While a judge, do not act as an advocate;
While the litigants stand before you,
regard them both as guilty;
But when they leave, having accepted the judgment,
regard them both as innocent.
—Yehudah ben Tabbai
Examine the witnesses thoroughly,
and be careful in your words,
lest they learn from them to lie.
—Shimon ben Shetach
Commentary [1:8,9; 4:9,10]
These are the four sayings in Avot that directly relate to courts of law (in addition to 1:1—
“Be deliberate in judging”). In the ancient Jewish courts, trials were before a number judges (not juries)
and the sayings relate to the proper conduct of judges in relation to litigants, witnesses, and other judges.
According to one scholar, Solomon Zeitlin, Yehudah ben Tabbi and Shimon ben Shetach inaugurated the first
systematic cross examination of witnesses, which was later taken up by the Romans.
Good laws and a just court system to enforce them were of the highest importance in the eyes of the sages.
The sages included the establishment of law courts as among the seven ‘laws of Noah’—rules which God is said
to have set for all nations, and which for the sages were basic requirements for a civilized society. Avot in
fact is unusual in the Talmud in not being focused on law, but rather on general principles that should guide
all behavior, whether within the scope of law or not.
The sages did recognize that courts were open to abuse, and being judges themselves realized the difficulty
of the position. Rabbi Ishmael warns about the hazards of being judge, and stingingly rebukes those who abuse