Courts of Law

Written by Chaim Clorfene and Yakov Rogalsky Posted in eBook - The Path of the Righteous Gentile

PART ONE: Roots of the judicial system; jurisdiction of the courts; criteria for judicial decisions; standards within the court system; standards and goals for judges

1. The Children of Noah are commanded to establish courts of law that will carry out justice and maintain human righteousness and morality in accord with the Seven Universal Laws.[1] A court system that perverts justice by handing down rulings in conflict with the Seven Universal Laws is an instrument for driving God's blessings out of the world. Anyone who fails to establish a court system, that is, who lives in a community or city in which there are no courts, and who does nothing to correct the situation, is punishable by death. One who establishes or maintains courts of law that operate contrary to the Seven Universal Laws is similarly liable.

In the Book of Genesis (34:25), we learn that two of Jacob's sons, Simeon and Levi, slew every male in the city of Shechem. The prince of the community, Shechem, son of Hamor, had raped their sister, Dinah, and the city failed to execute justice by bringing him to a court of law. The city was therefore guilty of transgressing this seventh of the Seven Universal Laws, and every citizen was liable for punishment.

2. The commandment to establish courts of law, though it might appear to be a positive commandment calling for affirmative action, is considered a prohibition. In effect, the commandment to establish courts of law is a prohibition against failing to establish courts of law, because failure to establish appropriate courts inhibits the performance of justice through­out the nations.[2]

3. The only punishment meted out by the Noahide courts of law in criminal cases is the death penalty.[3]

4. One accused of a transgression of the Seven Universal Laws and brought to trial in a Noahide court may be convicted only if he is found to be mentally competent.[4]

5. Every individual must accept a legal decision he has received. It is forbidden for an individual to render a judgment himself (vigilante justice) without going to a court of law.[5]

6.    In civil matters, that is, cases between individual parties, later authorities question whether the Noahide is commanded to follow the same principles as Jewish law and Jewish courts, or whether he is to follow rulings established by his own Noahide courts and laws.

Although the Noahide courts are responsibile for only the Seven Universal Laws, not the 613 laws of the Torah, there is an opinion that each decision of the Noahide courts must follow its counterpart in Jewish Law. The accepted opinion, however, is that Noahide judges and courts of law are to render legal decisions according to their own laws and principles of law.

7.    Arbitration and mediation or any other means of finding an amicable settlement or compromise, thereby avoiding a court trial, is desirable, and, more than that, it is a commandment to seek compromise.

8. Circumstantial evidence is admissible in the Noahide courts of law.

9. The Children of Noah are responsible for knowledge of the Seven Universal Laws, and therefore one does not have to be warned that he is committing a transgression in order to be accused in a court of law.[6]

10. It is forbidden for a court to have compassion on a murderer, saying that since one person has already been killed, what purpose could there be in killing another? And the court may not delay the execution because of compassion.[7]

11. Similarly, in financial litigation, the court may not have mercy on a poor person, taking the attitude that a rich plaintiff has an obligation to support the poor, therefore finding for the poor defendant so that he will be supported with an honorable livelihood.

12. It is similarly forbidden to pay prejudicial respect to a great person. If two litigants appear in court, one a great wise man and the other a simple person, the judge may not ask about the welfare of the great one nor express pleasure at being in his presence in any way, nor give him honor in any way. Otherwise, the arguments of the simple person would be stifled. He would think, "What's the use anyway?" The judge must not favor either party until judgment is finished. And the sages warn that a judge must not think that since the litigant is so great a person, it is unseemly to embarrass him or see him in his embarrassment.

13. If two litigants appear in court, and one is a righteous person while the other is a wicked person, the judge should not presume that the wicked person will not tell the truth, nor presume that he will not change his ways, and therefore the judgment should go against him.[8]

14. One should not judge unrighteously, acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent. And a judge who delays the judgment, lengthening the time of the testimony or cross-examination, in order to cause either of the litigants to suffer, falls under the ruling of judging unrighteously.[9]

15. One who judges haughtily, without fearing his awesome responsibility and without due deliberation, and then comes to a decision quickly before he has taken the time to carefully consider the case, is considered stupid, wicked, and coarsely egotistical.[10]

16. The courts should not establish a standard judgment by which numerous cases may be judged according to a precedent system, but should consider each case individually on its own unique merits.[11] (Note: Precedent in legal cases may be followed as guidelines, however.)

17. A case concerning a large sum of money and a case concerning a small amount of money should be given equal and individual consideration.[12]

18. It is a positive commandment to deliver a righteous judgment, treating the two claimants equally in every respect. The judge may not permit one to explain his case at great length while telling the other to keep his words brief. Nor should the judge be pleasant and smile at one while being short and gruff to the other.[13]

19. A judge is forbidden to take a bribe. Bribery will certainly corrupt any judgment. A judge who takes a bribe is obligated to return the bribe if the giver demands it.[14]

20. It is also forbidden to offer a bribe to a judge.[15] The category of bribery is not limited to money, but includes any type of gift or favor.[16]

21. Any judge who sits in judgment and attempts to magnify his importance, even in order to increase the wages of his bailiff or the court clerk, is in the category of one who leans after the wrong things. Once a judge was entering a boat to cross a river. A man who had a case in litigation before the judge was on the boat and stretched out his hand to help the judge aboard. The judge told him, "Behold, I am disqualified to judge your case."                  

