Monthly Archives: August 2020

Who’s a False Witness? Shoftim 5780

Honesty is the bedrock of justice. Legal proceedings to determine innocence or guilt, obligation or exemption, depend on honest and truthful testimony. For this reason, the Decalogue includes the prohibition of false testimony among its list of severe social crimes, beside murder and theft (Exod. 20 and Deut. 5). In Parshat Shoftim we learn that all testimony must be cross examined, and that false testimony must be identified and punished.

The subject of false  or “plotting” witnesses (עדים זוממים) is of great concern to the sages of Israel. The first chapter of Mishnah Makkot is dedicated to this subject, and many sections of the Talmud return to it. In Makkot 1:6 we learn from the rabbis of a disagreement they had with the Sadducees regarding false testimony in a murder trial. The Sadducean position (according to the rabbis) was that a false witness could not be executed unless the person they framed had already been executed. For the rabbis, guilt for false testimony is incurred as soon as the verdict is passed, even if the falsely accused person is exonerated before execution.

In Tractate Hagigah (16b) the rabbis mention a dispute between two Temple-era sages, Yehudah b. Tabbai, and Shimon b. Shetah. The former swears that he supervised the execution of a false witness whose victim had not yet been executed, as a demonstration against Sadducean law. Shimon b. Shetah swears that Yehudah has killed an innocent man, because his proof of the false testimony was defective. Interestingly, the oath expression they each use is “I ]won’t[ be comforted unless…” (אראה בנחמה אם לא) . The sages have staked their own personal comfort on the protection of justice in society. Indeed, Yehudah concedes error and immediately engages in several forms of contrition. Ironically, the penalty he invoked comes to pass even though, or because his statement was true! He accepts upon himself a professional demotion—never to render a verdict without consulting Shimon, and he spends the rest of his life weeping and pleading forgiveness at the grave of the man he had executed.

On a literary level, this text is very rich. Yehudah “prostrates” on the grave—the text uses the word משתטח, which includes Shimon’s patronymic. And the phrase “his voice was heard” is ambiguous—whose voice was heard? That of the weeping rabbi? That of his victim from the grave? At each stage of this story, a voice has been heard, but the result has been fatefully unjust. There may even be allusion here to Jeremiah’s description of a voice heard weeping on high (קול ברמה נשמע), Mother Rachel bitterly weeping for her children who are no more.

The rabbis famously described slander as equivalent to murder, and sometimes, as with false testimony, or bad judgment, this is literally true. The rabbis go a bit beyond what you might expect in their understanding of false testimony. According to them, testimony can be false even if the content of the testimony is true. If Person A testifies, “I saw X murder Y,” and it turns out that X did indeed murder Y, but Person A could not have seen the act, then it is false testimony.

A person must not testify unless they have direct and unmediated knowledge of the events. This concept can apply to our lives, even if we are not involved as courtroom witnesses. As the rabbis teach, “accustom your tongue to say, “I do not know.” I was once rebuked by a beloved aunt in Israel. She would ask me questions in Hebrew, and I would often reply, אני לא בטוח, “I’m not sure.” She looked at me once and said, actually, you don’t know, so say it, אני לא יודע. I learned from her Israeli directness and have tried to admit ignorance more readily ever since.

But here is a theological twist. Is it possible that we are all false witnesses on a great and important matter? Isaiah says (three times) in God’s name, “you are My witnesses.” When we recite the Shema, it is a form of testimony (hinted at by the supersized letters ע and ד). But can we be sure about our belief? Remember, the plotting witnesses are guilty, even if the content of their testimony is true, if they had not seen with their own eyes. Who can claim that they have seen God directly?

This problem is discussed by a Hasidic rebbe, R. Shmuel b. R. Avraham Borenstein. He says that it is not sufficient to testify to God because that is the tradition you have received from others, or even from philosophical speculation. No, you have an obligation to “know” that God is God. Well, how can you do that? His answer is through devoted Torah study. The Torah itself is called testimony (עדות), and Psalm 19 says that it is “faithful,” and makes the simple wise. By immersing ourselves in sacred study, we can become wise and faithful, so that our words of prayer are not aspirational, but true reflections of our heart.

