“The Torah Declares War on Bribery”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we again encounter the Torah’s emphatic injunction against taking bribes.

Deuteronomy 16:19 reads: “Lo ta’teh mish’paht, lo tah’keer pah’neem, v’lo tee’kahch sho’chahd, kee ha’sho’chahd ya’ah’vayr ay’nay cha’cha’meem, vee’sah’layf div’rei tzaddikim,” You shall not pervert judgment, you shall not respect anyone’s stature, and you shall not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the righteous.

This warning against bribery that appears in parashat Shoftim is virtually identical to the verse that already appeared in Exodus 23:8, except for the fact that in parashat Mishpatim the expression used is “Kee ha’sho’chahd ya’ah’vayr pik’chim,” for the bribe will blind those who can see, and pervert the words of the righteous.

Today, most of western society regards bribery in judgment as a perversion of justice. But, this has not always been the case. In the ancient East, a judge who took gifts from the party in the right was still regarded as a just judge. Judicial venality was also known in many western lands as well. In fact, the intention to accord equal justice to all citizens is, even in the West, only a relatively recent attainment.

The rabbis of the Talmud had much to say about bribes. In tractate Ketuvot 105a the rabbis state that even a great sage who takes a bribe will not leave this world without dullness of mind (literally, blindness of heart). Furthermore, even one who is righteous in every respect and takes bribes will not leave this world without confusion of mind. The commentators note that the rabbis are not trying to explain why bribery is wrong, after all, that is self-evident. The rabbis simply seek to underscore how profound the punishment for taking bribes will be.

How does bribery pervert justice? The rabbis, through a play on the word “sho’chahd,” bribery, explain that it stands for, “sheh’hu chahd,” that bribery causes both the judge and the litigant to become like one. Obviously, once a judge identifies strongly with one particular litigant, he cannot possibly decide against himself.

The rabbis further state that since we have already learned in Exodus 23:6 that,“Lo tateh mishpaht,” it is forbidden to sway an honest judgment, then obviously, taking a bribe in order to find someone innocent who is truly guilty, has already been forbidden. What then, ask the rabbis, is the point of the prohibition against taking a bribe? Taking a bribe, even in order to find someone innocent who is indeed innocent, or to find someone guilty, guilty, is still forbidden. Even taking gifts from both litigants is proscribed.

The rabbis teach further that not only are monetary bribes forbidden, but even bribes in the form of words or actions are unacceptable. The Talmud asserts that scripture does not state, “and thou shall take no ‘betzah‘ (gain),” meaning specifically money. It uses instead a more all-inclusive term, “sho’chahd,” meaning a bribe.

The Talmud in Ketuvot 105a cites a series of fascinating cases underscoring how any undue influence in judgment is improper. The Talmud relates the case of Samuel, who, while crossing a river, was offered a hand by a man so that he would not fall. Samuel asked the man, “What is your business here?” The man told him that he has a lawsuit. Samuel then told him that he is now disqualified from acting for him in the suit.

Similarly, Amemar was engaged in a trial when a bird flew down on his head. A man approached and removed the bird. Amemar considered himself disqualified from acting as his judge. Mar Ukba once ejected saliva from his mouth and a man came and covered it. He also disqualified himself from acting as his judge. R. Ishmael the son of R. Jose had a gardener-tenant who used to bring him a basketful of fruit every Friday. On one occasion, the tenant brought him the basket on Thursday. He then discovered that the gardener had a trial. Rabbi Ishmael refused to take the gift from his hand and disqualified himself as the judge. The Talmud concludes that, even if a judge is greeted with a “hello” from someone who is not accustomed to greet him, it is considered bribery in action, even though it is not monetary.

Aside from the illegality of taking a bribe, there is also the element of “Chillul Hashem,” desecrating G-d’s name that often results from dishonest acts.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995, communal leader in Germany and the United States. From 1958 until his death, served as the Chief Rabbi of the German Jewish community of Khal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights, Manhattan. He wrote several popular works of Jewish thought.), in an essay from his Selected Writings entitled, “Chillul Hashem,” expresses his concern about the very small minority of criminal perpetrators who act as observant Jews and cast sinister aspersions on all Jews, whether observant or not. Writes Rabbi Schwab:

The Chillul Hashem of a few individuals provides excuses for the doubter, and encourages the desecration of Torah learning, Torah education and Torah influence. To defraud or exploit our fellow man, Jew or Gentile, to conspire, to betray the government, to associate with underworld elements, all are hideous crimes by themselves. Yet to the outraged committed, there is an added dimension, namely the profanation of the Divine Name, and that means, the profanation of all that is supposed to be held sacred by us as well…What a sorry picture that is.

As we approach the month of Elul, it behooves us to look inside ourselves–our individual hearts, as well as our communal hearts, to make certain that we remain loyal to the directives of G-d. We must not allow ourselves to be swayed improperly, even to do the right thing, how much more, to do the wrong thing. Unfortunately, truthfulness and honesty seem to be vanishing values these days. It must then be the mission of the Jews to resurrect these values, reaffirm them, not only in the courts, but in the workplace, and in everyday life. This is the legacy of our Torah, to which we must be faithful.

May you be blessed.