414. Failed the Bar Three Times: The prohibition against appointing unfit judges

You shall not favor a person in judgment… (Deuteronomy 1:17)

A person may not be appointed to the Sanhedrin unless he is a Torah scholar. Good looks, physical strength and personal wealth are not sufficient qualities to justify such an appointment. This is true even if the person in question is very learned in such other fields as math, science or philosophy.

In addition to Torah knowledge, a member of the Sanhedrin has to have impeccable personal character traits. He would have no authority if he was intimately familiar with the Torah’s laws but did not comport himself in accordance with them. If the judge were personally lacking in some glaring fashion, those whom he corrects would simply reply that he should take a look in the mirror first.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin (7b) compares appointing an unfit judge to setting up an idol to be worshipped. The Jerusalem Talmud says that if a judge purchased his appointment, one is not permitted to honor him (codified in Mishneh Torah Hilchos Sanhedrin 3:9).

The reason for this mitzvah is that a handsome, wealthy physicist may be smart and he may be well-meaning, but if he is not learned in Torah, he lacks the necessary tools to judge the people. He may make what seem to be fair judgments in his personal opinion but without a firm grasp of God-given jurisprudence, he will inevitably make mistakes in his rulings.

This mitzvah applies in all times and places. In the Talmud, it is discussed in the tractates of Sanhedrin (7b) and Avodah Zarah (52a). This mitzvah is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Choshen Mishpat 8. It is #284 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #64 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be observed today in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar.