Balak: Bribery

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24 Jun 2010

The Torah forbids judges from taking bribes in no uncertain terms: “Don’t accept bribes, for bribes blind the sighted and distort the words of the wise” (Shemot 23:8). The Torah reiterates in Devarim, “Don’t slant judgment and don’t show partiality; and don’t accept bribes, for bribes blind the sighted and distort the words of the wise” (Devarim 16:19).

The most basic understanding of this directive is that it forbids a judge from accepting payment to favor one side. However, this understanding is problematic. As Rashi points out, the Torah has just forbidden slanting judgment or showing favoritism. Therefore, Rashi explains, this commandment comes to forbid accepting money “even to judge truthfully”. The Chinuch explains that bribes are forbidden for truthful judgment because if they become habitual then this will lead to accepting bribes to distort judgment.

However, this raises a new question: if it is forbidden to accept bribes even to judge truthfully, then why does the Torah give the reason that bribes distort judgment? According to the Chinuch’s explanation, this addition seems superfluous; each judge knows whether he is impartial or not. The problem is rather that the judge may accept bribes and act against his acknowledged better judgment.

On this point Rashi on Devarim writes: “Once he accepts a bribe, it is impossible that he won’t be inclined towards [the giver] and seek to justify him.” In other words, a simple prohibition on slanting judgment would not be enough, because the judge would be convinced that he is truly objective. It is necessary for the Torah to explicitly prohibit bribery, the reason being the subtle corrosive impact of a bribe.

However, Rashi on Shemot gives a different explanation. There he writes: “Even someone wise in Torah, if he takes bribes he is destined to lose his mind and forget his learning, and his eyes will darken.” According to this approach, it seems that this prohibition is meant to prevent this spiritual blindness per se.

This fits in with what we wrote in a previous column on Torah judgment. The judgment of a judge in Torah court is not considered to be merely an exercise in legal scholarship; it is a unique level of applying Divine justice to human affairs. Justice is a Divine prerogative; another verse relating to judgment states, “Don’t show partiality in judgment; hear the small and the great equally. Don’t fear any man, for judgment belongs to G-d” (Devarim 1:17). Yet HaShem delegates this prerogative to human agents, the dayanim. Indeed, the word elohim can refer either to G-d or to human judges, as we see in chapter 82 of Tehillim which states that “Elokim” (G-d) judges in the midst of “elohim” (the judges). Thus judgment is akin to prophecy. One of the characteristics of the mashiach is that he will be able to “judge by smell” because of his prophetic character (Sanhedrin 93b).

Therefore, the distortion of judgment due to bribes is despicable without any connection to any miscarriage of justice. The judge has a unique opportunity to carry out an awesome Divine prerogative, and to attain a level akin to prophecy. Accepting payment from one side blinds his eyes and withholds this unique level from him. This itself is a terrible crime, which Rashi describes as the “darkening of the eyes”.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.