Monolingual Judges

Friday I noted on Twitter that in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews (have I mentioned here before how much I relish that compendium?) volume 3, on the digitised version of which I’m now working, Jethro instructs Moses to delegate (recapitulating the scene from Exodus 18). Moses wants nominations from the floor, but reserves to himself the prerogative to appoint judges who will relieve the burden of his governance.

Moses wants to make sure the people nominate the right sort of candidate, not motivated by kinship or wealth, appearance or atheticism. He further mentions another criterion, one that’s less obviously pertinent:

“Heretofore,” [Moses] said, “you belonged to yourselves, but from now you belong to the people; for you judge between every man, and his brother and his neighbor. If ye are to appoint judges, do so without respect of persons. Do not say, ‘I will appoint that man because he is a handsome man or a strong man, because he is my kinsman, or because he is a linguist.” — Legends of the Jews, Vol. 3 From the Exodus to the Death of Moses, p. 71.

Ginzberg weaves this part of Legends from Sifrei Devarim 17 (by the way, a big hat tip to, the kind of site I’ve been advocating for a long time online). Sefaria’s translation of the passage reads

(Devarim 1:17) “Do not play favorites in judgment”: This is (addressed to) one who is appointed to seat judges. Lest you say: That man is comely; I will make him a judge — that man is strong; I will make him a judge — that man is my kinsman; I will make him a judge — that man lent me money; I will make him a judge — that man is multilingual; I will make him a judge — so that (in his innocence) he exonerates the guilty and incriminates the innocent — not because he is wicked, but because he does not know (the law), Scripture terms (appointing him as a judge) as “playing favorites in judgment.”

So the disqualifying criterion manifestly involves facility in languages, but it’s not quite clear why. Perhaps because the multilingual judge might use their facility in languages that one of the complainants doesn’t know, to communicate secretly with somebody else? Ordinarily, one might think it convenient and commendable for a judge to know all the languages they might encounter in their practice, but Moses evidently saw things differently.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. By my reading here, it’s not that multilingualism is disqualifying, it’s that it is not IN ITSELF a qualification. Given the amount of space given in commentaries of about the same era as Sifrei Devarim that’s given over to debates about what exactly this or that word means and whether it’s meaning has changed over time or distance, it’s easy to imagine the development of an idea that philology is essential to psak din, so this seems to be a heavy handed reminder that there is a bit more to the enterprise than simply uncovering the original intent of the text.

    1. Thank you, Alana! That’s very helpful. So, language fluency is good, just as being good-lookin’ or strong is good, but it shouldn’t influence the choice of a judge.

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