Voting One’s Conscience

Dylan Matthews, in a Washington Post “Wonkblog” post, illustrates the concept of “strategic”, “tactical”, or “insincere” voting1:

Why is Harry Reid always voting against his own plans?

Forty U.S. senators voted to block a final vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary. Of those, 39 were Republicans opposed to the nomination, at least for the moment. The other was Harry Reid. It wasn’t that Reid opposed Hagel — far from it. Reid denounced the filibuster as “one of the saddest spectacles I have witnessed in my twenty-seven years in the Senate.”

So what gives? In articles like the one I wrote on the Hagel filibuster, the short explanation we give is that Reid voted no “for procedural reasons” or because a no vote “allows him to bring another cloture vote in the future.” But why does it do that? Why is the majority leader required to vote no if a bill is to be taken up again after a failed cloture vote?

As Sarah Binder, a Senate rules expert at George Washington University, told me, it’s not that the majority leader has to vote no. It’s that somebody on the winning side of the cloture vote — in this case, the side voting against cloture — has to file a “motion to reconsider” if the matter is to be taken up again. “I suppose the broader parliamentary principle here is that it would be somewhat unfair to give someone on the losing side of a question a second bite at the apple,” Binder explains. So the rules provide for senators whose opinion has changed to motion for another vote, whereas those whose opinion stays the same don’t get to keep filing to reconsider.

Reid, and other majority leaders before him, have developed a clever workaround: Just change your vote at the last minute if it looks as though you’re going to lose, then move to reconsider. In theory, any supporter of the bill or nomination in question could do the same, but traditionally it’s been the majority leader.

Various aharonim debate the halachic legitimacy of strategic voting; R. Haim ibn Attar’s treatment of the question revolves around the mysterious Talmudic rule discussed in our previous post that a unanimous guilty verdict in a capital case results in the defendant’s acquittal:

לֹא תִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְרָעֹת וְלֹא תַעֲנֶה עַל רִב לִנְטֹת אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְהַטֹּת.

רבותינו ז”ל הרבו לדרוש בפסוק זה אבל אין המקרא מתיישב לפי פשוטו. ונראה לפרש הכתוב לפי מה שאמרה התורה ושפטו העדה והצילו וגו’ ואמרו ז”ל עדה שופטת עדה מצלת אבל אם פתחו כולם לחובה פטור ובא הכתוב כאן להסיר שני מכשולין אשר יכשל בהם חכם מאמצעות דין זה

האחד בהגיע משפט כזה ויראה חכם אחד מהשופטים שכל חבריו פתחו לחובה והוא חושב בדעתו כי הוא זכאי ויתחכם לומר אם נאמר זכאי הנה הוא יצא חייב כי יש שם עדה שופטת עדה מצלת ונמצאו דבריו עושים הפך דעתי לזה אתחכם ואומר חייב שבזה תהיה סברתי מתקיימת שיצא זכאי מטעם פתחו כולם וגו’ וגם אהיה מקיים המוסר לבטל דעתי לפני דעת המרובין שאומרים חייב ונאמר חיוב עמהם לזה בא הכתוב וציוה על זה בדיוק לבל עשותו ואמר לא תהיה אחרי רבים לרעות פירוש כשתהיה סובר סברא אחת שבאומרו דעתך יצא זה הנידון חייב בדינו וכגון שכולם אמרו חייב ואתה חושב זכאי לא תתחכם להיות אחרי רבים שאומרים חייב והוא אומר לרעות ותאמר אתה כדעתם חייב הפך מה שנראה לך כדי שיצא זכאי כדעתך אלא אמור דעתך כפי מה שידעת במשפטי התורה ואין לך להתחכם על המשפט כי ד’ הוא האלקים והוא שאמר פתחו כולם לחובה זכאי לא אמר ד’ שיזכה זה אלא אם לך יראה חייב ולא שיראה לך זכאי שאז חייב הוא כמשפט האלקים:

עוד יש מכשול ב’ במשפט זה באופן אחר והוא אם יראה בעיני חכם שהוא חייב ככל הדיינים שאמרו חייב ורואה שאם יאמר חייב הנה הוא יוצא זכאי הפך דבריו שאומר חייב לזה יתחכם לומר זכאי כדי שיוטה המשפט אחרי רבים שאומרים חייב ויצא חייב כפי סברתו ויש בזה גם כן כפית ראש בגמר המשפט לנטות אחרי רבים לזה אמר ולא תענה על ריב וגו’ פירוש לא תענה מענה על ריב לנטות אחרי רבים פירוש שתהיה כונתך במענך כדי שיהיה כמשפט יחיד ורבים וזה יגיד שאם יגלה דעתו כמות שהוא אין כאן הטיה אחרי רבים אלא כולם בדעת אחת וביאר הכתוב טעם הקפדתו על הדבר ואמר להטות פירוש כשתהיה כונתך להטות ממה שבדעתם בעיון משפט התורה שהוא חייב ואתה מטה לומר זכאי כדי שיצא חייב לנטות אחרי רבים ויצא חייב אלא אמור דעתך הגם שיצא זכאי הפך דעתך ד’ זכהו:

