Sliding Down the Slippery Slope of Circumstantial Evidence

My weekly parashah lectures and halachah column for this past פרשת ויקרא discuss the acceptability (or lack thereof) of circumstantial evidence in halachic civil and criminal procedure. A central source is Rambam’s adamant insistence that anything short of eyewitness testimony is absolutely unacceptable in capital cases:

המצווה המשלימה ר”צ האזהרה שהזהרנו מלהוציא לפועל את העונשים על פי אומד חזק ואפילו קרוב לודאי, כגון שהיה אדם רודף אחר שונאו להרגו ונמלט ממנו לבית, ונכנס אותו הרודף אחריו, ונכנסנו אנחנו אחריהם ומצאנו את הנרדף הרוג מפרפר, ושונאו הרודפו עומד עליו כשהסכין בידו ושניהם מגאלים בדם – הרי אין הסנהדרין הורגים רודף זה על דרך קיום העונש, כיון שאין שם ברור בעדים שראו את הרציחה ובאה האזהרה בתורת האמת מלהרוג את זה. והוא אמרו יתעלה: “ונקי וצדיק אל תהרג וגו'” (שם כג, ז). ובמכילתא אמרו:

“ראוהו רודף אחר חברו להרגו והתרו בו ואמרו לו: ישראל הוא, בן ברית הוא אם הרגת אותו תהרג, והעלימו עיניהם ומצאוהו הרוג ומפרפר והסיף מנטף דם מיד ההורג, שומע אני יהא חייב? – תלמוד לומר: ונקי וצדיק אל תהרג”.1

In response to the question of why this should be so, Rambam offers a slippery slope argument (adding that there is no other possible explanation): were the Torah to allow reliance upon circumstantial evidence, even if this would be limited to extremely compelling evidence, where there is near certainty as to what has occurred, the standards would gradually slip and eventually men would be executed based upon much less compelling evidence:

ואל יקשה בעיניך דבר זה ואל תחשוב שזה דין עוול – לפי שהדברים האפשריים יש מהם שאפשרותם קרובה מאד, ומהם שאפשרותם רחוקה מאד, ומהם בינוניים בין אלו, וה”אפשר” רחב מאד. ואילו הרשתה תורה לקיים עונשים באפשר הקרוב מאד, אשר כמעט קרוב למחייב המציאות כדוגמת מה שהזכרנו – כי אז היו מקיימים את העונשים במה שהוא יותר רחוק מזה ובמה שהוא עוד יותר רחוק, עד שיקיימו את העונשים וימיתו בני אדם בעוול באומדן קל לפי דמיון השופט. לפיכך סתם יתעלה את הפתח הזה וציווה שלא יקיים שום עונש אלא עד שיהיו שם עדים המעידים שברור להם אותו המעשה, ברור שאין בו שום ספק. ואי אפשר להסבירו אחרת בשום אופן.

ואם לא נקיים את העונשים באומד החזק מאד – הרי לא יוכל לקרות יותר משנפטר את החוטא; אבל אם נקיים את העונשים באומד ובדימוי אפשר שביום מן הימים נהרוג נקי – ויותר טוב ויותר רצוי לפטור אלף חוטאים, מלהרג נקי אחד ביום מן הימים.

Rambam’s ringing assertion that even though such an uncompromising policy of absolutely disallowing all circumstantial evidence in capital cases may result in the acquittal of the guilty, “it is better and more desirable to acquit one thousand guilty men, than to execute one innocent man at some point in time” is known in [Western / Anglo-American] criminal law as Blackstone’s formulation, as we have previously discussed here.