* * *

(Note: The goal of justice is to function as impartially and righteously as possible, to the ultimate degree. The following section delineates some of the details of the standards of the Jewish Bet Din, the ecclesiastical court. The Noahide courts are not obligated to follow these rules, but must be acquainted with them as points of reference.)

22. Two litigants appear before a judge. One is dressed very elegantly with expensive clothing and the other is wearing the clothes of a pauper. The judge should tell the elegantly dressed one, "You should clothe the other one until he is dressed as elegantly as you are, or you should clothe yourself to appear as he does, and then you can enter judgment with him."[17]

23. The litigants should both sit or stand; it is improper for one to stand and the other to sit. If the judge wishes to seat them both, he may do so. If they sit, they should sit side by side, neither one higher than the other, and they may so sit during the entire time that the judge is listening to the case. But when the judge's decision is being announced, then both litigants should be standing. The "decision" is the judge's announcement finding for the defendant and against the plaintiff or for the plaintiff and against the defendant. Witnesses for either side should always stand during testimony.[18]

24. If there are many cases before the judge, the case of an orphan should precede the case of a widow, and the case of a widow should precede the case of a Torah scholar, and the case of a scholar should precede the case of an unlearned man, and the case of a woman should precede the case of a man, for a woman's embarrassment is greater.[19]

25. It is forbidden for the judge to hear the plea of one of the litigants unless the other one is also present. To listen to even one word of the case itself is forbidden. And we warn the litigant that he should not allow his words to be heard before the other litigant arrives.[20]

26. The judge may not hear testimony through an interpreter or a translator, as the truth is reached only by hearing the words of the litigants themselves. He must understand the language of the litigants and hear their testimony and proofs. If the judge does not speak their language fluently, he may use an interpreter to reply to the litigants to inform them of the judgment and the reason he found for this one and against that one.[21]

27. The judge must hear the arguments of the litigants, then review the arguments in their presence to be sure that he understands them clearly. Then he righteously decides the case in his heart, and afterward he reaches the final decision.[22]

28. The judge should not defend the words of the litigant, but he should sit silently as each litigant says what he feels he must. And the judge should not instruct either of the litigants in his presentation of any argument.[23]

29. If the judge sees a favorable point in the case of either of the litigants and the litigant does not know how to bring forth the point, or gets angry and confused to the point of being unable to state his case clearly, the judge may come to his aid slightly and put him on the right track to state the beginning of his case. But the judge must be careful of how he does this so as to avoid instructing the litigant in how to present a meritorious case, for if the judge did this, he would be perverting justice.[24]

30. Prior to the judge's hearing the case, if he feels personally threatened by either of the litigants, he may refuse to sit in judgment. But if he has already heard their words and knows which way the judgment is leaning, it is not proper for the judge to refuse to pass judgment out of fear of one of the litigants.[25]

31. If there is more than one judge in a case, it is forbidden for any of them to say after the trial, "I judged in your merit, but my colleagues found against you and inasmuch as they were the majority, what could I do?”[26]

32. A judge is forbidden to sit in judgment with a colleague whom he knows to be a thief or a wicked person. He must not sit in judgment with another until he knows with whom he is sitting. And no one should sign a contract until he knows with whom he is signing.[27]

33. A judge is forbidden to judge someone he loves, even though it is less than a great abiding love. Nor can he judge one he hates, even though the person is not his enemy. Ideally, the litigants should be equal in the eyes and heart of the judge. If he recognizes neither them nor their deeds, he can render the most honest judgment possible.[28]

34. Men of learning who are contemptuous of each other should not judge a case together. The judgment is likely to be distorted, as the contempt would incline one to contradict the opinions of the other.[29]

35. A judge should imagine himself with a sword resting on his neck and the Pit of Hell open below him. And he should know Who is the Judge and in front of Whom he judges, and Who will seek retribution from him if he strays from the truth.[30]

36. If a judge feels deeply in his heart that one of the litigants is in the right, and there is no proof for it, or if the judge feels that there is deception and trickery afoot by one of the litigants or with one of the witnesses, and there is no proof for it, or if he feels he cannot rely on the words of the witnesses even if he is not able to disqualify them, or if another similar situation arises, then this judge must disqualify himself from the case and be replaced by one who can judge with a whole heart in the matter. But if the judge knows for sure that one of the witnesses is lying, he should not remove himself from the case, but judge it according to his understanding of the truth. And all these things are matters of the heart.[31]

37. If a judge errs in his decision in a financial matter, he should retract his decision, restore everything to its original status, and retry the case. If it is not possible to retract and restore, for instance, one of the litigants went to a foreign land and took the money awarded him, or the like, then the judge is held harmless from making restitution of the money. It is clear that he had no intention of causing damage.[32]

38. Every judge should possess the following seven attributes:

  • Wisdom
  • Humility
  • Fear of Heaven
  • Fear of sin
  • Contempt for money
  • Love of truth
  • Beloved by his fellow man
  • A good reputation[33]

39. When is one beloved by his fellow man? When he views things in a favorable light and is humble, and he speaks and conducts business in a pleasant manner. He should be meticulous in fulfilling the commandments of God, and he should have conquered his evil inclination to the point that he is without blemish. His name should serve as an outstanding model for the generation. He should be courageous in order to exact a righteous judgment against strong‑willed wrongdoers. Money should not be precious to him so that he will not chase after it, for it is taught that if one desires to be rich, poverty will come upon him. He should not need to be exhorted to strive after truth, but should pursue truth from his own desire for it. He must love truth and despise whatever opposes truth. And he must flee from all forms of transgression.