I find this teaching to be quite daunting. I would much prefer to believe that as long as I behave with integrity, as long as I utter my prayers, and practice the mitzvot, I will have achieved a sufficient level of virtue. This Hasidic teaching says, however, that if we do all those things without deep faith, then it can actually be the opposite of virtue, a false testimony. I’m not entirely convinced—virtuous acts are beneficial even if their motivation is tainted. But still, as we enter Elul, I think this challenge is important to consider.

Let us use the month of Elul to patch up frayed relationships, to beg forgiveness from those we have wronged, to admit when we are ignorant or in error. But the month of Elul is not only about repairing social damage. It is also about strengthening our faith. Let the Torah that we learn in the coming weeks enter not only our minds but also our hearts, helping us to experience directly the revelation. With that faith we can then express our prayers as true testimony, so that in 40 days when we chant the words “the Lord is God,” we will know them to be true.

דברים פרק יט, טז-כ

(טז) כִּֽי־יָק֥וּם עֵד־חָמָ֖ס בְּאִ֑ישׁ לַעֲנ֥וֹת בּ֖וֹ סָרָֽה: (יז) וְעָמְד֧וּ שְׁנֵֽי־הָאֲנָשִׁ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־לָהֶ֥ם הָרִ֖יב לִפְנֵ֣י יְקֹוָ֑ק לִפְנֵ֤י הַכֹּֽהֲנִים֙ וְהַשֹּׁ֣פְטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְי֖וּ בַּיָּמִ֥ים הָהֵֽם: (יח) וְדָרְשׁ֥וּ הַשֹּׁפְטִ֖ים הֵיטֵ֑ב וְהִנֵּ֤ה עֵֽד־שֶׁ֙קֶר֙ הָעֵ֔ד שֶׁ֖קֶר עָנָ֥ה בְאָחִֽיו: (יט) וַעֲשִׂ֣יתֶם ל֔וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר זָמַ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת לְאָחִ֑יו וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּֽךָ: (כ) וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִ֖ים יִשְׁמְע֣וּ וְיִרָ֑אוּ וְלֹֽא־יֹסִ֨פוּ לַעֲשׂ֜וֹת ע֗וֹד כַּדָּבָ֥ר הָרָ֛ע הַזֶּ֖ה בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ:

שמות פרק כ

לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר: ס

משנה מסכת מכות פרק א

משנה ו   אין העדים זוממין נהרגין עד שיגמר הדין שהרי הצדוקין אומרים עד שיהרג שנאמר נפש תחת נפש אמרו להם חכמים והלא כבר נאמר (דברים י”ט) ועשיתם לו כאשר זמם לעשות לאחיו והרי אחיו קיים ואם כן למה נאמר נפש תחת נפש יכול משעה שקבלו עדותן יהרגו תלמוד לומר נפש תחת נפש הא אינן נהרגין עד שיגמר הדין:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף טז עמוד ב

גמרא. תנו רבנן: שלשה מזוגות הראשונים שאמרו שלא לסמוך, ושנים מזוגות האחרונים שאמרו לסמוך, (הראשונים) היו נשיאים, ושניים להם אבות בית דין, דברי רבי מאיר. וחכמים אומרים: יהודה בן טבאי – אב בית דין, ושמעון בן שטח – נשיא. מאן תנא להא דתנו רבנן: אמר רבי יהודה בן טבאי: אראה בנחמה אם לא הרגתי עד זומם, להוציא מלבן של צדוקין, שהיו אומרים אין עדים זוממין נהרגין עד שיהרג הנידון. אמר לו שמעון בן שטח: אראה בנחמה אם לא שפכת דם נקי, שהרי אמרו חכמים: אין עדים זוממין נהרגין – עד שיזומו שניהם, ואין לוקין – עד שיזומו שניהם, ואין משלמין ממון – עד שיזומו שניהם. מיד קבל עליו יהודה בן טבאי שאינו מורה הלכה אלא בפני שמעון בן שטח. כל ימיו של יהודה בן טבאי היה משתטח על קברו של אותו הרוג, והיה קולו נשמע. כסבורין העם לומר שקולו של הרוג הוא, אמר להם: קולי הוא, תדעו שלמחר הוא מת ואין קולו נשמע. אמר ליה רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי: ודלמא פיוסי פייסיה, או בדינא תבעיה? מני הא? אי אמרת בשלמא רבי מאיר, דאמר: שמעון בן שטח אב בית דין, רבי יהודה בן טבאי נשיא – היינו דקא מורי הלכה בפני שמעון בן שטח. אלא אי אמרת רבנן, דאמרי: יהודה בן טבאי אב בית דין, שמעון בן שטח נשיא – אב בית דין בפני נשיא מי מורה הלכה? – לא, מאי קבל עליו דקאמר – לאצטרופי, דאפילו אצטרופי נמי לא מצטריפנא.

