Shiur #15a: The Weight of Decisions

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #15a: The Weight of Decisions

By Rav Yitzchak Blau



"Fear no man" (Devarim 1:7) — Rabbi Chanin explained: "Do not gather in your words before any man."  The pair of witnesses should know about Whom they testify, and before Whom they testify and Who will punish them in the future, as it says "And the two men who have the quarrel will stand before God" (Devarim 19:17).  


Furthermore, the judges should know Whom they judge, and before Whom they judge and Who will punish them in the future, as it says "God stands with the congregation of the mighty [in the midst of the judges He judges]" (Tehillim 82:1).  Thus, with regard to Yehoshafat, it says: "And he said to the judges: 'Take heed what you do, for you do not judge for man but for God'" (Divrei Ha-yamim II 19:6).


Perhaps the judge will say: "Why should I get involved in this trouble?"  The verse (ibid.) teaches us "And He is with you in the matter of judgment": a judge has nothing more than what his eyes see.

(Sanhedrin 6b)


Witnesses and judges must feel the weight of responsibility upon them, as a decent society depends upon the ability of the courts to administer justice.  According to the above gemara, God's intimate involvement in the judicial process means that both the witnesses and the judges should feel the eyes of divine providence watching over them.  It is God Who oversees the court and Who will punish those that fail to adhere to the requirements of honesty and integrity.


Rav Ya'akov Reisher (Iyun Ya'akov) asks: since God punishes for any type of transgression, how is a court case unique?  He answers that the divine presence in the courtroom means that any sin done there is akin to sinning directly in front of our Maker.  The heightened sense of divine interest in the court proceedings magnifies the sin involved if a person shows indifference to the responsibilities of the court.

In what sense do the witnesses testify about God and the judges judge Him?   Rashi and others explain this idea based on a later gemara in Sanhedrin (8a): there, God complains that the wicked trouble Him to restore money to its rightful owners.  If so, every false witness and dishonest judge also forces God to arrange compensation for his victims.  In that sense, all judgments affect the Ribbono shel Olam.


Perhaps there is another sense in which we can say that any judgment is about God.  Every ruling by a halakhic judge should ideally be built upon fundamental halakhic ideals and principles; the judge who follows these principles reveals fealty to the divine law, while the dishonest judge chooses to ignore God's Torah.  In that sense, he renders a negative verdict on Hashem and His Torah.


With all this focus on the awesomeness of judicial responsibility, the gemara is nervous that the prospective judge will abandon his bench in search of another profession.  Why get involved in such a grave matter when it seems much safer to go into carpentry or shoemaking?  Therefore, the gemara concludes with a reassuring note: "a judge has nothing more than what his eyes see" — any judge that does his best to arrive at the correct ruling will not be held responsible for an erroneous decision.


Although the gemara states this principle in reference to court cases, later rabbinic voices broaden this idea to the endeavor of learning and to publishing sefarim.  In the introduction to Iggerot Moshe, Rav Moshe Feinstein expresses the tension between a fear of mistaken rulings on the one hand and the need for knowledgeable people to make decisions on the other hand.  Rav Moshe cites this gemara to indicate that the appropriate person can make valid decisions, even though those decisions may not reflect the absolute truth.


The principle may extend further, beyond the question of Torah learning.  In a fascinating responsum, Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabi'a Omer 8, C.M. 12) permits plastic surgery despite the risk involved in any surgical procedure.  He argues that the doctors have the right to rely upon their judgment that the risk is infinitesimal and that even if they err, "a judge has nothing more than what his eyes see."  Here, the above quote applies not only to halakhic rulings but to medical evaluations as well.  Apparently, competent authorities in any field have the right to make weighty decisions, despite the risk of error.  When they carry out their task faithfully, they are not held liable for such errors.


Finally, we can extend this principle one more step.  Until now, all our illustrations of this principle focused on authority figures of one kind or another.  Yet the same idea can apply to any individual.  After all, we all face major decisions that no one else can make for us.  These decisions include choices relating to which yeshiva to attend, what hashkafa to identify with, choosing a career, selecting a spouse, various aspects of parenting and figuring out where to buy a house and strike roots. 


The first part of the gemara instructs us to take these decisions seriously.  A person must think hard about these issues, seek advice from the appropriate people and become as educated as possible before making such decisions.  We cannot relinquish responsibility by leaving such decisions to fate or to someone else.  At the same time, the second part of the gemara instructs us not to feel crushed by the gravity of these decisions.  We should have a certain confidence that, having worked on the issues seriously, we can arrive at a reasonable decision.


It is true that many areas of religious life depend on authority figures to make the ruling.  However, with regard to the personal issues we mentioned, giving up choice reflects a loss of nerve and a lack of responsibility.  We can appreciate the gravity of these decisions without shying away from the need to make them.  In this sense, we are all judges, and indeed, "a judge has nothing more than what his eyes see."