וטעם משפט זה לצד כי ד’ יושב במסיבת הדיינים והוא ישפוט בפיהם וכשיראה משפט מרומה ואין בו מציאות לזכות הזכאי יתחכם לפתוח כולן לחובה וציוה שיצא זכאי בזה:2

So while R. Haim ibn Attar is opposed here to strategic voting, in light of the rationale he gives in the final sentence of the passage it follows that the applicability of his position to Senatorial proceedings will hinge on whether we assume that G-d graces that august body with His presence.

R. Haim ibn Attar’s scenarios of strategic voting do not get much attention in the halachic literature, since capital jurisprudence is no longer practiced. There is, however, an alternate scenario that can easily arise in ordinary civil litigation, and that has therefore received considerably more attention from the poskim. The halachah is that a simple majority of judges is sufficient to decide a case, so if one member of a three judge panel disagrees with his two colleagues, his view is disregarded. If, however, he states that he does not know the correct ruling, then two additional judges are added to the court, and the case is decided by a majority of the now five judge panel. A judge who is convinced that his colleagues are mistaken can therefore attempt to overcome their opposition by falsely claiming that he is unsure of the correct ruling, triggering the addition of two judges, and then attempt to convince both the new judges of the correctness of his position, which will then become dominant due to the three-two majority.

R. Yaakov Reischer, while conceding that this constitutes lying, nevertheless justifies it on the grounds that “it is permitted to lie for the sake of peace”:

שאלה במותב תלתא הוינא עם שני יושבי קרנות דלא גמירי ולא סבירי ואחר ששמענו טענת הבעלי דינים ורציתי לשאת ולתת עמהם רבו והכריעו דלא כוותי וגמרו את הדין נגד דעתי וסברתי אי דיניהם דין כדכתיב אחרי רבים להטות או נימא דקשר רשעים ועמי הארצים אינו מן המנין:3

שאלה חזר השואל הנ”ל וז”ל: … ואחת שאלתי עוד מאמ”ו באשר שודאי המה בערכאות שבסוריא שנתמנו להיות דיינים: ואמרתי שיש לי עוד תקנה אחת לבטל הדין המקולקל אשר יצא מתחת ידיהם דהיינו להסתלק מן הדין או לומר איני יודע כדי שיצטרכו להוסיף דיינים כדי שיוציא הדין לאמתו אי שפיר דמי למעבד הכי או לא:

תשובה הנה שאלתו שוב שנית קבלתי וכבר כתבתי באגרת ראשונה שלא טוב עשה להצטרף עמהם … על כן מה ששאלת אי מותר לך להסתלק מן הדין או כיון שראית שרוצין לקלקל לומר איני יודע כדי שיוסיפו דיינים ודאי דשפיר דמי למעבד הכי כיון דכוונתך לשם שמים להוציא הדין לאמתו על ידי שיוסיפו דיינים אף על גב דשקורי קא משקרת כי ידעת הדין מכל מקום הא קיימא לן מותר לשנות בדבר השלום ודינא שלמא הוא כדכתיב אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם ועל זה וכיוצא בזה אמרו למוד לשונך לומר איני יודע כל זה נראה לי פשוט: …4

  1. The fact that the terms “strategic” and “tactical” are apparently used somewhat interchangeably in this context slightly alleviates my long-felt discomfort with my failure to fully grasp the essential difference between them. []
  2. אור החיים שמות כג:ב []
  3. שו”ת שבות יעקב חלק א’ סימן קל”ז []
  4. שם סימן קל”ח. ועיין שם עוד בהמשך התשובה, ובברכי יוסף חו”מ סימן י”ח אות ד’; פתחי תשובה שם ס”ק ד’; וערוך השולחן שם סוף סעיף א’.‏ []

G-d Damn It!: Jewish, Christian, and Legal Perspectives

Several days ago, we discussed R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski’s responsum on printing Hashem’s name in a language other than Hebrew in newspapers. Here is my halachah column for this week:

