Beit Din and Explaining Decisions - Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


In honor of Chanukah, we shall begin a series of articles about Beit Din practices both in Israel and the United States.  Chanukah celebrates the need for Jews to remain distinct from the general society even as they are contributing citizens of the countries in which they reside.  The Halachic prohibition to adjudicate disputes in non-Jewish courts is one important way in which we distinguish ourselves from the surrounding culture.  Civic duties do not require us to adjudicate disputes between Jews in civil courts, as the overburdened justice system is happy to have disputes resolved in Beit Din.  Civil courts regard Batei Din as arbitration courts and will honor and enforce Beit Din rulings if the Beit Din follows proper procedure for arbiters.

Beit Din and Explaining Decisions – Introduction

In the Western world, people expect judges to offer reasons for their rulings.  In this manner, judges are held accountable, as their reasoning can be reviewed by an appellate court.  They also demonstrate publicly that their decision was not made arbitrarily, but rather was the result of a well thought-out and well-founded approach.  Scrutiny of and transparency in leadership are hallmarks of a democracy.

This series will discuss the Halachic attitude towards Beit Din revealing the logic behind its rulings.  The classic sources in this regard will be presented, as will the practices of contemporary Batei Din in both Israel and the United States.

Sanhedrin 29a – No Explanation Required

Chazal do not require a Beit Din to present the reasons for its decision.  The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 29a) presents the procedure for a Beit Din issuing its decision: “The most prominent of the judges announces ‘Mr. So-and-so, you have prevailed, and Mr. So-and-so, you are obligated.”  No mention is made of a requirement to offer explanations for a decision.  In fact, the Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 19:2) states that if one of the litigants requests a written decision, the Beit Din writes, “So-and-so came with so-and-so his fellow litigant before Beit Din, and it emerged from their words that so-and-so emerges victorious and so-and-so is obligated.”  Again, no mention is made of a requirement to explain the decision.

Sanhedrin 31b and Bava Metzia 69 – Two Possible Exceptions

However, the Gemara addresses two exceptional situations in which it is expected that a Beit Din will offer reasons for its decision.  The Gemara (Sanhedrin 31b) speaks of two belligerent litigants who are fighting as to where their dispute should be adjudicated.  One litigant insists that the local Beit Din decide the matter, while the other demands that the case be brought to the “Mekom HaVaad,” which Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. HaTokeif) explains to mean an assemblage of many eminent Torah scholars, for adjudication.

The Gemara states that the local Beit Din may coerce the litigant to arbitrate the matter therein.  The Gemara concludes that if the party that wished to go to the Mekom HaVaad asks that the local Beit Din present the reasons for its decision, the Beit Din writes a document explaining the reasons and delivers it to him.  Tosafot (ad. loc. s.v. VeIm) state that a litigant enjoys the right to demand an elucidation of the decision only if he was coerced to litigate his case in a local Beit Din.  The written decision enables him to bring the decision to the Mekom HaVaad or a Beit Din Gadol (rabbinic court of eminent stature) for review.  Otherwise, a Beit Din is not obligated to honor a request for an explanation of its decision.

Another case (Bava Metzia 69a-69b) is interpreted by the first opinion in Tosafot (ad. loc. s.v. Ki Hai Gavna) as presenting another situation in which Beit Din should offer reasons for its decision.  The Gemara describes a case where one partner in a business venture divided the profits without the consent of the other partner.  Rav Papa ruled that the division was legal.  Subsequently, the two men partnered to sell wine, and the other partner divided the wine without the first partner’s consent.  Rav Papa ruled that the second partner was not entitled to do this, for he might have not divided the wine fairly.

The second partner then complained that Rav Papa always seemed to side with the first partner.  Rav Papa responded, according to Tosafot’s first interpretation, that in such a situation, one must present a reason for his decision.  Tosafot explain that in this case, where there was a basis for a litigant to suspect the Beit Din (Rav Papa) of bias, it should reveal its logic in order to “be clean in the eyes of Hashem and Israel” (BeMidbar 32:22).  The Sema (14:23) clarifies, though, that this applies only if there is a reasonable basis for the charge of bias, as there was in Rav Papa’s case.  Tosafot’s second understanding of the Gemara, however, does not interpret the events as requiring a Beit Din to clarify its grounds in such a case.

