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   by Jacob Solomon

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 Do not accept a bribe: for a bribe will blind the eyes of those that see, and corrupt the words of the righteous. Do not oppress a stranger: you know the feelings of a stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt (23:8-9).

The Talmud (Ketubot 105a) states that the prohibition of taking a bribe extends to a situation where a judge receives payment from an interested party to decide the case fairly – to find out who indeed is liable, and who should be exonerated. (Taking such a benefit to pervert justice is covered by “Do not distort justice” [Deut. 16:19]).

The above gives rise to the following questions. Firstly, what can be learnt from the Torah’s separately forbidding the taking of such payments to judge the case correctly? Secondly, what is the connection between that prohibition, and the injunction against oppressing a stranger in the next verse?

One approach may be found by considering a well-known story below, from the Talmud (Ketubot 105b).

R. Yishmael ben R. Yose had a share-cropper tenant-farmer that paid for the use of his land by bringing a basket of fruit from that land to R. Yishmael every Friday. One week, the tenant farmer had a court case in town on Thursday. On the way, he brought his weekly basket of fruit to R. Yishmael. R. Yishmael, who was a judge, was concerned lest he might be influenced by the slight benefit of having the fruit a day earlier than usual. He refused to accept the fruit. He then refused to judge the case. He considered that his judgement might be impaired because the fruit had been offered to him a day earlier than usual. That was enough to disqualify himself as a judge: he handed that case over to other colleagues. During the hearing, R. Yishmael happened to by passing outside the courtroom and he heard the arguments in progress. He found himself silently reasoning in favor of the tenant farmer: “if only he would present this line of argument…” He realized that these thoughts were associated in his mind with the basket of fruit. He thus learnt the strength of the hidden forces working in the human mind. He exclaimed: “Cursed be the souls of those who take bribes! If I, who did not take anything – and if I had taken it, it would have been my own - had such an experience, how much more so to those who take actual bribes!”

This story shows how easily the smallest of bribes can indeed pervert justice. Note the personality and issues involved. R. Yishamel was a Tanna – a Rabbi whose decisions and opinions were recorded in the Mishna for posterity. His qualities included the highest integrity – demonstrated by his refusing to take his own fruit and his subsequent saying no to judging the case. And after all that, he found himself turning over in his mind arguments which would help the man to win his case – because of this extremely slight bias.

Rabbi Dessler (in Michtav Eliyahu) refers this incident where he extends the principle of taking bribes to our daily decision-making activities. We are all judges. A person is often passing judgement on the correctness of his behavior and his views. A preconceived notion (the ‘bribe’) even the slightest, is liable to distort one’s accuracy of judgement. This is due to the ingrained disinclination to change one’s mind, which in turn is often a product of social conditioning, laziness, and arrogance.

It follows that when our own interests are at stake, we are even more likely to act incorrectly because of being ‘bribed’. The example below – reflected in the next verse about oppressing the stranger – illustrates the point.

Tourist guidebooks designed for the budget traveller going virtually anywhere in the world, constantly stress the following point. If you wish to eat well in a pleasant environment, and obtain value for money, check where the locals purchase their goods and services. In other words there are two sorts of local economy – one that caters to the resident community, and the other, that is prominently and conveniently located to serve the tourist. The first type – for the regulars - has to suffer intense competition to maintain repeat business and customer goodwill. The locals will be quick to spot any underhand behavior and they will respond by taking their business elsewhere. The second type relies on catering for people they will probably never see again – strangers. These often-disorientated people are easy prey for the well-known, widespread types of deception practised on ‘strangers’ in popular tourist destinations. Well known tricks include the use of substandard materials, served at prices far above the going rate, and the misrepresentation of cheap fake items as genuine arts and crafts – to such a degree that no local would be deceived for one moment. The local people justify this ‘oppression of the stranger’ by claiming that ‘business is business’, ‘by the time they find out they will be too far away to be bothered to sue’, ‘we will never see them again’ or simply ‘they will never find out’.

When we examine the motivation of these business people, they may well believe in all sincerity that they are honest trades-people. But, as we have seen, they are ‘bribed’. And these bribes are not trivial ones, such as being offered one’s own property a day early. They are real ones that pervert judgement – in this case, the strong desire to make money, even at the expense of the vulnerable stranger. And such people are biased to the degree that they hate being reminded that they are breaking the laws of the Torah. Indeed, the Mechilta (to 23:8) says that such a person will come to ‘hate the righteous words given at Sinai’. For their self-interest will cause them to hate whatever stands in their way – even if that is the Torah itself.

So, in the light above discussion, the prohibition of taking bribes has a wider meaning of making sure that we come to the right decisions in our daily lives by recognizing bias for what it is. The next verse implies a way a person is often under ‘bribery’ in the wider sense: the ‘business is business’ ethic. He will use this bias to oppress the stranger – including the classic underhand ways of taking advantage of him. And the Torah, in putting the two verses together is saying: “Think carefully before saying ‘business is business’. Is your business deal with the stranger in accordance with your duty to him, as required by the Halacha? And you, Israelites, should know better than anyone what the unbiased truth is. You know what it is like to be a stranger, because you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt…”



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