Courtly Appearances

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By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The Gemara (Shevuos 31a) discusses a situation where two litigants appear before a judge. One is wearing expensive clothing valued at 100 maneh, and one is wearing something akin to rags. The judge is directed to tell the wealthy litigant: “Either you change into cheap threads or rent a tuxedo for your adversary.” The Ben Yehoyada writes that this is true even if the pauper initiated the court case. The wealthy litigant must bear the cost of improving the appearance of the claimant. However, the Ben Yehoyada writes that we would prefer if the wealthy litigant dressed down to regular clothing.

Apparently, clothing worth 100 maneh is so out of the ordinary that the Raavan writes that in his time this halachah was not relevant; no party to a din Torah in the time of the Raavan ever showed up with such expensive clothing. It is possible that we suspect the wealthy litigant in the times of the Gemara of purposely showing up in expensive clothing to bias the judges in his favor. This is in line with the reasoning offered by the Gemara—the judges must distance themselves from falsehood. They may rule incorrectly because of the way the litigants are dressed.

Rav Yehuda Leib Chasman, zt’l, remarked that the lesson from this Gemara is outstanding. Only the most righteous tzaddikim were chosen as judges, especially in the times of the Gemara. Is it conceivable that they would pervert Torah law just because of the way one litigant was dressed? Furthermore, if the way he dresses demonstrates that he is wealthy, then what point is there in having him change his clothes? The judge already found out that he is wealthy! Rav Chasman, zt’l, says that we see from here that a judge can be uncannily affected by what he sees. Intellectually, he knows that he should not favor the wealthy party. And ultimately, he knows that the litigant is wealthy no matter what he is wearing, yet we assume the righteous judge will not be affected by that knowledge. However, if the judge sees that one party is dressed in fancy clothes, it becomes difficult for him not to be subtly biased and have his judgment somewhat affected. The problem isn’t the intellectual knowledge but the visual cues.

The solution is just to remove that visual stimulus from being displayed in front of the judge. Otherwise, the Gemara reasons, it is virtually impossible for the judge not to be biased in favor of the well-dressed litigant.

We see this lesson—that people can make irrational decisions based on what they see in front of them—elsewhere.

When the angels were sent to overturn Sedom, they were directed to rescue Lot. The angels told Lot to gather his family because Sedom will be overturned shortly. His daughters dutifully escaped with their father but their husbands refused to come. The midrash says that Lot’s sons-in-law remarked, “Sedom is in a joyous state; is it possible it will be overturned?” According to one opinion, there was some type of county fair occurring. They did not argue with the fact that Hashem is all-powerful and capable of overturning Sedom. They did not question why Hashem would overturn Sedom. Rather, their sole argument was that it is not possible that Sedom is being overturned because they saw no hint of that destruction in what they were witnessing. To make a judgment call based on what they were seeing was illogical. And that fateful error cost them their lives.

Rav Chasman, zt’l, said that unfortunately we all make these judgment calls based on appearances. When someone new walks into shul, how do we greet him? Do we greet the sharply dressed visitor in the same manner as the one with a shabby appearance? Do we rush to give the poor visitor an aliyah? To a certain extent, we can’t be faulted. After all, the Gemara says that even the most righteous judges fall prey to this insidious snap judgment. Yet, the more we are aware of the problem, the better positioned we will be to correct it.

Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.

 

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