By Rabbi Abe Friedman
One of Rabbi Yishmael’s tenant farmers would pay his rent with a basket of fruit each Friday. One week, however, he came on Thursday.
Rabbi Yishmael asked him, “What is different this week?” The farmer replied, “I have a lawsuit today, and I said, ‘If I am going to court anyway, I can bring the master my rent along the way.’” Rabbi Yishmael refused to accept it and told him, “You have disqualified me from judging your case.”
Other judges sat to hear the case, and as Rabbi Yishmael listened he thought, “He could say this to prove his case, he could say that to prove his case.” He said to himself, “Blast the souls of those who accept bribes! I did not accept his money — and even if I had accepted it, it was due to me — and anyway I am inclined to favor him.”
The Talmud (Ketubot 105b) tells this story to illustrate a verse in the Torah that might otherwise seem self-evident. After calling for the appointment of “judges and officers,” this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shoftim, continues with the warning, “You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous” (Devarim 16:19).
Is this really necessary? Granted, corruption exists throughout the world, in some places quite rampant, but I can’t think of a single society that would explicitly endorse or even condone its leaders on the take. Someone who would take a bribe already doesn’t care about justice, so why should we think that a verse in the Torah would stop them?
What Rabbi Yishmael comes to understand, however, is that an overt bribe is perhaps the least insidious form of influence. Real life offers plenty of more subtle opportunities for inappropriate influence — and without proper caution, even the best-intentioned person could fall victim.
Consider his own story: The tenant owes Rabbi Yishmael the rent anyway. Rabbi Yishmael knows it is coming, just as it does every Friday. The tenant happened to be in town on a Thursday, when the courts would hear cases, so he brought the rent a day early. It saves him an extra trip. What’s the big deal?
And yet Rabbi Yishmael, having recused himself from the case, notices that he almost subconsciously favors his tenant in the case. Even refusing to accept the payment — a payment to which he was legitimately entitled in the first place — does not insulate him from bias. In bringing this story, the Talmud wants us to understand that inappropriate influence can take all manner of forms.
While the Torah talks about judges in several passages, parshat Shoftim is the only Torah portion that mentions “officers,” and the only thing we learn about them is that they are forbidden to accept bribes — nothing more about their other responsibilities. What makes this one issue so important that the Torah will emphasize it to the exclusion of all other considerations?
Each of us has at least one sphere of life in which we serve as a leader or role model, whether as a parent or teacher, coach or scout leader, a business owner, and so on. Others count on us to deal fairly, and when we allow others to influence us through gifts and favors — even if we are not technically violating the law — we betray that trust. In these roles, we stand for something bigger than ourselves: honesty, fairness, the very notion of truth. Bribery, even in its most subtle forms, not only calls our personal integrity into question but also undermines everyone’s faith in the principles at the foundation of society. The Torah emphasizes the danger of bribery because it poses a threat to the entire community.
Blatant corruption is terrible, but most of us are unlikely to go that far. In telling his story, Rabbi Yishmael warns us that we need to watch out for more subtle forms of undue influence and, if we can’t be entirely sure of our impartiality, excuse ourselves from the case, contract or situation at hand. The world is counting on it.
Abe Friedman is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City and a member of the executive committee of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.