Sanhedrin, Chapter Five, Mishnah One



Chapter five begins to discuss how the judges examine the testimony of the witnesses.


Mishnah One

1)                     They used to examine witnesses with seven inquiries:  (1)  In what week of years? (2) In what year?  (3)  In what month?  (4)  On what date in the month?  (5)  On what day?  (6)  In what hour?  (7)  In what place?

a)                                           Rabbi Yose says:  [They only asked:] On what day?  In what hour?  In what place?

2)                     [Moreover they asked:]  Do you recognize him?  Did you warn him?

3)                     If one had committed idolatry [they asked the witnesses:]  What did he worship and how did he worship it?



This mishnah lists the questions that the judges would ask the witnesses. The purpose of the first set of questions was to make sure that the witnesses were actually there at the scene of the crime and not somewhere else.  By pinpointing the date and place, the witnesses are in essence promising that no one else could say they were somewhere else when the crime allegedly occurred.  According to Jewish law, if witnesses are found to testify about a crime and it turns out that they were not even there when the crime as committed, they receive the punishment that the accused would have received.

Rabbi Yose holds that the judges only need to ask three questions, instead of the seven asked according to the first opinion in the mishnah.  These three questions are sufficient in order to establish when and where the crime was committed.  The Sages, whose anonymous opinion is taught in section one, hold that by asking many questions they can check to see if the witness is truly confused with regards to his testimony.  If he gets confused then it is a sign that his testimony may not be accurate.

Aside from the questions of time and place the judges would also ask the witnesses if they recognized the accused, and in the case of murder they would also ask if the witnesses recognized the murdered person.  Furthermore they would ask the witnesses if they had warned the accused.  According to Jewish law a person cannot be executed or receive corporal punishment unless he had previously been warned that if he were to commit this crime the punishment would be death or flogging.

If the trial was for idol worship, which according to Jewish law is a capital offense, they would ask the witnesses what type of idol the accused worshipped and how he worshipped it.