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Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

Sacrifices were of value only so long as the Temple stood, but righteousness and justice remain of utmost importance even when the Temple no longer stands.

The Torah takes justice for all very seriously. Scripture tells us: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than a sacrifice.” (Proverbs 21:3).

Based on this verse, the Midrash teaches that God told King David that the justice and the righteousness that he did were more beloved to Him than the Temple. The proof? The Midrash (interpretation of Jewish texts) notes that the verse in Proverbs does not say, “As much as a sacrifice” but rather “More than a sacrifice.” The Midrash explains that sacrifices were of value only so long as the Temple stood, but righteousness and justice are of utmost importance even when the Temple no longer stands.

Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta once discussed an ant that dropped a grain of wheat. All the ants came and sniffed at it, yet not one of them took it. The one to whom it belonged eventually came and took it. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta praised the ant’s honesty and wisdom, especially since the ant had not learned its ways from any other creature and had no judge nor officer to guide it. As Proverbs 6:6–7 says, the ant has “no chief, overseer, or ruler.” How much more so should people, who have judges and officers – and a God – hearken to the law!

Bribery and Favoritism

Talmudic sage Reish Lakish says that the the close proximity in the Torah between the laws of appointing judges and idolatrous practices teaches us that appointing an incompetent judge is as though one had committed idolatry. Another Talmudic sage, Rav Ashi, interprets the words of Exodus 20:20 – “You shall not make with Me gods of silver or gods of gold” – as referring to judges appointed because of “silver” or “gold,” i.e. bribery and favoritism.

The Midrash interprets the words “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) as teaching that if a defendant has departed from the court with a judgment of innocence, the court has no right to call the defendant back to impose a judgment of guilt. And if a defendant has departed from a court with a judgment of guilt, the court still has the ability to call him back to reach a judgment of innocence. Additionally, the words “Justice, justice shall you pursue” are said to teach that one should seek a court that is known to give well-construed rulings.

In Talmudic times there were three levels of court:  Courts of 3 judges, courts of 23 judges, and a court of 71 judges, called the Great Sanhedrin. Courts of 3 judges heard cases involving monetary disputes, larceny, bodily injury (as in Leviticus 24:19), and more. Courts of 23 judges heard cases involving capital punishment. The court of 71 judges were the only ones who could try the king or extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem, and they were the ones to whom all questions of law were finally put.