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D'varim 17:6 tells us that "at the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses" a transgressor can be put to death. The mishna in Makkot 1:7 (and following) asks why it says "or three" if two is enough (I've long wondered that too), and derives some conclusions about groups of witnesses from this passage. However, the mishna and g'mara also says the following things:

  • The testimony of the third is superfluous. It can't help.
  • It's not insurance, because if any member of a group of witnesses is disqualified, the entire group is. (For example, one of the three is a relative; even though the other two are not and two witnesses can convict, their "association" with the third voids their testimony.)
  • All witnesses in a group are punished if they are found to be conspiring witnesses. Even when one doesn't intend conspiracy, there's always room for differences in testimony to result in such a charge. Being a witness is a little risky.

Given all that, why would more than two ever testify together? Is there a requirement that everybody who was there together testify even if they don't want to, and that's how you can get more than two witnesses? If not, why would a third (or fourth or hundredth) person choose to join a group of witnesses?

  • It could help to clarify exactly what happened. I don't know that much about Beis Din procedure, but it seems to involve more than just "Do we have witnesses? Great now we know exactly what to do." There's some fact checking afterwards. The source I remember off the top of my head is the Malbim on ופרשו השמלה לפני זקני העיר (Caveat: I don't remember if that's actually the Malbim. It's right near the border of where his writings disappeared and somebody else filled it in trying to emulate his style and IMO not entirely succeeding.) – Heshy Jun 30 at 21:58
  • I think the area you refer to is for civil laws. However, I think regarding Molad (New Moon) witnesses, the mishnah encourages bringing a third witness for if one in a group is invalidated, he may be able to join one of another group who he agrees with. – DanF Jul 1 at 1:01
  • @DanF interesting about the molad. But yes, the mishna (and thus my question) is about cases against people, not other testimony. – Monica Cellio Jul 1 at 1:08
  • Perhaps (for example) there are 2 sets of witnesses who testify about the same thing, but not at the same time. Thus since they're all giving the same set of testimony even though they're not together and may not know about the other set its as if 4 witnesses testified about the same thing. In terms of why specifically 3, Beis Din was very rigorous in their derishos & chakiros- if for example 5 witnesses saw the same thing, 3 may easily be disqualified due to Beis Din's cross examination. Such a case as you prescribed may be where multiple people testified (knowing some may be knocked out)... – alicht Jul 2 at 12:09
  • ... and 3 "survived" this cross examination (ie the intention was to have 2 people testify, the 3rd person is unnecessary and just a bonus) – alicht Jul 2 at 12:10
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The answer is: Because in the case of non-monetary issues it's a compulsory Mitzvah (and not voluntary) to give testimony.

As the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzva 122) describes it:

מצות עדות - להגיד העדות בפני הדַיָנים. בכל מה שנדעהו, בין שיתחיב בעדות מיתה או ממון המועד עליו או שיהיה הצלתו בממונו או בנפשו, שנאמר (ויקרא ה א) והוא עֵד או ראה או ידע אם לא יגיד ונשא עַונו. בכל עניַן, חובה (רמב''ם פ''א עדות ה''א) עלינו להגיד העדות לפני הבית דין (ב''ק נה ב).‏

The commandment of testimony: To say the testimony in front of the judges, in all that we know of it - whether with the testimony, [the accused] will become liable for death or money that is earmarked for him, or whether it will be his salvation for his money or for his life - as it is stated (Leviticus 5:1), "and he is a witness or saw or knew, if he does not say, he will carry his iniquity." In every matter, it is an obligation (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Testimony 1:1) upon us to say the testimony in front of the court (Bava Kamma 55b).

ואולם חלוק יש בין דיני ממונות לדיני נפשות ושאר אסורין שבתורה, שבדיני ממונות אין אדם חייב להעיד עליהם מעצמו אלא אם כן יתבענו בעל הדבר או בית דין, ובדיני נפשות ושאר אסורין שבתורה, כגון שראה אחד שעבר על אסור, וכן בעדות נפשות, שראה מי שהרג חברו, או בעדות מכות, שהכה האחד את חברו, בכל זה חייב האדם לבא מעצמו ולהגיד העדות לפני הבית דין כדי לבער הרע ולהפריש האדם מאסור.‏

However there is a difference between monetary laws and capital and other laws in the Torah. As with monetary laws, a man is not obligated to testify about them on his own, unless a party in the case or the court solicits him. But with capital laws and other prohibitions in the Torah - for example, he saw someone that transgressed a prohibition; and so [too,] with capital testimony, that he saw someone kill his fellow; or in the testimony of blows, that one hit his fellow - with all of this, a man is obligated to come on his own and say the testimony in front of a court, so as to destroy the evil and to separate a man from a prohibition.

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