The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
"WHEN do justice and goodwill meet? When the contending parties can be made to peaceably agree."
To accomplish this end was the great aim of the ancient Jewish laws, but a marked distinction was made between the civil and criminal branches. In the former cases, arguments could be made before, and decisions rendered by, either the general magistracy or special judges chosen by the contending parties, and many were the fences erected about the judges to keep them within the lines of strict equity, such as the following:
"He who unjustly transfers one man's goods to another shall answer to God for it with his own soul."
"When the judge sits in judgment on his fellow-man he should feel as though a sword was pointed at his heart."
"Woe to the judge who, knowing the unrighteousness of a decision, endeavours to make the witnesses responsible for the same. From him will God require an account;"
"When the parties stand before thee look upon both as guilty; but when they are dismissed let them both be innocent, for the fiat has gone forth."
The judge was not allowed to hear anything of a case, save in the presence of all the parties concerned; and he was particularly enjoined to be without bias caused by a difference in the standing or wealth of the parties,; either in
favour of the poor against the rich, or of the rich against the poor.
The witnesses in a case were almost as closely scrutinised as the case itself; and they were at once incompetent if they had any personal interest in the suit. If a plaintiff asked for more than he was legally entitled to in the hope of more readily obtaining his due he lost his suit.
While three judges could form a tribunal for the settling of civil cases, that for the judgment of criminal suits was composed of twenty-three judges, and while in the former case a majority of one in the jury, either acquitted or condemned, in the latter a majority of one acquitted, but a majority of two was required to condemn.
The witnesses in criminal suits were thus admonished on being brought into court:
"Perchance you intend to speak from rumour, being the witness of another witness, to tell that which you have heard from a trustworthy man, or perchance you may not be aware that we shall try you with close questions and searching words. Know then, that trials wherein the life of man hangs in the scale, are not like trials concerning worldly goods. With money may money be redeemed, but in trials like this not only the blood of the one unjustly condemned, but that of his seed and his seed's seed, until the end of time, will lay heavy on the soul of the false witness. Adam was created alone one man, and he who destroys a single life will be held as accountable as if he had destroyed a world. Therefore search well thy words. But say not, on the other hand, 'What have I to do with all this?' Remember the words of Holy Writ, 'If a witness hath seen or known, if he do not utter, he shall bear his iniquity;' and remember further, 'In the destruction of the wicked there is joy.'"
The punishments were inflicted in the most humane
manner, and the entire code is the perfection of justice tempered by mercy in its truest and highest sense.
No matter how numerous the crimes of an offender might be, one punishment covered them all. A fine could not accompany any other punishment, and in cases of flagellation, the number of strokes was limited in the most extreme cases to thirty-nine.
The judges in capital cases were required to fast all day on the days when they pronounced judgments, and even after the sentence the case was again considered by the highest court before it was carried into effect.
The place of execution was located a considerable distance from the court, and on his progress thereto the prisoner was stopped several times, and asked whether he could think of anything not said which might influence the judges in his favour. He had the privilege of returning to the court as often as he pleased with new pleas, and a herald preceded him, crying aloud, "This man is being led to execution, this is his crime . . . these are the witnesses against him . . . if any one knows aught in his favour let them come forth now and speak the words."
Before his execution he was urged to confess. "Confess thy sins," said the officers; "every one who confesses has part in the world to come." If he offered no confession he was requested to repeat the words, "May my death be a redemption for all my sins."
Capital punishment, however, was of such rare occurrence as to be practically abrogated. In fact, many of the judges declared openly for its abolition, and a court which had pronounced one sentence of death in seven years was called "the court of murderers."