ירמיהו פרק לא, יד

(יד) כֹּ֣ה׀ אָמַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֗ק ק֣וֹל בְּרָמָ֤ה נִשְׁמָע֙ נְהִי֙ בְּכִ֣י תַמְרוּרִ֔ים רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶי֑הָ מֵאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־בָּנֶ֖יהָ כִּ֥י אֵינֶֽנּוּ:

ישעיהו פרק מג, י

(י) אַתֶּ֣ם עֵדַי֙ נְאֻם־יְקֹוָ֔ק וְעַבְדִּ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּחָ֑רְתִּי לְמַ֣עַן תֵּ֠דְעוּ וְתַאֲמִ֨ינוּ לִ֤י וְתָבִ֙ינוּ֙ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֣י ה֔וּא לְפָנַי֙ לֹא־נ֣וֹצַר אֵ֔ל וְאַחֲרַ֖י לֹ֥א יִהְיֶֽה: ס

שם משמואל ויקרא פרשת בחקותי

ונראה דהנה כתיב (תהלים י”ט) עדות ה’ נאמנה מחכימת פתי. ויש לפרש דמה שנקראה התורה עדות אף שאין עדות מפי כתבם, אלא שהתורה עשתה את האדם לעד מעיד על יחוד ה’. והנה בעדות כתיב (ויקרא ה’) או ראה או ידע, ואם לא ראה וידע בעצמו אלא שהוא סומך על אחרים שהגידו לו אף שהדבר אמת מ”מ הוא נקרא עד שקר, וכמ”ש בעדים זוממין (דברים י”ט) והנה עד שקר העד אף שהמעשה הוא אמת אלא שמזימין את העדים ואומרים עמנו הייתם במקום אחר וא”א שתראו את המעשה קרינן בהו והנה עד שקר העד. ובהכרח לומר שישראל המעידין על יחוד ה’ הוא כאילו ראו בעיניהם ממש ולא מחמת מסורת שבידם ולא מחמת השערה ואומדן דעת שכל אנושי, שכל אלה עדיין אינם נקראים עדות נאמנה, אלא ראי’ ממש, והוא מחמת התורה שכשנכנסו דברי תורה לתוך לבו של אדם הרי היא מאירת עינים ונפקחו עיני שכלו לראות מה שאין בו ספק ואומד כלל אלא דבר ברור. וזהו שאמר עדות ה’ נאמנה, שהתורה מעמדת עדים נאמנים להעיד מה שרואים בעיניהם, והטעם מפני שמחכימת פתי ובגדר החכמה שיהי’ כאילו רואה הדבר בעיניו ממש כאמרם ז”ל (סנהדרין ז’ ב) אמור לחכמה אחותי את אם ברור לך הדבר כאחותך וכו’:

Remembering Rabbi Steinsaltz z”l

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has been a towering presence in my Jewish learning for the past forty years. I did not have the privilege of knowing him personally, but I feel that he has been my steadiest hevruta since ninth grade, when our high school presented us each with his Hebrew edition of Brakhot for Talmud class. I subsequently purchased and read many Steinsaltz Talmud volumes, starting with The Essential Talmud, and his Hebrew reference guide to Talmud study (מדריך לתלמוד). Later, I read his books on Jewish mysticism (The Thirteen Petaled Rose), on repentance, and on Jewish prayer.