40. If a judge who possesses all these noble attributes cannot be found, then one should strive to find one who meets as many of these requirements as possible.

PART TWO: Laws concerning witnesses

1. A person may be convicted in a Noahide court by the testimony of a single witness, but only if the witness is known to be righteous.[34] If the character of the witness is not known, it takes two witnesses to be able to convict the accused. It is permissible for the witnesses as well as the judge to be relatives of the accused.[35]

2. A person may testify against himself in a court of law,[36] but since he is the accused, his character is definitely in question, and a second witness is necessary to be able to convict him.

3. The witnesses must be subjected to a thorough and systematic scrutiny to reveal any inconsistencies or other flaws in their testimony.[37]

4. One is commanded to give truthful testimony in a court of law even if he knows the testimony will damage a friend or exonerate an enemy. And, this refers to civil litigation or criminal matters. In a criminal case, he is commanded to come forth and give testimony even if the court does not request him to do so.[38]

5. There are ten classifications that are disqualified as wit­nesses or as judges in a court of law:

  • Women
  • Slaves
  • Small children
  • Fools and the insane
  • The deaf and the mute
  • The blind, even if they recognize voices
  • Known transgressors
  • People who care not how they behave in public
  • Husbands of women involved in the trial
  • People who would benefit from a decision in the case[39]

6. A wicked person is disqualified as a witness. This means that the testimony of anyone who is known to transgress the Seven Universal Laws is inadmissible.[40]

7. The courts should not admit the testimony of anyone unless it is ascertained that this person is involved in keeping the Seven Universal Laws and does acts of kindness and conducts himself in a straight way and is honest and upright.[41]

8. The judge who admits testimony from a witness before it is ascertained whether the witness is qualified to testify is held responsible. This judge is considered as one who perverts justice.[42]

9. Whoever disgraces himself publicly is disqualified as a witness. These are people who walk and eat in a coarse, impolite fashion in public, or who go naked in public, or who are involved in any disgusting work or activity, or anyone who feels no self‑embarrassment. All these people are considered on the level of dogs, and one cannot trust them to be stringent against giving false testimony.[43]

10. Even if a multitude of wise, God‑fearing people tell someone that they saw such‑and‑such a person commit such­-and‑such a crime, and even though he believes it in his heart to be true, he is forbidden to testify in court unless he saw the incident with his own eyes. Anyone who testifies on the hearsay of others is considered a false witness, which is tantamount to conspiring against another, and this is a grave transgression.[44]

(Note: One who gives false testimony which convicts a person and causes him to be executed receives the death penalty.)

[1] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 14

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 59a, Rashi

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b, Rashi

[4] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 10, law 2

[5] Encyclopedia Talmudica, volume 3, page 355

[6] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 14

[7] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sanhedrin, chapter 20, law 4

[8] Ibid., chapter 20, law 5

[9] Ibid., chapter 20, law 6

[10] Ibid., chapter 20, law 7

[11] Ibid., chapter 20, law 8

[12] Ibid., chapter 20, law 10

[13] Ibid., chapter 21, law 1

[14] Ibid., chapter 23, law 1

[15] Ibid., chapter 23, law 2

[16] . Ibid., chapter 23, law 3

[17] Ibid., chapter 21, law 2

[18] Ibid., chapter 21, law 3

[19] Ibid., chapter 21, law 6

[20] Ibid., chapter 21, law 7

[21] Ibid., chapter 21, law 8

[22] Ibid., chapter 21, law 9

[23] Ibid., chapter 21, law 10

[24] Ibid., chapter 21, law 11

[25] Ibid., chapter 22, law 1

[26] Ibid., chapter 22, law 7

[27] Ibid., chapter 22, law 10

[28] Ibid., chapter 23, law 6

[29] Ibid., chapter 23, law 7

[30] Ibid., chapter 23, law 8

[31] Ibid., chapter 24, law I

[32] Ibid., chapter 6, law 1

[33] Ibid., chapter 2, law 7

[34] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Witnesses, chapter 11, law 2

[35] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 14

[36] Sefer HaHinnukh, Commandment 26

[37] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Witnesses, chapter 1, law 4

[38] Ibid., chapter 1, law 1

[39] Ibid., chapter 9, law 1

[40] Ibid., chapter 10, laws 1 and 2

[41] Ibid., chapter 11, law 2

[42] Ibid., chapter 11, law 4

[43] Ibid., chapter 11, law 5

[44] Ibid., chapter 17, law 1


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