Not a Trivial Pursuit

Judges and officers, you should appoint for you in all your gates that Hashem, your L-rd gives to you, according to your tribes. They shall judge the nation [with] a just judgment. (Sefer Devarim 16:17)

I. Courts, cities, and tribes

In the above passage, the Jewish people are commanded to establish a court system. The passage describes the scope of the court system in the Land of Israel. A court must be established in each city. The passage also requires that a court be established for each shevet – tribe. Ramban—Nachmanides – explains that the courts of the cities and the court of the shevet are composed of twenty-three judges. The courts in the cities and the court of the shevet have overlapping authority. Most issues can be adjudicated in the local court or the court of the shevet.[1] Why must each shevet have a court?

Ramban suggests that the shevet has jurisdiction over the entire shevet. To fully understand the implications of this jurisdiction, we must consider the role of the court system. The Torah assigns to the court system both judicial and legislative authority. The courts judge cases and are empowered to legislate. The highest court – residing in the Granite Chamber of the Temple – legislates for the entire nation. The shevet court has three unique roles.

·      It decides judicial issues affecting the entire shevet

·      Issues that the city courts cannot resolve are referred to the shevet court. 

·      It legislates for the shevet. This means that the shevet court may create laws binding upon only the members of the shevet.[2] 

Justice, justice pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that Hashem, your L-rd gives you. (Sefer Devarim 16:20)

II. Pursue justice

The above passage admonishes us to pursue justice. To whom is this admonition directed? Rashi explains that it addresses the nation and every individual. The nation is directed to pursue justice through the creation of the court system. To enjoy possession of the Land of Israel, the nation must establish a system of courts that assures that justice will preside in the land. Also, the passage addresses every individual. Litigants should take their cases to the best court.[3]  In practice, what does this mean?

Ramban explains that because of its role, the shevet court is composed of the shevet’s finest judges – those who are the wisest. A dispute between parties is generally brought to the court of their city. However, if one of the parties insists that the case be judged by the shevet court, he may demand that the other litigant follow him to that court. If both parties are satisfied to be judged by the local court, is there any reason to travel to a more authoritative or better court? 

The admonition to the individual to pursue justice urges that one seek out the finest court. In other words, if both parties to a dispute agree, then they are completely entitled to take their case to their city’s court. They are not required to travel to another city and present their case to the shevet court. However, they are encouraged to pursue justice and undertake the journey.[4] In summary, a dispute may be addressed in three ways.

·      If both parties agree, the case is judged by the local court.

·      If one of the parties insists, then they must travel to a more expert court.

·      Even if both parties are satisfied with their local court, they are encouraged to travel to the more expert court. 

III. Peace and justice

This discussion provides an important insight into the Torah’s court system. What is the objective of the courts’ judicial function? The courts resolve disputes. They provide a means for arbitrating conflicts and maintaining peace and prosperity. Parties to a disagreement take their dispute to the courts and the judges mediate. 

Because of this function, courts must be established in each city. This assures that a court is available to hear the case and resolve the dispute. As discussed above, one of the litigants can insist that the case be taken to the shevet court. There are circumstances in which this right is important. Imagine a case that involves unusual or difficult points of law. One of the parties may conclude that the local court will not understand and consider some of the subtleties of the case. To be sure that his arguments will be fully appreciated and evaluated, he may insist that the case be taken to the shevet court. But as discussed above, this is not the only instance in which the case may be taken to the higher court.

Both parties may be completely satisfied to allow the local court to judge their case. But one of the messages of the above passage is that it is preferable for them to take their case to the best court. Why is this encouraged? If both are satisfied with the local court, then they have a perfect and convenient means to resolve their dispute. The reason the Torah requires local courts is to assure that disputes can be mediated efficiently and without undue burden. Why encourage the parties to travel to a city which is perhaps far away so that a more expert court can hear their case?

This question reveals that the purpose of the courts is not only to mediate disputes. The courts have a second function – the pursuit of justice. The Torah requires that we submit our disputes to the courts for mediation and resolution. We are encouraged to not settle for a resolution but to strive for the most just outcome. Justice is not merely an instrument for resolving conflict. It is an end in itself. 

An example will illustrate the Torah’s perspective on justice. Often, in our secular court system cases are settled without going to court. Consider Reuven who files a suit over an injury caused by Shimon’s negligence. Shimon is insured and is defended by lawyers hired by the insurer. Reuven has a solid case but does not have the resources to battle Shimon’s lawyers. Eventually, he accepts a settlement that is adequate to cover all the expenses and much of the lost income resulting from the injury. He is pleased with the outcome. The system provided a forum for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. Both parties are satisfied.

In one sense, the system worked. It provided a resolution that both parties can accept. If this is the only objective of the legal system, then it was successful in its treatment of the conflict. However, the Torah’s position is that the satisfaction of the parties is only one consideration. We must also strive to create a just community. If Shimon was not held fully responsible for his negligence and Reuven was not completely compensated for his injury, then the resolution is not just. It satisfies the parties but not the Torah!

[1] See Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 1:3-4. Most cities have courts of twenty-three judges. Very small villages are required to have a court of three judges.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 16:18.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 16:20.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 16:18-20.