I recall one speech that I heard from Rabbi Steinsaltz in Detroit, maybe 25 years ago. He was speaking before the holidays on the subject of Teshuvah and said that many people make the mistake of setting Rabbi Akiva as their role model. Illiterate at 40, but a towering Torah scholar soon thereafter—wouldn’t we all like to become so accomplished! Yes, Steinsaltz said, Rabbi Akiva is very impressive, but is he a realistic role model? When it comes to our own return to Judaism, we should seek not to sprint, but to become long distance runners. Do not fret, he told us, that you are still only beginning to gain knowledge of Torah and practice mitzvot. Establish long term goals and good habits, and your soul will be as beloved to God as that of any great scholar of our history. If Rabbi Steinsaltz had only preached this message, that might have been enough, but instead he created an entire library to give access and encouragement to Torah students at every level. Now that his Talmud commentary has been translated by Koren and made freely available on Sefaria, the entire world has access to the remarkable world of the Talmud.

I recently began studying Bavli Ketubot in memory of my mother, who was a calligrapher and ketubah artist. I’m afraid that  I am not on pace to finish by her 15th yahrzeit this Sukkot, and I’ll admit that much of the material is painful to contemplate, but she loved Torah and her presence sustains me in my study.

The second chapter of Bavli Ketubot explores the laws of testimony (עדות) which normally requires two independent witnesses who have no personal interest or family relationship to either party or to each other. The (male) rabbis generally prevent women from testifying, but they make some exceptions, even when there are other reasons to disqualify their testimony, as when it affects their own status.

These texts are obviously patriarchal—women are treated as subjects of rabbinic authority. Yet there are moments when the sages reveal flaws in their system, opening windows to a different reality in which women are viewed as legally competent and authorized to exercise agency in their own lives. Some of these texts fault men as irresponsible custodians of women’s lives; this awareness has consequences for both men—who are forced into actions that they would resist—and for women, who gain a measure of control previously denied them.

A story is told at Ketubot 23a of a group of captive women who were redeemed in the city of Nehardea, where Shmuel and his family were the dominant rabbinic leaders. Shmuel’s father recruits guards to protect these women, but his famous son asks an impertinent and shockingly insensitive question—“Who was guarding them until now?” Implicit in Shmuel’s words is that he views these women as damaged goods, hardly worth the effort of further protection. Shmuel’s father replies sharply, “If they were your daughters would you disparage them so?” The editor cites Kohelet 10:5, saying that the father of Shmuel’s question was, “like an error committed by a ruler.”

This observation precedes a horrific development when Shmuel’s own daughters are soon taken captive and brought to Palestine to be sold as slaves or redeemed by the local community. Yet this information is presented neutrally–after all, the point of the story is really a point of law, in this case a principle established in the prior Mishnah, and expanded upon by Shmuel’s father. If a woman presents negative information about herself prior to other reports, then she is trusted also to present positive information, even if it is in her self-interest, and even if independent reports subsequently become available. Indeed, this is precisely what plays out with Shmuel’s daughters.

The girls ask their captor to remain outside while they each enter the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Hanina to announce their own status: “I have been taken captive, but have not been violated.” If this testimony is accepted, then they will improve their marital prospects; this motivation would normally raise suspicions about their testimony. But because they themselves revealed their captive status, compromising their own position, they are trusted to also testify on their own behalf, even though their captor is just outside the door, and the truth will soon be known (it seems possible that the captor shares their self-interest, since he may get a higher redemption fee for unmolested captives).

These girls demonstrate remarkable familiarity with the workings of rabbinic law, and are quickly identified as members of an elite rabbinic family. Rabbi Hanina learns that they are related to one of his students, Rabbi Shemen [=Shimon] bar Abba, and tells him to take care of his relations—that is, to redeem them, and perhaps to marry one of them. Rabbi Shemen tries to object based on legal interpretation, but Rabbi Hanina pushes his proofs aside, with a final flourish citing none other than the father of Shmuel—even if witnesses arrive and testify that the girls had been taken captive, and even if this testimony arrives prior to their marriage, the women are nevertheless to be believed.