Shulchan Aruch, Rama, and Sema

In the Rishonim and Acharonim, we find different approaches towards Beit Din revealing the rationale for its judgment.  Some authorities expand the obligation, while others limit it.  On one hand, the Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 14:1) codifies the passage from Sanhedrin 31b as well as (C.M. 14:4) the first opinion in Tosafot to Bava Metzia 69 (requiring that reasons be presented in case of suspicion).  The Sema (14:25) adds that even when Beit Din is not obligated to disclose its logic, it will do so upon request.  This does not constitute an obligation upon Beit Din, but rather seems to be the appropriate and “righteous” step to take.

The Rama (ad. loc.), however, places three limitations on the obligation for Beit Din to reveal its reasoning in case of suspicion.  First, Beit Din is not obligated to disclose its logic within a specific time.  Rather, it presents its reasons whenever it finds the opportunity to do so.  Second, the Beit Din need only write the respective claims of the litigants and the ruling of the Beit Din, not the actual reasons for the ruling.  Finally, the Rama states that only a lower Beit Din must explain its reasoning.  A Beit Din Gadol need not state its reasoning, “because we are not concerned for error, for if we were, there would be no end to the matter.”

The Sema (14:24), though, rules that the second limitation applies only when a litigant seeks to appeal a case to a Beit Din Gadol.  An eminent Beit Din will be able to discern the basis for the ruling based on the facts and arguments of the case presented by the lower Beit Din without an explanation.  The Sema argues that if no appeal will be made, Beit Din should reveal its logic if there is reasonable suspicion of bias.  We also should note that the Pitchei Teshuvah (C.M. 14:10) cites the Teshuvot Chavot Yair (in the addendum), who strongly questions the Rama’s second limitation.

Noda BeYehudah and Chatam Sofer

Two major late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century authorities - the Noda BeYehudah and the Chatam Sofer - adopt different approaches regarding whether Beit Din should disclose or withhold explanation.  The Noda BeYehudah (2 C.M. 1, cited by the Pitchei Teshuvah C.M. 14:11) widens the obligation in a characteristically brief but powerful responsum.  First, he expands the definition of coercion in this context.  He states that as long as a litigant had to be summoned to Beit Din, he is considered to be coerced, requiring Beit Din to state the claims and ruling in order to facilitate an appeal to a Beit Din Gadol.  He adds that this is necessary, “especially in our generation, when mistakes occur frequently.”  He also limits a Beit Din Gadol’s exemption from presenting reasons to a court on which each member is a rabbi of eminent stature who is renowned for his Torah scholarship.  He concludes the responsum with an exceptionally strong statement:

I do not suspect any rabbi will refrain from doing so (revealing his reasoning) unless he knows the truth is that he did not judge properly, either deliberately or negligently, and is arrogant and ashamed to acknowledge the truth that he has erred.

The Chatam Sofer (Teshuvot Chatam Sofer C.M. number 12, also cited by the Pitchei Teshuvah C.M. 14:8), however, seeks to limit the obligation on Beit Din to disclose its logic.  He writes:

Granted, it is appropriate and proper for a Dayan to explain his reasoning to remove any suspicion of impropriety.  Nevertheless, a litigant is not authorized to make such a demand on a judge, and it is audacious of him to tell the Dayan that he suspects him of impropriety.  If he does make such a demand, the Dayan should not reveal his reasoning, nor should he respond to the charge.  Only if the litigant refrains from articulating his suspicion due to reverence and respect for the Dayan is it proper for the Dayan, on his own initiative, to explain his reasoning, so as to extricate himself from suspicion.

The different approaches reflect the tension between two competing goals.  On one hand, a proper Beit Din pursues truth and seeks to preserve its stellar reputation.  On the other hand, we are obligated to revere and respect Dayanim.  Each approach seeks to achieve a balance in the effort to accomplish both goals.

Next week, we shall conclude our discussion with a review of the practices of contemporary Batei Din both in Israel and in the United States.

Beit Din and Explaining Decisions - Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Intermarriage, Sex Education, and Modern Orthodox Rebalancing – A Reaction to Noah Feldman by Rabbi Chaim Jachter