Parashas Terumah introduces the Mishkan and discusses its construction. As the Ramban explains, the fundamental purpose of the Mishkan, and later of the Mikdash in the Land of Israel, is to be the place of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence of Hashem, among the Jewish People: “They shall make a Mishkan for Me; and I shall dwell among them.”
Hashem’s dwelling among His people is a special intimacy and closeness that are absent in exile. However, the Sages mention several matters though which a person can merit the presence of the Shechinah, on a certain level, in his own life. One of these is passing true judgment in Beis Din, a Torah court of law. Based on the Pasuk “…in the midst of Elokim he shall judge” (Tehillim 82:1), the Gemara teaches (Berachos 6a): “Three who sit in judgment, the Shechinah is among them.”
The halachos pertaining to Beis Din procedures are deep and numerous, and in the present article we will discuss only one detail, which is often relevant in the interaction between litigants and the Beis Din: Supplying reasons for a judgment.
The dominant norm in secular (western) courts of law is that the court provides litigants with a reasoned decision – though in some cases the reasons are given only orally. A court system that includes an appeal system requires decisions to be reasoned, for without reasons it becomes very difficult to appeal a judgment. Even setting aside the appeal issue, it is common to provide reasons in order to assure the litigant that he has received a fair hearing even if he lost the case.
What is the halachic approach to supplying reasons for a Beis Din decision? Under which circumstances does this become a full obligation? Does a stipulation with litigants stating that Beis Din has no obligation to supply reasons, make any difference? What is the custom for this matter today?
We will discuss these questions, among others, below.
The basic halachah is that a Beis Din is not required to present the reasons for its decisions. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 29a) presents the procedure for issuing a judgment: “The most prominent of the judges announces: This one has prevailed, and this one is not obligated.” No requirement for explanations for the decision is mentioned.
This stance is reflected in the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. When a written decision is required, Beis Din writes: “So-and-so came with so-and-so his fellow litigant before Beis Din, and it emerged from their words that so-and-so emerges victorious and so-and-so is obligated.” No mention is made of a requirement to explain the decision, and it seems clear that there is, indeed, no obligation to do so.
The Talmud, however, provides us with an exception to the general rule:
“Rav Safra said: If two litigants are in belligerent disagreement with respect to [the venue of] a lawsuit, and one says: Let us be tried here; and the other says: Let us go to the place of Assembly; he [the defendant] must attend the court in his home town. And if it is necessary to consult [the Assembly], the matter is written down and forwarded to them. And if the litigant says, ‘Write down the grounds on which you made your decision and give them to me,’ they must write them down and give him the document” (Sanhedrin 31b).
Although a local Beis Din can require the litigant to come before it, the Beis Din has to draw up, upon request, a document explaining its decision (see below for the type of explanation they need to give). Tosafos limits the application of the ruling, stating that the duty to supply reasons applies only when the relevant litigant was forced into appearing before the Beis Din. Where no coercive measures were applied, he cannot demand that Beis Din provide him with reasons for their decision.
The principle of the Gemara is cited by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 14:1).
Another passage of the Gemara that raises the issue of supplying reasons relates to a case in which a partner in a business venture divided the profits without the consent of the other partner. Rav Papa ruled that the division was legal. Subsequently, the same men partnered to sell wine, and when the other partner divided the wine without the first partner’s consent, Rav Papa ruled that he was not entitled to do this. The second partner complained that he was being treated unfairly by Rav Papa, at which Rav Papa responded that in such a situation, one must present the reasons for his decision (Bava Metzia 69b).
Here, too, Tosafos explain that the right to demand a reasoned judgment is limited to the special circumstances of the case. In cases where the relevant litigant has reasonable cause to suspect the Beis Din (Rav Papa) of bias, Beis Din has to reveal its reasons, in order to, “be clean in the eyes of Hashem and Israel” (Bamidbar 32:22; see also Tosafos in Sanhedrin 31b, which adds an alternative understanding of the matter).
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 14:4) rules accordingly: “Some say that if the Dayan sees that one of the litigants suspects him of being biased against him, he has to explain the grounds for his judgment, even if the litigant did not request this.” The Sema (14:23) clarifies that this applies only if there is a reasonable basis for the charge of bias (as there was in Rav Papa’s case).
The Sema adds (14:25), however, that that even when Beit Din is not obligated to disclose its logic, it will do so (orally) upon request.
Limitations and Expansions
Later authorities seem to adopt different approaches to the limitation or expansion of the duty upon Beis Din to provide reasons for their decisions.
The Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat 12; cited in Pischei Teshuvah, 14:8) limits the obligation to disclose the logic behind a decision. He writes: “Although it is proper for a Dayan to explain his reasoning to remove any suspicion of misconduct, a litigant is not authorized to make such a demand on him, and it is impudent to tell the Dayan that he suspects him of impropriety. If he does make such a demand, the Dayan should not reveal his reasoning, nor should he respond to the charge. Only if the litigant refrains from articulating his suspicion due to reverence and respect for the Dayan is it proper for the Dayan, on his own initiative, to explain his reasoning, so as to extricate himself from suspicion.”
According to the Chasam Sofer, the case of Rav Papa is the exception to the rule: Though the litigant was out of order in demanding the reasons from Beis Din (Rav Papa), nonetheless he felt it necessary to (orally) reveal the logic behind the judgment, because of the objective grounds for suspicion in the case.
