Question #1: Beis din
What is the role of beis din in Jewish life?
Question #2: Police protection
In a community that is run completely according to halacha, who is in charge of appointing and overseeing the police force?
Parshas Mishpatim is the primary parsha regarding halachic civil law, and Parshas Shoftim begins with a mitzvah to appoint shoftim, judges, or as we usually call them dayanim (singular dayan), and shoterim (singular shoteir), enforcement officers, bailiffs or police. The Torah states that you must appoint judges and police in all your “gates,” meaning in all your cities.
Rashi quotes the passage of Gemara (Sanhedrin 16b) that there is a requirement min haTorah to appoint judges in every city and for every tribe. We need to clarify a point: If a beis din is appointed for every city, what is added by appointing a beis din for every sheivet?
The rishonim already address this issue. According to Tosafos (Sanhedrin 16b s.v. Shoftim), the Gemara is teaching that if the border separating two shevatim divides a city between them, the two sections should each have its own beis din. The Ramban (beginning of parshas Shoftim) mentions this approach, and then suggests a different way to understand the Gemara: Each sheivet has a beis din with jurisdiction over the entire sheivet, greater responsibility and authority than has a city’s beis din, whose authority is limited to the city’s borders. Thus, although a city’s beis din can force anyone who lives in its city to follow their directives or to appear before them for litigation, they cannot obligate someone who lives outside their city to appear before them or to follow their orders. A sheivet’s beis din has the ability to force any member of that sheivet to appear before them for litigation. It also has the ability to create a gezeirah that is binding on the entire sheivet.
The Rambam (Hilchos Sanhedrin 1:1, 3) rules that each city and region in Eretz Yisroel has its own beis din of 23 judges, and that smaller towns and villages have a beis din of three dayanim (Hilchos Sanhedrin 1:4). The Lechem Mishneh (1:1) explains that the Rambam uses the word “region” to mean the same thing that we have been calling sheivet, and also explains why the Rambam changes the term.
The Rambam elaborates on all the different batei din that must be created. There was a chamber in the Beis Hamikdash called the lishkas hagazis, which was the meeting place of the main beis din of Klal Yisroel, the Sanhedrin, also called the Beis Din Hagadol, which consisted of 71 judges. There was a second, smaller beis din of 23 dayanim that was located near the entrance to the Beis Hamikdash, and a third beis din, also of 23 dayanim, that was located near the entrance to the Har Habayis.
The authority of the Sanhedrin
The Sanhedrin has much authority and many roles to play. It is the final court of halachic appeals, and the final decider of halacha. Its interpretation of Torah sheba’al peh is authoritative. Any halachic issue that is uncertain or disputed by a lower beis din could eventually be referred to the Beis Din HaGadol for a binding decision.
When the Sanhedrin exists, the Jewish calendar is determined by a small beis din appointed especially for this purpose by the nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin.
All the other batei din mentioned above — the smaller ones on the Har Habayis and at the entrance to the Beis Hamikdash, and the batei din of the shevatim and the cities – are appointed by the Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin also fulfills several political and administrative roles. It appoints the king of the Jewish people. Many other halachos require the participation or agreement of the Sanhedrin, including a decision whether to wage war and to expand the halachic boundaries of the Beis Hamikdash or of Yerushalayim (Mishnah Shevuos 14a; Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1). Thus, the Sanhedrin is not only the supreme halachic authority, but it is also quite literally the “power behind the throne,” “the power behind the courts,” and, at the same time, the court of final appeal. It has the final say in all matters, both temporal and spiritual.
Who can be a judge?
There are many technical requirements that all members must meet, among them that they must all be superior talmidei chachomim and yirei shamayim (G-d fearing individuals), wise, perceptive, analytic, humble, truth-loving, personable, of good reputation and possess a basic knowledge of many secular areas, such as medicine and astronomy (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:1, 7). The Rambam (Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:8) describes how the Sanhedrin would send representatives to locate qualified dayanim and appoint them to their local beis din. As places on the higher batei din opened, they would promote local dayanim up the chain to the next tier, and so on. The Rambam also emphasizes the importance of appointing appropriately qualified people to be dayanim, and the catastrophe that results from appointing those who are unqualified or inappropriate (Hilchos Sanhedrin 3:8).
