#63 - Sanhedrin 23-29
When Majority Does Not Rule
One of the most dramatic moments in Jewish history took place during the siege of Yerushalayim by the mighty Assyrian army led by Sancherib. After conquering almost the entire known world this superpower captured the Kingdom of Yisrael and exiled the ten tribes to some unknown destination in Africa. All that stood in the way of universal mastery was the Kingdom of Yehuda, whose righteous king, Chizkiyahu, refused to surrender and take his people into exile.
Yerushalayim, the capital of this kingdom, was split between the followers of the king and the followers of Shavno, the officer in charge of the royal household, who advocated coming to terms with Sancherib. When Chizkiyahu realized that his opponents outnumbered his followers he began to fear that the judicial principle of "majority rule" applied to this situation, and that Hashem would side with his opposition. The head of this opposition had already shot an arrow beyond the city walls carrying a note to the enemy that his party was ready to surrender but that Chizkiyahu was stubbornly resisting.
At this critical moment the Prophet Yeshayahu came to the king with a message from Hashem: "Say not it is a bond that all of which these people wish to call a bond." (Yeshayahu 8:12). This means, says the gemara, that there is no need to follow the majority when it is composed of wicked people who are prepared to come to terms with an enemy who brazenly blasphemed Hashem and who was intent on destroying the Beit Hamikdash.
Even before a Heavenly angel wiped out the Assyrian army in one night the wicked man who wished to surrender to it received his just desserts. He sought to shame his master and in return the honor he sought as peacemaker turned into shame. He triumphantly marched at the head of his followers as they went to meet the Assyrians. But as soon as he was outside, the Angel Gavriel shut the city gate behind him, trapping all of his followers within the walls. When the Assyrians asked him where all of his followers were, he, unaware of the Heavenly intervention, could only meekly admit that they deserted him. The enraged enemy accused him of mocking them and executed him in a cruel and shameful manner.
Dignity or Death
Since the testimony of witnesses was so crucial to deciding a lawsuit the judges made an intense effort to test their credibility. Each witness was questioned separately to ascertain that his testimony did not conflict with those of the others. But even before that the judges gave the witnesses a stern lecture about the serious consequences of bearing false witness.
Both Rabbi Yehuda and Rava suggest that the sermon given to the witnesses was based on passages in Mishlei (25). Rabbi Yehuda refers to 25:14 which warns that as a result of false testimony rain is withheld from the world and famine comes. This is dismissed by Rava as inadequate because the false witnesses can comfort themselves with the thought that famine threatens the farmer but not the artisan. He suggests instead 25:18 which contains the threat of plague as a consequence of false testimony.
This is also dismissed by Rabbi Ashi because the false witness can always delude himself into believing that he will not be a victim of the plague. He quotes instead the Sage Nosson bar Mar Zutra who states that we warn the witnesses whom we suspect of being hired to testify falsely that they will lose the respect of those who hired them.
The source for this is the incident described in Melachim I 21. The wicked King Achav was anxious to acquire the vineyard of Novos the Yisreelite which bordered his palace. When Novos stubbornly refused every offer for selling it, Achav followed the advice of his wicked wife Izevel. He hired witnesses to testify that Novos was guilty of the capital crime of blaspheming against Hashem and the king so that he could have him executed and confiscate his property. When she mentioned the candidates for the role of witnesses she herself referred to them as "wicked people".
The last suggestion, which is the gemaras conclusion, shows that the threat to a persons dignity is a more effective warning than the possibility of a threat to his life.