Rabbi Bernard Fox
“Do not pervert judgment. Do not show favoritism. And do not accept a bribe – for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.” (Devarim 16:19)
Moshe instructs the nation to appoint judges. He instructs these judges to be equitable. They must not show any favoritism. Moshe warns the judges that they cannot accept any gratuity from the litigants. Accepting such a gift will inevitably affect their objectivity.
The Torah previously – in Parashat Mishpatim – discussed the impact of such gratuities. Moshe is reviewing this prohibition. However, Moshe slightly alters the phrasing of the admonition. Moshe states that the bribe “blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous”. In Parshat Mishpatim the Torah states that, “the bribe blinds the clear-sighted person and perverts the words of the righteous”. Moshe substitutes a reference to the wise in place of the term “clear-sighted”. Why does Moshe make this change?
In order to answer this question, we must consider a related problem. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat discusses the importance of the judicial system. The Talmud explains that a judge who decides a case justly is a partner of the Almighty in the creation of the universe. The simple meaning of this statement is that society cannot exist without justice. The universe was created to foster humanity. Therefore, the judge’s role is fundamental to the mission of the universe. Without upright jurisprudence society degenerates and humanity cannot develop. The universe and creation are rendered meaningless.
However, there is a difficulty in the specific wording of the Talmudic text. The Talmud does not merely state that the judge must render a just decision. The Talmud uses a very unusual phrase. It can best be translated to mean that the decision must be accurate and consistent with truth. The commentaries observe that this phrase seems redundant. If the judgment is accurate, certainly it is consistent with truth!
Tosefot respond to this problem. They explain that there are two factors that determine the quality of a judge’s decision. First, the judge must accurately interpret and apply the law. Second, the judge must appraise the truth of the competing claims and evidence. This requires that he assess the validity of the evidence. An example will help illustrate these two considerations. Assume Reuven borrows money from Shimon. Shimon claims he was never repaid. Reuven insists that he repaid the debt. Reuven produces witnesses that testify on his behalf. The judge must accurately apply the appropriate legal considerations. The judge must determine the specific evidence Reuven must produce in order to release himself from any further obligation to Shimon. However, the judge must also assess the truth. The must appraise the veracity of the witnesses. If the judge questions the truthfulness of the witnesses, he cannot decide the case on behalf of Reuven. This is the message of the Talmud. The judge is responsible to effect a decision that is accurate in its interpretation of the law. The decision must also be consistent with the truth.
Based on Tosefot’s comments Rav Eliyahu of Vilna offers an additional insight into the Talmud’s statement. He observes that in order for this judge to be the Almighty’s partner in creation, the judgment must be both accurate and truthful. He explains that society relies on the courts to foster peace and harmony within society. Concord is essential for the effective function of society. This peace and harmony only emerge from a decision that is both accurate and true. If a litigant looses a case but feels the matter was judged accurately and truthfully, he can reconcile himself to the court’s decision. However, if he feels the decision was accurate but false, he will resent the judgment. He will be frustrated and disappointed. Ultimately, he may become estranged. Therefore, the judge only fosters harmony through decisions that are both accurate and truthful.
Rav Eliyahu of Vilna concludes that a judge must be more than a master of the law. He must also be an excellent judge of character and possess keen insight into human behavior. He needs this insight to assure that his decisions are not just accurate but also truthful.
This resolves our original problem. The Torah in Parshat Mishpatim refers to the judge as clear-sighted. Moshe refers to the judge as wise. Both of these descriptions are appropriate. The judge must have both of these qualities. The judge must be wise. This term represents the ability to interpret and apply the law. The judge must also be clear-sighted. This means he must have the ability to find the truth through evaluating the veracity of the evidence.
The two passages explain that a bribe undermines both of these qualities. It interferes with the judge’s ability to interpret and apply the law. It also undermines the judge’s ability to assess the truthfulness of the evidence.
“When you come to the land that Hashem your G-d is giving to you and you occupy it and settle it and you will say, “Appoint upon us a king like all the nations that surround us”, you will place upon you a king that Hashem you G-d chooses. You will appoint a king from among your brothers. You are not permitted to appoint a stranger that is not your brother.” (Devarim 17:14-15)
Moshe relates to Bnai Yisrael the commandment of appointing a king. The simple interpretation of Moshe’s words is that the nation is commanded to appoint a king over itself. There must be a leader. This interpretation is supported by an earlier incident in the Torah. Hashem tells Moshe that the time has come for his death. Moshe asks the Almighty to appoint a new leader. Moshe contends that it imperative for Bnai Yisrael to have strong leadership. Hashem responds by appointing Yehoshua. In this incident, the Torah clearly acknowledges the importance of strong political leadership. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that our passage is addressing this need and creating the institution of kingship. Maimonides accepts this interpretation of our pesukim. In his Mishne Torah, he writes that Bnai Yisrael became obligated in three commandments when they entered the land of Israel. One of these mitzvot is to appoint a king. Maimonides quotes our passage as the source for this commandment.
However, there is a problem with this interpretation of our passages. After the death of Moshe, the nation was lead by a series of judges and prophets. The last of this series was the prophet Shemuel. The nation approached Shemuel. They asked Shemuel to appoint a king. They explained that they wished to be lead in a manner similar to the surrounding nations. These nations were ruled by kings. Bnai Yisrael wished to also be ruled by a king.
The Navi explains that Shemuel felt that the request was evil and inappropriate. This reaction seems to contradict our passage. The Torah apparently requires the appointment of a king. How can Shemuel contest the appropriateness of Bnai Yisrael’s request?
Don Issac Abrabanel suggests that our passages do not actually require the nation to appoint a king. In fact, the nation is not required to establish an institution of kingship. It is preferable to be led by prophets and judges. However, the Torah also recognizes that Bnai Yisrael may succumb to the desire to emulate other nations. Bnai Yisrael may ask for a king. Our pesukim respond to this issue. If the request is made, it is permitted to appoint a king. However, the passages outline specific perimeters. For, example, the king must be a member of Bnai Yisrael.
Abrabanel is acknowledging that our passages are a mitzvah. However, he argues that this does not create any absolute obligation. Instead, the mitzvah deals with a contingency. It provides the response, should the nation seek a king.
Sforno supports Abrabanel’s interpretation of our passages. He adds that it is essential for the nation to have political leadership. The prophets and judges provided this guidance. In some ways these leaders were kings. However, they differed from kings in one fundamental area. They could not pass their authority to their children. The prophets and judges were not royalty. The institution of kingship creates royalty. The king passes his authority to his son. This is not an ideal arrangement. The king’s son may not be fit to assume his father’s position. Yet, inevitably he views himself as vested with the right to be king.
Maimonides suggests an alternative solution. He insists that out passages are an absolute command. Bnai Yisrael was obligated to appoint a king. Nonetheless, the nation sinned in approaching Shemuel. Their request conformed to the mitzvah. However, their motivation was corrupt. They did not ask for a king out of a desire to fulfill the Torah’s commandment. Instead, they wished to escape Shemuel’s leadership. Rather than wishing to observe the Torah, they sought to escape the influence of a true Torah leader.
 Sefer Shemot 23:8.
 Mesechet Shabbat 10a.
 Tosefot Baba Batra 8b.
 Rav Eliyahu of Vilna (Gra), Kol Eliyahu, Parshat Shoftim.
 Rav Eliyahu of Vilna (Gra), Kol Eliyahu, Parshat Shoftim.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 1:1.
 Sefer Shemuel I, 8:4-6.
 Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, pp. 166-167.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 18:14.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 1:2.