In parashas Re’eh, Hashem commands us to obliterate the names of other gods, but “You shall not do this to Hashem, your G-d.” (12:3-4) One interpretation of this verse is a prohibition against erasing Hashem’s Name (Rashi). It is even improper to write His Name in any ephemeral context, since this may result in it being discarded in a disrespectful manner (Rosh Ha’Shanah 18b, Rema YD 276:13). Based on this, R. Yonasan Eybeschütz is sharply critical of the practice of writing “ad-ieu”, meaning “to [or ‘with’] G-d”, in correspondence. He insists that this is a pernicious habit learned from the non-Jews, and it is based on the misconception that Hashem’s Name in a language other than Hebrew does not have the holiness of the Divine Name (Urim Ve’Tumim siman 27 urim #2). R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, however, defends the practice on the grounds that today “ad-ieu” has lost its original meaning and is used merely in the sense of a parting blessing (Achiezer end of III:32).

A practice that R. Chaim Ozer does recommend against on the grounds that it may cause the Divine Name to be discarded disrespectfully is the writing of it in newspapers, even in a language other than Hebrew. Ideally, a description of Hashem such as “the Eternal Creator” should be used instead, or the letters of the Name should be separated by a dash (as done throughout this article). If this is difficult, however, the Name may be written outright, at least in a newspaper containing words of Torah and Biblical verses in Hebrew, which will anyway not be treated disrespectfully. It is additionally appropriate to publicize in the newspaper itself that the paper should not be treated disrespectfully due to the Biblical verses and words of Torah, and if this is done, there is basis to permit the writing of the Divine Name in a language other than Hebrew.

R. Eybeschütz’s comments:

ובלאו הכי בעונותינו הרבים אינם נזהרים בכינוי, וחושבים מה שכותב או מדבר בלשון גוים אינו אלא תואר השם, וטועים הם וכותבים בכל החילופי כתב “אדי-ע” והוא לשון צרפית כינוי ופירושו “עם ד’”, והוא מוטל באשפה. וכבר קבעו חז”ל [ראש השנה יח:] יום טוב שלא יהיה נזכר שם שמים בשטרות, כי למחר פורע זה חובו והשם מוטל באשפה, וכעת בעונותינו הרבים למדו ממעשה גוים וחוזר הדבר לקלקולו ביותר. וזהו המרי הגורם אשר בעונותינו הרבים וידל ישראל למאד במקום ששם שמים מצוים ובפרט בבזיון ועל חנם, וצריך התחכמות ושקידות תוכחת חכמי הדור לבטל זה מהמוני עם:1

These comments follow his condemnation of another popular practice as a violation of a Biblical prohibition: the uttering of imprecations (in German or Yiddish) such as “May G-d punish him!” or “May G-d smite him!”

ובעוונותינו הרבים רוב המוני עם אינם נזהרים, ואומרים בלשון אשכנז גאט זאל איהם שטראפין, גאט זאל איהם שלאגין, ועוברים לאו של תורה.

Curiously, in Christian culture (at least in the United States), there is a common, rather incoherent, assumption that the English equivalent of these imprecations is somehow blasphemous, and a violation of the commandment against taking G-d’s Name in vain, although it is unclear why this should be so, and at least some serious Catholics understand the sin involved in the manner of R. Eybeschütz, as stemming primarily from the maledictive character of the utterance rather than from the mere taking of G-d’s Name in vain:

Q: Is using inappropriate language sinful?

A: A: Yes. Using inappropriate language is sinful. However, let’s look at each segment of the all encompassing term of “inappropriate language”. These segments include using G-d’s name in vain, cursing, blaspheming, and profanity.

The second Commandment specifically forbids using G-d’s name in vain: “Thou shalt not take the name of the L-rd thy G-d in vain” (Ex 20:7; Dt 5:11). Therefore, one of the three criteria for a mortal sin is clearly in place – it is a serious sin. If the other two conditions are in place – deliberately doing the action and knowledge that it is wrong – then taking G-d’s name in vain is a mortal sin, which deprives the soul of sanctifying grace. Saying “O my [G-d’s name]” without reason and in a vain manner is using G-d’s name in vain. And, if a person dies in mortal sin, he/she will indeed go to Hell. …

Cursing is likewise a mortal sin. Cursing is defined as calling down evil from G-d usually by invoking G-d’s holy name. Using such horrible expressions, the person calls on G-d to send a soul to Hell and/or inflict punishment on a person. How can we actually do such a horrendous thing – ask G-d to send a soul to Hell? Cursing is quite clearly also a mortal sin. …

Here’s NPR’s Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen:

David Carr of Zionsville, IN wondered why NPR bleeped out two words but not “g-ddamn,” which he found offensive.