My column:

In parashas Vayikra (5:1), the Torah prescribes a sin-offering for one who fails to testify when required to do so, describing the sinner as “a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it”. This wording implies that testimony is possible based either upon what one has “seen”, or upon what one “knows” – even in the absence of direct observation. How is (judicially significant) knowledge possible without direct observation? One suggestion of the Talmud is that a witness who hears someone’s concession that he owes another money thereby “knows” of the obligation although he has not “seen” it. The Talmud then raises the question of circumstantial evidence – i.e., based upon the observed facts, we “know” (with a greater or lesser degree of certainty) what must have happened, although we have not “seen” what actually transpired – and notes that its validity is the subject of dispute (Shevuos 33b-34a). The halachic consensus is that circumstantial evidence is generally disallowed, even in civil cases, and certainly in criminal, and particularly capital, cases (see Yad Ha’Chazakah Nizkei Mamon 8:14 and Sanhedrin 20:1, but cf. Sanhedrin 24:1-2).

Some authorities maintain that this inadmissibility of circumstantial evidence is limited to the general case of ultimately equivocal circumstances, where the conclusion being drawn may be quite likely, but is nevertheless not absolutely certain. Where, however, the circumstances are unequivocal, and we are absolutely convinced of what has transpired, then such evidence is admissible (Bach CM end of #408). Some limit this to civil cases, and maintain that capital cases have a formal requirement of eyewitness testimony to the actual crime (Tumim siman 90 s.k. 14, and see Shut. Avnei Neizer EH 30:3 and 119:104, Achiezer 1:25:4), whereas others argue that there is actually no difference in the standards of evidence of civil and capital cases, and airtight circumstantial evidence that is admissible in civil cases is admissible in capital cases as well (Tosafos Shevuos 34a s.v de’i is lei, Kovetz Shiurim 2:38). Still other authorities may entirely foreclose the admissibility of any sort of circumstantial evidence, even in civil cases (see the discussion in Shimru Mishpat (Zafrani) #53).

My lectures, along with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive, as are two previous mini-haburos I have previously delivered on the topic: I, II.

  1. ספר המצוות להרמב”ם, לא תעשה ר”צ []

פדיון, Paper and Payments

My weekly halachah column and lecture for this past פרשת בא discussed the status of paper money in halachah in general, and its use for פדיון הבן in particular. In the course of my study of the literature, it seemed to me that the vibrancy and pragmatism of the (primarily nineteenth century) פדיון הבן discussion indicates that the actual use of paper money for that ritual was being seriously considered, which struck me as interesting given the universal (at least in my admittedly limited experience) contemporary custom of using silver exclusively. The cursory investigation I made at the time did not indicate one way or another as to the existence of a halachic preference or מנהג to use silver, but I recently serendipitously came across a discussion of this question by R. Shamai Kehas Gross, who indeed concludes that the failure of the commentaries to the שלחן ערוך to mention any such preference indicates that there is no such preference, and rejects the reported position of a certain (unnamed) rabbi who was stringent about using actual silver:

נראה לענ”ד דיכול לכתחלה ליתן שוה כסף לפדיון הבן ואין הידור ליתן כסף יותר משוה כסף.

ובפרט לפי מה שהוכיח בספר דברי יחזקאל (סימן ל”ח) דמה שנתחדש בתורה דשוה כסף הוי ככסף אין הפשט דכמו שמועיל כסף הכי נמי מועיל שוה כסף, אלא דנתחדש דמה ששוה כסף מועיל הוא מטעם דהיינו כסף דהרי יכולים למוכרו ולהשיג עבורו כסף ומחמת זה חשוב כסף ממש עיין שם, (ועיין באבני נזר אה”ע חלק ב’ סימן שפ”ז).

וכיון דהוי ככסף ממש ודאי דאין עדיפות ליתן כסף לפדיון הבן משוה כסף, וכן נראה מסתימת הפוסקים על השלחן ערוך דלא כתבו דיש להדר ליתן כסף לפדיון הבן, שמע מינה דאין הידור בזה. …

ושמעתי דרב אחד החמיר לכתחלה לפדות בכסף ממש, אבל לפענ”ד כמו שכתבתי דאין שום עדיפות כסף משוה כסף.1

My column:

Parashas Bo contains the commandment of pidyon ha’ben. Elsewhere (Bemidbar 18:16), the Torah specifies that the pidyon be performed with five silver shekalim. One may utilize actual silver in the weight of five shekalim, or other property of equivalent value (Shulchan Aruch YD 305:3). There are only three classes of assets that are excluded: real estate, slaves and “shtaros” (documents).