Notice that in this story there are “good rabbis,” and “bad rabbis,” with the former distinguishing themselves through hermeneutics that not only protect women but also recognize their legal agency. The “bad rabbis” are not necessarily evil, but they are insensitive, and therefore unworthy custodians of women, even in their own family. This story is certainly not feminist—it is similar to the stories analyzed by Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky in her book on gender play in the Bible, a story that challenges but ultimately reinforces the patriarchy. In the end rabbis like Shmuel and Shemen learn their lesson, the girls are redeemed and married off to proper men, who remain very much in control of their lives. But the story exposes the deficiencies of this arrangement, the tendency of men to mismanage their responsibilities toward women, and the ability and right of women to assert their own interests. For an ancient text, it has much to offer modern readers as they examine systemic discrimination in their own time.

Rabbi Steinsaltz provides his full toolbox to explicate this fascinating and troubling story. He cites parallel texts, manuscript variants, and offers a philological note on a rare word (istan), which he traces to an Assyrian word for north. Steinsaltz adds a paragraph on the story of the daughters of Samuel, supplementing it with material from elsewhere in the Bavli and Yerushalmi. At the bottom of the page, Steinsaltz summarizes medieval commentaries (especially Ritba) and gives citations to the halakhic codes.

With all this assistance, Rabbi Steinsaltz helps a modern reader understand a difficult story. However, we must acknowledge what he does not do. Rabbi Steinsaltz does not offer a critique of the ancient, medieval or modern rabbis for their construction of gender. His commentary presents the Talmud on its own terms, using modern tools such as philology and manuscript witnesses to explicate what is found in its pages, and medieval commentaries to share how the text has been understood and implemented in Jewish practice. He is not a cultural critic, nor are his critical tools used for pure historical inquiry. Rabbi Steinsaltz is very much an Orthodox scholar, confident that our ancient texts do not require apologetics. He does not criticize the sages for their patriarchal institutions, nor does he defend them against modern critics. He simply helps us read the sages and understand them on their own terms.

While Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is not, therefore, the type of scholar who can teach us how to integrate these texts into a modern, egalitarian perspective, he gives those of us who are so inclined the tools to access the world of the ancient sages. With that access, we, and our students, and the students of our students, will be able to add layers of meaning to the Torah, and find within its vast pages a usable past. We are forever in his debt. יהי זכרו ברוך

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף כג עמוד א

ואם משנשאת באו עדים וכו’. אמר אבוה דשמואל: לא נשאת – נשאת ממש, אלא כיון שהתירוה לינשא אף על פי שלא נשאת. והא לא תצא קתני! לא תצא מהתירה הראשון. ת”ר: אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, ויש לי עדים שטהורה אני, אין אומרים נמתין עד שיבאו עדים, אלא מתירין אותה מיד; התירוה לינשא, ואחר כך באו עדים ואמרו לא ידענו – הרי זו לא תצא, ואם באו עדי טומאה, אפי’ יש לה כמה בנים – תצא. הני שבוייתא דאתיין לנהרדעא, אותיב אבוה דשמואל נטורי בהדייהו. א”ל שמואל: ועד האידנא מאן נטרינהו? א”ל: אילו בנתך הווין, מי הוית מזלזל בהו כולי האי? הואי כשגגה שיוצא מלפני השליט, ואישתביין בנתיה דמר שמואל ואסקינהו לארעא דישראל. אוקמן לשבויינהו מאבראי ועיילי לבי מדרשא דר’ חנינא, הא אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, והא אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, שרינהו. סוף עול אתו שבויינהו, אמר רבי חנינא: בנן דמוריין אינון. איגלאי מילתא דבנתיה דמר שמואל הווין, אמר ליה רבי חנינא לרב שמן בר אבא: פוק איטפל בקרובותיך, אמר ליה לרבי חנינא: והאיכא עדים במדינת הים! השתא מיהת ליתנהו קמן, עדים בצד אסתן ותאסר? טעמא דלא אתו עדים, הא אתו עדים מיתסרא, והאמר אבוה דשמואל: כיון שהתירוה לינשא אף על פי שלא נשאת! אמר רב אשי: עדי טומאה איתמר.