“Whatever it bleeped out could not possibly be as bad as what it left unbleeped,” wrote Carr. “The uncensored language is a violation of the 10 Commandments and HIGHLY offensive to many Christians. I am astonished at the insensitivity of NPR. If I want to listen to Howard Stern, I know how to turn the dial.”

It was easy for NPR editors to bleep out the other two well-known swear words that never make it on the air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines make it crystal clear. The guidelines define profanity as “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”

Using “g-d damn it,” for example, is not “legally profane” according to the FCC.

But taking the L-rd’s name in vain — although not all see it that way — is more problematic for all mainstream media.

“G-d Damn is more complicated, especially because of the juxtaposition here to the other bleeped words,” said Chris Turpin, ATC’s executive producer. “Usually we don’t bleep G-d Damn —there is no legal reason to do so — although we realize there are some in the audience who find this exceedingly offensive.” …

It turns out that NPR rarely airs those words g-d and damn together. A search showed 52 references in transcripts of the phrase “g-d damn” all the way back to 1990. When there’s no space between the two words (as in goddamn), there were 163 references since 1990.

But it did make me wonder how other news organizations handle these words.

When I asked CBS’ standards & practices editor, I got back a succinct email: “No gd on cbs,” wrote Linda Mason.

“As a general rule, we would not permit ‘GD’ to be used on our air,” wrote NBC’s David McCormick, who is the network’s standards & practices editor. “We would bleep one or the other….usually the first word.”

The Washington Post used the words “g-ddam” only twice in recent years. Post guidelines urge great caution in dealing with words or material that is profane or obscene, urging that it not be published except in cases where it’s essential (such as quoting from a court case on obscenity).

The New York Times has used the words 9 times in the past year — five were a direct quote from Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s famous speech. …

That said, why needlessly offend listeners? Bleeping out “g-ddamn” would have been so easy and lost nothing.

Incidentally, Jensen’s assertion that:

Using “g-d damn it,” for example, is not “legally profane” according to the FCC.

is a highly inaccurate summary of what the FCC (and the court opinions it cites) actually say, which is that such language when uttered in anger, i.e., as a mere expression of vehement emotion, similar to

a rude request or order to go to hell, with no necessity to obey, no power to enforce obedience, and no intimation that the irresistible Power had condemned, or was invoked to condemn, them to go to hell

is not considered legally profane – but if meant seriously and literally, as an “imprecation of divine vengeance” or an “[implication of] divine condemnation”, it may very well be profane.

In Duncan v. United States, 48 F.2d 128 (9th Cir. 1931), the court affirmed a conviction for the utterance of profanity over the radio, concluding that:

[T]he defendant having referred to an individual as “damned,” having used the expression “By G-d” irreverently, and having announced his intention to call down the curse of G-d upon certain individuals, was properly convicted of using profane language within the meaning of that term as used in the act of Congress prohibiting the use of profane language in radio broadcasting.

More of the decision (including much colorful context and precedent):

The appellant was accused in that count of knowingly, unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously uttering obscene, indecent, and profane language by means of radio communication and by interstate radio transmission from his radio broadcasting station known as KVEP situated in Portland, within the state and district of Oregon. …

[T]he district attorney asserts in the argument that the taking of the name of the Diety in vain is profane within the meaning of the law. …

We will now consider whether or not the language is profane. …

In that connection we will examine the following statements: “You’re the infernal gang that put in and turned the dairy industry over to that damn scoundrel. * * *” (We omit the name.) “You’re a fine example, by G-d, for the children of this school district.” “He will do anything, there’s nothing in G-d A-lmighty’s world that * * * wouldn’t do.” And, “Wait until I get through some of the trouble you’re getting an ex-convict to make for me and I’ll put on the mantle of the L-rd and call down the curse of G-d on you, that’s what I’ll do. You infamous harlot, you arch criminal, the people should tar and feather you and yours,” etc.

The question of what constitutes profane language has been before the courts for centuries. The subject is usually dealt with as a branch of the common-law offense of blasphemy, but in the United States particularly it has been a frequent subject of legislation. In the Century Dictionary, “profane” is defined as follows: “Irreverent toward G-d or holy things; speaking or spoken, acting or acted, in manifest or implied contempt of sacred things; blasphemous: as, profane language; profane swearing.” In Gaines v. State, 7 Lea (75 Tenn.) 410, 40 Am. Rep. 64, decided in 1881, the defendant was charged with uttering a profane oath in a public place, etc. It was said: “Any words importing an imprecation of divine vengeance or implying divine condemnation, so used as to constitute a public nuisance, would suffice. Isom v. State, September Term, 1880; Holcomb v. Cornish, 8 Conn. 375.”