In traditional halachic terminology, “shtaros” generally refers to loan documents. In the nineteenth century, a great debate arose over whether modern “banknotes” are considered ordinary assets, or are actually a form of shtaros, and therefore ineligible to be used for pidyon ha’ben (as well as being treated differently from normal property in a number of other halachic contexts – Shut. Beis Shlomo CM #34). A number of different rationales were advanced for distinguishing between modern “banknotes” and classic shtaros:

  • Banknotes can be universally used to make purchases (Shut. Heishiv Moshe YD #55).
  • Banknotes are traded in robust markets, resulting in clear pricing and high liquidity (She’eilas Yaavetz 1:85. The analysis there actually concerns lottery tickets, but it applies to banknotes as well – Shut. Maharsham 2:100).
  • Unlike shtaros which represent value present externally (in the underlying loan), the value of banknotes resides internally, as evinced by the fact that they will not be replaced even if their holder can prove that they have been destroyed (Shut. R. Meshulam Igra CM #16).
  • Banknotes derive their value from government fiat (refusal to honor the sovereign currency was apparently a capital offense!), and not ordinary market conditions (Shut. Chasam Sofer YD #134).

The consensus is that banknotes are not generally considered shtaros (Maharsham ibid.; Minchas Pitim CM end of #303), although some are nevertheless stringent with regard to pidyon ha’ben, since the son is redeemed from Hashem, and He is not subject to the laws of man (Chasam Sofer ibid., and cf. Chochmas Shlomo CM beginning of #292; Aruch Ha’Shulchan YD 305:18). R. Osher Weiss maintains that in contemporary times, where the value of currency has been completely decoupled from the issuing government’s precious metals reserves, and derives entirely from economic considerations, it is certainly valid even for pidyon ha’ben (Shut. Minchas Osher 1:47).

My lecture, with accompanying handout, is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. שו”ת שבט הקהתי, חלק ששי יו”ד סימן ש”פ עמוד רב []

Calves and Coins

My weekly halachah column:

During the episode of the Golden Calf, Aharon seemingly goes along with the mob’s frenzy, to the point of proclaiming that “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” (32:5), apparently intending an idolatrous feast. The Ibn Ezra struggles greatly to reconcile Aharon’s conduct in this episode in general, and in this proclamation in particular, with his holy and pious character, in the course of which he reports that “many say” that what Aharon actually meant by “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” is that the worshipers of the calf would be executed by Moshe. The Ibn Ezra vigorously rejects this solution, declaring that a blasphemer (megadeif) and one who incites others toward idolatry (meisis) are executed based solely upon their verbal utterances, irrespective of their internal intentions. He makes the following analogy: Suppose someone asks his friend in court “Are you my friend to whom I lent such and such a sum?” and the friend replies “I am.” The respondent cannot then retreat from his concession and explain that he meant merely that he is his friend, but nothing more.

The claim that a megadeif cannot defend himself with the claim that when he blasphemed against “G-d” he really meant some other deity seems to be contradicted by a Talmudic assertion that when Moshe charged the Jews to “obey what G-d (elokah) says”, it was necessary for him to expressly stipulate that the oath he was imposing upon them was to be interpreted from the perspective of Hashem and Moshe, since otherwise it could have been interpreted as referring to an idol, since the Hebrew word elokah sometimes has that meaning. Similarly, the Talmud entertains the possibility that when a debtor swears that he has repaid his creditor, without the express stipulation that the oath the court is imposing upon him is to be interpreted from its perspective, the taker of the oath could plead that he really meant that he had given him some [worthless] tokens (iskundri), which he has chosen to refer to as “coins” (zuzi) (Shevuos 29a).

We have previously discussed these passages from the Talmud and Ibn Ezra here.