Avot 1:9 Shimon ben Shetach says: “Interrogate the witnesses extensively; and be cautious with your words, lest they learn to lie.”
Shimon ben Shetach was the Av Beit Din of the Sanhedrin and acted as judge in civil and criminal matters. He also was the brother of Salome Alexandra who was married to King Alexander Yannai (or Jannaeus, Gr.), who reigned for 27 years (103 – 76 BCE). This was a period of great contention between the Sadducees, who were favored by King Yannai, and the Pharisees, who were represented by the Sages.
After Yannai’s death, Salome reigned for seven years until 63 BCE. During the years of Queen Salome’s rule, the position of the Pharisees was immeasurably strengthened.
Interrogate the witnesses extensively….
It is common knowledge that in any legal setting, when judgment is required, a sign of reliable testimony is the ability of the witness to give the same account consistently whenever he is questioned. Any uncertainty or varying of details weakens the testimony. Effective examination thus includes probing of facts from different angles.
Shimon ben Shetach may have used the plural form ‘witnesses’ intentionally. A point of strong disagreement with the Sadducees was the latter’s insistence that the proven evidence of just one witness was enough to convict a person as guilty. In accord with the Torah, the Pharisees emphasized that a case must rest on the testimony of at least two witnesses.
…and be cautious with your words, lest they learn to lie.
Leading commentaries share the understanding that this is a caution to judges, and lawyers, to avoid asking ‘leading’ questions that could suggest to the witness the kind of answer that would be favorable to his case but might not be in strict accord with the truth. This also includes paying attention to one’s inflection and tone of voice when asking a question of the witness, as well as the use of any facial expressions that might reveal to the witness the position he is advocating. The code of biblical ethics does not condone the tactics often employed in Western courtrooms that are intended to influence the judge and jury.
How can this view of the administration of justice be applied in everyday family life? Quite remarkably! Psychologist, Abraham Twerski, draws the parallel of the need for parents to be aware and careful of how they speak in order to not teach their children to lie. A caring parent aims to instill the values of honesty and truthfulness in their child. Twerski uses an example of a father not wishing to answer a phone call and telling his child to tell the caller he is not home. Another appropriate example is when a parent or teacher challenges a child in an angry and threatening manner regarding a misdemeanor. The child, through fear, may be encouraged to lie. This also can be applied in adult to adult situations such as boss and employee, someone in authority and a lay person and, in extreme cases, terrorist and victim as well as violent methods of interrogation.
It is an accepted fact that children are more likely to emulate their parents’ behavior than to heed their every word. It therefore takes a conscious effort on the part of adults, just as it does with a judge, to take care with their actions as well as their words. On the other hand, it is interesting to note how Yeshua, with regard to the Pharisees, many of whom had been corrupted by power and the pervasive Hellenistic influence of the ruling Roman Empire, urged his disciples “…do what they say but not what they do” (Matt. 23:2-3). These spiritual leaders knew and taught the Word of God but clearly, evident in Yeshua’s exhortation, it was common knowledge that they did not practice what they preached.
The first Scripture verse taught to Jewish children and recited in prayer every day is the “Shema” (comprised of three portions of Scripture: Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21, Num. 15:37-41). “Hear, Israel!” The prophet Micah cautions, “Shema – Listen to the rod [of the Lord’s discipline] and Him who commissioned it and not to those [who have influence in worldly society] who tell lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths” (Micah 6:9-12). Better to hear the rebuke of the Lord than the flattery and deception of the voices of the world and its culture. God’s Word is timeless and the truth of it is changeless. It never goes out of date nor becomes irrelevant. He is speaking at every moment, if only we would listen. The Israelites responded to the revelation of God at Sinai with “Na’aseh ve’nishmah” – “We will do and we will hear”.
The word nishmah also carries the meaning of ‘obey’. To fully hear means to understand and accept what one hears with a heart willing to obey. It denotes a listening obedience to the voice of the Lord. What we see, visually, often can be a distraction and even become an idol. The Israelites doubted Moses would return. They needed a god they could see and formed for themselves a Golden Calf. We can remember the disciple Thomas who doubted and Yeshua’s gracious words: “Have you believed and trusted because you have seen Me? How blessed are those who do not see, and yet have believed” (Jn.20:29). May we be quick to hear His voice and respond in wholehearted obedience, even when we do not “see” or understand completely.
We find a perfect representation of the heart of God’s Covenant Word – the Torah, the Prophets, the Gospel and the Apostolic writings – at the glorious moment of Yeshua’s transfiguration. As the bridge between Divine and human, he met with Moses and Elijah, who represented Heaven’s two witnesses, together with the three earthly witnesses of Peter, James and John. In their midst the Father clearly spoke, saying: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; shema, listen to Him!” (Matt. 17:5).
In this noisy world, echoing with innumerable voices vying for attention, it takes a determined effort to quiet the distractions, to hear the voice of our Shepherd, and to follow in willing obedience. As we hear the “still, small voice,” the whisper of the Spirit of holiness, and act in accord with it, we can help the next generation also to learn to listen and to do.