In Sanford v. State, 91 Miss. 158, 44 So. 801, in dealing with the following language, “Go to hell, you low down devils,” the court said: “The language does not violate the statute, since, upon strict construction, which is required of the courts, it lacks any `imprecation of divine vengeance’ and does not `imply divine condemnation.’ State v. Wiley, 76 Miss. 282, 24 So. 194, 71 Am. St. Rep. 531. There was simply a rude request or order to go to hell, with no necessity to obey, no power to enforce obedience, and no intimation that the irresistible Power had condemned, or was invoked to condemn, them to go to hell.”

In a more recent case, City of Georgetown v. Scurry, 90 S. C. 346, 73 S.E. 353, 354, the court said: “It is true that profane language is language irreverent toward G-d or holy things.” …

In Holcomb v. Cornish, 8 Conn. 375, decided by the Supreme Court of Connecticut in 1831, defendant was found guilty of the use of profanity in referring to another as a “damned old rascal,” and also using the name of the Deity in that connection. The court, speaking through Williams, Justice, in answering the contention that the language used did not constitute profane cursing and swearing, said: “Some of these words, I have no doubt, are clearly within the statute. They are imprecations of future divine vengeance upon the magistrate. Others may be of more doubtful import. It will hardly be denied that they are profane. * * *”

The Supreme Court of Mississippi in Orf v. State, decided in June, 1927, 147 Miss. 160, 113 So. 202, said: “We think the language `Well, the damn thing is done broke up’ (referring to the Sunday school being held in the church), implied Divine condemnation, and was `so used as to constitute a nuisance.'”

In reaching that conclusion the court quoted the definition of “damn” given in Webster’s Dictionary, as follows: “To invoke condemnation; to curse; to swear; to invoke condemnation upon; to condemn to eternal punishment in a future world; to consign to perdition.” …

Under these decisions, the indictment having alleged that the language is profane, the defendant having referred to an individual as “damned,” having used the expression “By G-d” irreverently, and having announced his intention to call down the curse of G-d upon certain individuals, was properly convicted of using profane language within the meaning of that term as used in the act of Congress prohibiting the use of profane language in radio broadcasting. …

In Dominic Peter Gagliardo, Appellant, v. United States of America, Appellee, 366 F.2d 720 (9th Cir. 1966), the court, citing Duncan, wrote:

Appellant also contends that his motion of acquittal should have been granted because the language alleged to have been used was not “obscene, indecent, or profane.” The government concedes, and we agree, that the language alleged to have been used can in no way be considered “obscene” because the language as a whole can not be viewed as appealing to the prurient or calculated to arouse the animal passions, but rather was made during a moment of anger. Roth v. United States, supra; A Book Named “John Cleland’s Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure” v. Attorney General of Com. of Massachusetts, supra; Duncan v. United States, 48 F.2d 128 (9th Cir. 1931).

Although the district court’s instruction defining “profane” is not criticized by appellant, the government does not contend that the words used were “profane.” Since the only words attributed to appellant which could even remotely be considered as being “profane” were “G-d damn it,” which were also uttered in anger, there is no basis for holding that the language was “profane” within the meaning of the statute. See Duncan v. United States, supra.

Finally, the FCC, citing Gagliardo among other cases, asserted:

First, Sharp argues that licensee violated the statute by broadcasting the portion of “The West Wing” program wherein character President Bartlet “scream[ed] at G-d,” and made irreverent references toward the deity “[y]ou’re a sonofabitch, you know that?,” and “have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” Sharp cites FCC v. Pacifica, 438 U.S. 726 (1978) and Schenck v. U.S., 249 U.S. 47, 52 (1919) as precedents that support a finding that the language at issue is legally profane.

However, the cases Sharp relies on are inapposite. The courts have held that material, such as the phrase “g-d damn it” uttered in anger, while offensive to some, is not legally profane for purposes of section 1464. Gagliardo v. United States, 366 F.2d 720, 725 (9th Cir. 1966) (CB radio transmission); see also Warren B. Appleton, 28 FCC 2d 36 (1971) (broadcast of “damn” is not profane). The United States Supreme Court has also struck down a state statute banning “sacrilegious” movies as violative of the First and Fourteenth amendments. Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952). In so ruling the court stated: “[i]t is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine. …” Id. at 505. Because we believe the language at issue here falls within the scope of Gagliardo and Burstyn, we do not believe it was actionably profane.

Note: Throughout this post, I have altered the names of G-d by the insertion of dashes, as per R. Chaim Ozer’s recommendation.

  1. אורים ותומים, סימן כ”ז אורים ס”ק ב’ []

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 []