All members of the Sanhedrin and, indeed, of all the lower courts must also receive the special semicha that Moshe bestowed upon Yehoshua authorizing him to rule on all areas of Jewish law. This special semicha, which existed from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu until sometime during the era of the Gemara, authorized the recipient to rule on capital and corporal cases (chayavei misas beis din and malkus) and to judge cases involving kenasos, penalties that the Torah invoked. Only a beis din consisting exclusively of dayanim ordained with this semicha may judge these areas of halacha (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:1).
In today’s world, there are several levels of semicha, all of them of a lower level than that granted by Moshe Rabbeinu. The most basic semicha, yoreh yoreh, authorizes the recipient to rule on matters of kashrus and similar areas. A more advanced level of semicha called yodin yodin authorizes its recipient to rule as a dayan on financial matters. A higher level, no longer obtainable today, is called yatir bechoros and authorizes its recipient to rule on whether a first-born animal is blemished and no longer acceptable as a korban, which permits the animal to be shechted for its meat (see Sanhedrin 5a).
The role of a local beis din
The local beis din’s responsibility in a community is also quite multi-faceted. They are not only the judicial branch of the government, charged with ruling on local dinei Torah and interpreting the halachos for local practice, but they are also the executive, or administrative, branch of government, responsible to supervise that the community and its individuals observe halacha fully and correctly. In this capacity, they are responsible to make sure that the weights and measures in the marketplace are honest (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 1:1) and that the prices charged by stores do not exceed what halacha permits. The local beis din is responsible to make sure that no one overcharges for staple products (ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 231:20).
Overseeing that the community observes halacha correctly is also a responsibility of the beis din. For example, the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch rule that beis din supervises that yomim tovim do not become the cause for inappropriate social activities. This includes assigning police to patrol parks and other relaxing areas to maintain proper standards of public conduct (Rambam, Hilchos Yom Tov 6:21, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 529:4). Beis din is responsible to make sure that duchening was performed only by kosher kohanim (Kesubos 25a). It is their job to make sure that no one works on chol hamoed in violation of the halacha (Rambam, Hilchos Yom Tov 7:4), that people keep their pledges to tzedakah (Rosh Hashanah 6a), that graves and other tamei meis areas are properly marked, and that people do not plantor maintain kelayim (Rambam, Hilchos Yom Tov 7:11).
The beis din assumes responsibility to protect individuals who cannot oversee their businesses or properties, such as, someone who fled to avoid danger, was kidnapped or captured. Beis din will appoint someone to manage the individual’s properties and businesses (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 285:2). They are also responsible to see that the properties of orphaned minors are properly managed (for example, see Shulchan Aruch Even Ha’ezer, 112:11).
Included in this responsibility is that, if a father cannot or does not give his son a bris milah, the beis din makes sure that the mitzvah is performed (Kiddushin 29a; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 261:1).
Smaller batei din
In addition to the officially appointed batei din, in earlier generations there were local batei din, appointed by a community to oversee its own matters. For example, the kohanim had their own batei din, who were authorized to make rules and new takanos that applied only to the kohanim (see Pesachim 90b; Kesubos 12a).
The Ramban (beginning of Parshas Shoftim) notes that the posuk implies that there is no requirement min haTorah to establish a beis din outside of Eretz Yisroel. This is because the Torah requires appointing judges and bailiffs in your gates, which means the gates of Jewish cities in Eretz Yisroel. However, the Ramban notes that the Gemara (Makkos 7a) rules that once Klal Yisroel arrives in and settles Eretz Yisroel, there is an obligation min haTorah to have a beis din in chutz la’aretz also, although not in every city, but only in “districts.”
Min haTorah or not?
