Sanhedrin, Chapter Three, Mishnah Six



Mishnah six begins to describe the process of the interrogation of the witnesses.


Mishnah Six

1)                     How do they check the witnesses?

2)                     They bring them in and warn them, and then they take them out and leave behind the most important of [the witnesses].

3)                     And they would say to him:  “State [for us], how do you know that this one is in debt to this one?”

a)                                           If he said, “He said to me, ‘I am in debt to him’, or ‘So-and-so said to me that he was in debt to him’”, he has said nothing.

b)                                          He must be able to say, “In our presence he acknowledged to the other one that he owed him 200 zuz.”

4)                     Afterward they bring in the second witness and check him.

5)                     If their words were found to agree, the judges discuss the matter.

6)                     If two say, “He is not guilty” and one says, “He is guilty”, he is not guilty.

a)                                           If two say, “He is guilty” and one says, “He is not guilty”, he is guilty.

b)                                          If one says, “He is not guilty”, and one says, “He is guilty”, and even if two declared him not guilty or declared him guilty while one said, “I do not know”, they must add more judges.



This mishnah describes the process by which the judges would examine the testimony of the witnesses.  Keep in mind that the mishnaic court system did not include lawyers.  Rather the discussion was conducted directly between the litigants and the judges. 

(1)  The first step is to warn the witnesses of the seriousness of testifying in a court.  (2)  The second step was to remove all but one of the witnesses, so that they would not merely mimic each other’s testimony.  Jewish law is strict in requiring two independent witnesses, and one may not therefore learn of his testimony from another.  (3)  They could now begin interrogating the most important of the witnesses.  The witness is asked how he received that information that so-and-so owes someone money.  The only answer that is accepted as valid testimony is for the witness to say that he saw the defendant actually admit to the plaintiff that he is in debt to him.  If a third party told the witness that the defendant was obligated, or even if the defendant himself admitted such, the testimony is not accepted.  (4)  Afterwards they repeat the process with the second witness.  (5)  If the testimony of all of the witnesses is found to be in agreement, the judges discuss the matter.  (6) A majority decision is always accepted as binding, as long as all of the judges have made a conclusive decision. If one of the judges said that he did not know they must add more judges until there are three judges who have actually rendered decisions.  In other words, one who cannot render a decision is not counted as one of the necessary three judges to make up a court of three.


Questions for Further Thought:

·                      Why is the defendant’s own admission of debt to the plaintiff not sufficient to allow the witness to testify on the plaintiff’s behalf?