Mishnat Hashavua’: Bekhorot 4:4

Is a judge personally liable for his flawed decisions?

If someone who was not an authorized expert inspected a first-born animal and it was slaughtered on his instruction [because he thought it to be defective], the carcass should be buried, and he must reimburse the owner from his own account. If [an unauthorized judge] ruled on a case, exonerating the guilty, or deeming guilty the innocent, or declaring impure that which was pure, or pure that which was impure—his decision stands, but he must pay restitution from his own account. But if [the judge] was appointed by the Beit Din, then he is exempt from paying [damages]. There was a case of a cow which had had its uterus removed, and Rabbi Tarfon, [considering it treife] fed it to the dogs. Then the Sages reviewed the case, and decided to allow [such a cow to be considered kosher]. Todos the physician testified, “no cow or sow is let out of Alexandria until they have removed its uterus, so that it will not reproduce [elsewhere].” Rabbi Tarfon said, “There goes your donkey, Tarfon!” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “Rabbi Tarfon, you are exempt [from personal liability for the cow] for you are an appointed [judge] of the Beit Din, and whoever is appointed by the Beit Din is exempt from [personal] liability to pay.”

Comment

The Torah declares that all first-born animals owned by Israelites must be given to God. Non-kosher animals such as donkeys would be redeemed; otherwise, the animal was presented to the priest. However, if it had a minor blemish, it was unfit for presentation and could be redeemed and then used by the owner. In the first case, the inexpert judge declared the animal to be unfit, thereby depriving its owner of the chance to fulfill the mitzvah. The second case revolves around whether a hysterectomy performed on a cow renders it treife, unfit for Jewish consumption. Rabbi Tarfon ruled yes, but the Sages determined, based on Todos’s testimony, that this was a routine procedure that didn’t render the animal treife.

Questions

  1. This Mishnah shields court-appointed judges from personal liability. Should this be our practice too?
  2. Should it matter whether the judicial error was one of fact or interpretation?