The town had just appointed a Rav, and two local scholars were determined to test the Torah knowledge of the new leader. They thought of a hypothetical monetary dispute which entailed a complicated halachic question, and presented themselves to the new Rav as litigants seeking a din Torah. The Rav carefully weighed the details of the case, and rendered his verdict.
The two scholars then made their way to the famed Rav of Kovna, who was considered one of the greatest poskim of his era, and once again presented the question. The Kovna Rav listened to the two sides and ruled precisely the opposite. But when both of the “litigants,” including the party that had lost the “din Torah,” reacted with glee, it aroused the suspicions of the Kovna Rav. He promptly probed the matter and was shaken to discover the truth.
The Rav instructed the two men to wait, and withdrew into an inner room. An hour later he returned, holding a copy of the sefer Nesivos, written by the Rav of Lissa. “Your Rav is a great scholar,” he informed the two men, adding that they were fortunate to have him as their spiritual leader. “He ruled according to a psak of the Lissa Rav, a fact that eluded me.”
The two men were flabbergasted. It seemed unthinkable that the great Kovna Rav would issue a mistaken halachic ruling!
Noticing their wonderment, the Kovna Rav proceeded to explain what had just occurred.
“There is nothing to wonder about. Had this been a real din Torah, I would have had the siyatta diShmaya to rule correctly. But since the question was theoretical, there are different ways to approach the question…”
* * *
When the Chofetz Chaim agreed to serve as Rav of Radin, he insisted on three conditions: that he would not receive a salary; that the townspeople would forgive him if he erred or inadvertently hurt their feelings; and that the townspeople would be required to obey his rulings.
After the Chofetz Chaim served as Rav for a brief period, a resident refused to obey a halachic ruling, and he resigned the position.
The Chofetz Chaim revealed that a Dayan needs great siyatta diShmaya in order to render a true and just verdict. When two parties come to a Rav seeking to know to whom the money halachically belongs, then the Rav is granted this siyatta diShmaya. But when the litigant who loses the case has no intention of abiding by the decision, it is apparent that his original intent was only to use the din Torah as a way to get money from the other party, and in that case there is no guarantee of siyatta diShmaya.
“Who can risk judging a case without siyatta diShmaya?” the Chofetz Chaim asked.
* * *
This week’s parashah begins with the words: “And these are the Judgments that you shall place before them.” Rashi teaches us that “before them” means “before them and not before non-Jews. Even if you know that the [non-Jews] judge it according to the [same legal principles] as the halachah, do not bring it to their courts, for one who brings matters of Yisrael before non-Jews desecrates the name of Hashem…”
This teaching is the undisputed halachah. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 26:1) clearly and unambiguously states that it is forbidden for Jews to bring their civil disputes before secular courts, even if the ruling these courts would hand down would appear to be according to halachah. The Shulchan Aruch describes someone who brings his case to be judged in a secular court as a “rasha,” and says that “it is as if he insulted, vilified and raised his hand [against] the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu.” The Rema adds that a beis din has the power to excommunicate someone who violates this halachah.
We are grateful to live in a medinah shel chessed, a nation whose legal system — despite all its many flaws — is one of the fairest and most just in contemporary times. However, when a dispute arises between two Jews, secular courts — on any level and in every jurisdiction — ought never to be an option.
The Chofetz Chaim teaches us an additional important point: That even when parties do go to a beis din, their intent must be not to pursue their personal interests but to discover what the halachah is. In such cases, the Rav or the Dayanim are indeed granted the siyatta diShmaya to rule justly.
On a daily basis, we see Yidden who take their disputes to a beis din, and graciously accept and abide by what is decided. It is our collective responsibility to do everything possible to see that all others choose to emulate them.