the litigants that they should hire a workman who would take his (Rav Huna’s) place and water his fields while he was judging their case.
If it is unclear whether he suffered any loss, he should lechatchilah not collect sechar batalah, but if he received payment, the ruling is nevertheless valid. An example would be where it is possible, but uncertain, whether a customer will arrive while he is busy judging. Since it is uncertain that he loses anything by judging, lechatchilah he should not collect sechar batalah, but if he received payment, the ruling is nevertheless valid.
The Rambam emphasizes that he can receive only the amount that he is actually losing, and no more (Hilchos Sanhedrin 23:5).
The Rambam adds another condition to the case of sechar batalah: The dayan must take from both litigants, and when both of them are in front of him. This is to avoid anyone from thinking that the dayan is receiving illegitimate or inappropriate compensation (Kesef Mishneh).
In the contemporary world, the most common application of this principle is when a dayan is paid to be available to serve on a beis din, such that he can no longer seek employment or other income during the time he has reserved for a din Torah. The Gemara rules that whether this is permitted or not lechatchilah depends on whether he will definitely be losing money or not.
Here is an example which is certainly permitted. A dayan I know does well-paying consultancy work. He instructed the beis din that sought his availability that he usually earns a certain amount per hour, and that he would definitely lose this amount of money while preoccupied with a din Torah. In this case, he is entitled to compensation from the two litigants, provided the two sides pay him equally. According to the Rambam, the two litigants should pay him in front of each other.
To avoid any appearance of impropriety, the proper approach is that a Jewish community hire dayanim and provide appropriate salaries. To quote the Shulchan Aruch, “It is a requirement on the Jews to provide their judges with a livelihood” (Choshen Mishpat 9:3). The community is permitted to accept private donations for this purpose, without concern that the dayanim will favor those who made major donations for this cause, which is, after all, their salaries.
It is preferred that all fundraising for these salaries be at the beginning of the year for the coming year, to avoid any conflict of interest (Tur and Rema, Choshen Mishpat 9:3). If the funds are raised at the beginning of the year, then the money is available when dinei Torah occur without the donors having direct influence.
Still, an individual judge who feels a bias in favor of one of the litigants, because of benefits that he has received in the past or because the litigant is a prominent member of the community, should excuse himself from judging the situation. A similar halacha is true if a litigant is a prominent member of his shul – the dayan or rav should withdraw from being the dayan if he feels that he cannot judge the matter objectively.
As we now see, the details of not taking shochad are far more extensive than what we usually call “bribery” or even “conflict of interest.” The Chasam Sofer rules that when the membership of a community or congregation votes to elect a rabbi, the members have the halachic status of dayanim and must be concerned about any issue of shochad. They must be careful that they vote for whom they think will be best for their community and not because of a personal interest.
This mitzvah helps us highlight the importance of being responsible for other people and for their property and rights. We should pray to be successful messengers, whenever we are entrusted with carrying out Hashem’s will for our community.