The Ramban concludes that establishing batei din outside Eretz Yisroel isrequired min haTorah only when there are dayanim who have achieved the highest level of semicha, that which is a continuation of what Moshe Rabbeinu conferred on Yehoshua. As I mentioned above, this semicha was discontinued during the era of the Gemara. There have been several attempts to reestablish this semicha, the most famous of which was when the Mahari Beirav was the rav of Tzfas, and Rav Yosef Karo was a member of his beis din. However, none of these attempts succeeded. The Ramban concludes that, although we no longer have a Torah obligation to establish batei din in chutz la’aretz, there is a rabbinic requirement to do so.
How do we litigate?
Over the years, I have been asked many questions about the way batei din operate. Most of these questions stem from a misunderstanding of legal procedures in general, or from a lack of knowledge about how a beis din functions.
Here is a typical example, lifted from my records. The din Torah was the result of a business partnership that had soured. I received the following e-mail communication: “I have asked Mr. F. to tell me what he is claiming. He has not responded, but has clammed up about his claim. He knows what I am claiming and he said that I have to sign an arbitration agreement in beis din and only then will he present what he is claiming from me. I am asking if this is just — he knows what I am claiming but what he is claiming will be a surprise.”
I answered: “Mr. F. is under no obligation to reveal to you what he feels you owe him, without an agreement that the two of you will go to binding arbitration in beis din. Telling him the basis of your claims does not require him to reveal any information. If you feel that you can disprove his claims, you should tell that to the beis din, and you have a right to postpone the proceedings to allow you the time to present your proofs.
In the interim, you can agree to go to beis din, or you can suggest that the two of you discuss the matter in the presence of a disinterested party in the hope of negotiating some type of settlement. However, he is under no obligation to agree to this. If you receive a summons to beis din, you are required to respond.”
By the way, when choosing to go to a beis din, the almost-universal tendency is to find a beis din where I will “win” my case. However, the mitzvah specifies that you should go to the beis din that is most expert (Sanhedrin 32a). The Gemara implies that this is a mitzvah min haTorah, derived from the words in Parshas Shoftim, tzedek tzedek tirdof, which the Gemara explains to mean haleich achar beis din yafeh, “find the most expert beis din” to litigate your case, so that it is resolved correctly.
What do you do if the other party insists that you go to their choice of beis din?
I mentioned earlier that the Ramban explains that the dayanim of a sheivet have greater jurisdiction than do those of a city, who cannot force someone from outside their city to come before them for litigation. A sheivet’s beis din has the ability to force anyone in their sheivet to come to them for litigation. The same authority applies to a city’s beis din relative to a city’s inhabitants. Therefore, if our beis din system were able to work the way the Torah designed it, the official dayanim of a city would be able to require litigants to appear before them.
Because the countries in which we live will not compel halachic observance, we cannot legally coerce someone to appear before an official city beis din. But an observant Jew knows that he must appear before beis din when summoned.
The person being sued (the defendant) is usually assumed to have the right to choose which beis din will hear the case, as long as it is in his city of residence. However, this is not ironclad. If the defendant chooses a beis din that will be more expensive for the claimant, or he is trying simply to inconvenience the claimant, there is no right to choose this option over a more-convenient, less-expensive choice. If the defendant visits or does business in the city where the claimant lives, and the claimant rarely travels to the defendant’s city, the beis din in the claimant’s city can demand to judge the case (Shu”t Maharshdam #103; Shu”t Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 1:5; Shu”t Yabia Omer 7:Choshen Mishpat:4). Under these circumstances, a proper beis din will ignore the defendant’s request for choice of venue, and should he not respond to his summons, rule him a lo tzayis dina, someone who does not obey the laws of the Torah, which has many ramifications (Aruch Hashulchan, Choshen Mishpat 26:2, 5; Shu”t Imrei Yosher #38).
A Torah Jew must realize that Hashem’s Torah is all-encompassing, and that every aspect of his life is governed by Torah law. A Jew hopes to manage his business relationships without ever resorting to litigation. If there is an unfortunate “misunderstanding,” the two parties should discuss the matter and, if the matter remains unresolved, they should try discussing it with the guidance of a third party, possibly a rav. However, should all these approaches not succeed, the avenue of halachic litigation exists.