“Innocent until proven guilty” is one of the great American judicial principles. That important concept, however, could very well have been composed by someone who had studied a bit of Talmud. In tractate Shabbat, 97a, Reish Lakish is quoted as saying: “He who entertains a suspicion against innocent people is bodily affected…”

As his proof-text, Reish Lakish cites Exodus 4:1. Moses, who is reluctant to become God’s emissary, declares, “But, behold, they [the Israelites] will not believe me!” The Talmud goes on to state, “But it was known to the Holy One, blessed be He, that Israel would believe. Said He to him: ‘They are believers, the descendants of believers, whereas you [Moses] will ultimately disbelieve.'” Reish Lakish concludes that for failing to give the Israelites the benefit of the doubt, Moses was (temporarily) smitten with leprosy.

Proof-text aside, Reish Lakish’s statement is a powerful pronouncement for judging everyone favorably (dan l’chaf zchut). 

While it may be human nature to judge other people, each one of us has the free will to decide how we will judge other people. In other words, one should always make a conscious effort to judge others favorably. 

How, though, one might ask, can Reish Lakish assert that a suspicious person who is always negatively disposed towards others is “bodily affected”? One may answer that one is indeed bodily affected, although not necessarily in the sense of a physical illness. One who is suspicious of others, always feels the weight of negativity, whether it is a sense of tension in the head or a pit in one’s stomach. On the other hand, one who seeks out the positive in others, usually has a lighter heart. Many studies confirm the mental and physical health benefits of having a positive and optimistic nature.

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