Though not formally disputing the above, the Noda Biyhudah (Tinyana, Choshen Mishpat 1; cited by the Pischei Teshuvah 14:11) seems to have a different approach to the matter, and comes out in in favor of disclosing the logic of Beis Din. After discussion of a particular question, he writes in conclusion: “I do not suspect any rabbi will refrain from doing so (revealing his reasoning) unless he knows the truth is that he did not judge properly, either deliberately or negligently, and is arrogant and ashamed to acknowledge the truth that he has erred.”
The Noda Biyhuda also expands the obligation of Beis Din to supply reasons, as explained below.
Torah Scholar or Ignoramus
Another interesting discussion on the subject is raised by the Radvaz (3:578), who makes a distinction between a litigant who is a Torah scholar, and one who is unlearned in Torah law.
The Radvaz argues that the duty upon Beis Din to reveal the logic behind their decision applies only where the litigant is an am ha’aretz, unknowledgeable in Torah law – which was the case in the anecdote of Rav Papa. If however, the litigant is a Torah scholar, and he wishes to dispute the ruling of Beis Din, there is no duty to reveal the reasons.
However, Maharam Galanti (91) writes the exact opposite. There is specific cause for Beis Din to disclose its reasons where the litigant is a Torah scholar, for then the request stands upon solid foundations: the litigant, who is a man of letters, wishes to understand the logic behind the decision.
What Kind of Disclosure?
From the two Talmudic passages noted above, we learn of two specific circumstances in which Beis Din have to disclose their logic. One is where there are grounds for suspicion, as emerges from Bava Metzia 69. The other, which emerges from the Gemara in Sanhedrin, is when Beis Din forced a litigant to come before themselves, only to rule that he must ascend to the Assembly (a higher court) to receive judgment.
According to a number of Rishonim (such as the Ramban, Bava Metzia 69b), the disclosure in this (latter) case is different from that of the case where the Dayanim fall under suspicion. Whereas in the case of potential suspicion Beis Din has to reveal the logic behind the decision, in the case of the coerced ruling to ascend to the Assembly, Beis Din only needs to record the claims made by litigants and its own ruling.
In fact, the Rema (14:4) rules that Beis Din only has to write the respective claims of the litigants and the ruling of the Beis Din, and not the actual reasons for the ruling. The Sema (14:24) explains that this applies only when a litigant seeks to appeal a case to a higher Beis Din (since the higher court will be able to discern the basis for the ruling without an explanation). If no appeal will be made, Beis Din has to reveal its logic if there is reasonable suspicion of bias (see also Pischei Teshuvah (14:10) citing Chavos Yair, who strongly questions the Rema’s ruling; he explains it as referring to a written judgment alone, meaning that Beis Din will be obligated to give reasons orally).
In defining the coercion to come before Beis Din that obligates Beis Din to note the claims of the litigants and the final decision, the Noda Biyhuda explains that if a litigant was summoned to Beis Din, he is considered to have been coerced. Beis Din is obligated to note the claims and the ruling, in order to facilitate an appeal to a higher Beis Din. He adds that this is especially necessary “in our generation, when mistakes occur frequently.”
Note that the Radvaz (3:578) makes the same distinction as that made by the Rishonim, but in the opposite direction, ruling that in cases of suspicion it is sufficient to record the litigants’ claims, while in the case of a coerced ruling Beis Din must supply the full logic of their decision. This, however, is a minority opinion, and is not normative halachah.
Contemporary Practice in Beis Din
After the Chief Rabbinate in Israel created rabbinic courts of appeal (as a prerequisite for the British authorities recognizing the rulings of the Beis Din), it became common practice for the official state Batei Din to explain their rulings.
Rav Ben-Zion Uziel explains the importance of this practice (Shut Mishpetei Uziel Vol. 3, Choshen Mishpat 1): “There is a greater obligation in our times [for Beis Din to disclose its reasons], since civil courts explain their rulings with proofs to their decisions, and this enhances their reputation in the eyes of the people. Why should we not act similarly to inspire confidence in the eyes of the nation? … It is [moreover] appropriate for all Beis Din decisions, except for conventional and simple cases, to present a summary of the respective arguments of the litigants and the reason for the decision, in order to provide the opportunity for appellate court review and to teach Torah law to the nation.”
Although the Rema writes (14:4) that the highest Beis Din authority need not present its reasons, Rav Herzog (the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi) instructed that even this should be done. He explained that this should be done to set an example for others, and also because of the inherent benefits of the practice.
For private Batei Din, it is hard to point to an accepted norm. Each Beis Din adopts its own practices in noting reasons in judgments. Some Batei Din note in the arbitration agreement (signed by the litigants) that there is no obligation upon the Beis Din to provide the logic for their decision.
In our own Institute for Dayanim (Nesivos Chaim) Beis Din, we include a clause in the arbitration agreement to the effect that Beis Din is not obligated to supply reasons. In practice however, reasons are almost always provided, for similar reasons to those noted by Rav Uziel. However, the clause is important for the rare instances (for certain rulings and certain litigants) in which providing reasons can be counterproductive.
The Semicha Lechayim (Even Ho’ezer 9) writes that this, however, will not always apply to cases in which there is a halachic obligation to state the reasons, such as where there is valid cause for suspicion on the part of one of the litigants. It appears that the obligation is not only towards the litigants, but is an inherently correct practice (People should refrain from actions which arouse suspicion.), which the litigants cannot waive.