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According to Devarim 19:15, conviction requires two or three witnesses. To be a witness, what must an individual have "seen" or "known" per Vayikra 5:1? Would they need to see or hear the very act of the offense, or can they witness something that implies the wrongdoing?

What must a person witness to qualify as one of the two or three necessary witnesses required by Devarim 19:15?

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They have to see the actual offense. As the Rambam says,

אין בית דין עונשין באומד הדעת אלא על פי עדים בראיה ברורה. אפילו ראוהו העדים רודף אחר חבירו והתרו בו והעלימו עיניהם או שנכנסו אחריו לחורבה ונכנסו אחריו ומצאוהו הרוג ומפרפר והסייף מנטף דם ביד ההורג הואיל ולא ראוהו בעת שהכהו אין בית דין הורגין בעדות זו ועל זה וכיוצא בו נאמר ונקי וצדיק אל תהרוג

A court does not inflict punishment on the basis of conclusions which it draws, only on the basis of the testimony of witnesses with clear proof. Even if witnesses saw a person pursuing a colleague, they gave him a warning, but then diverted their attention, punishment is not inflicted on the basis of their testimony. Or to give a graphic example, the pursuer entered into a ruin, following the pursued and the witnesses followed him. They saw the victim slain, in his death throes, and the sword dripping blood in the hand of the killer, since they did not see him strike him, the court does not execute the killer based on this testimony. Concerning this and the like, Exodus 23:7 states: "Do not kill an innocent and righteous person."

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  • Thank you for your reply! David Bleich wrote the following about the knife-wound scenario you presented: "Indeed, circumstantial evidence of that nature is not simply the equivalent of, but superior to, eyewitness testimony. Eyewitness testimony is not infallible; deductions based upon known rules of nature are compelling barring some form of miraculous intervention, the possibility of which is not a factor in legal determinations." Does your answer mean that evidence can't convict even when it's more reliable than eyewitness testimony?
    – The Editor
    Mar 2, 2023 at 15:05
  • @TheEditor yes, only eyewitness testimony is accepted as evidence.
    – Esther
    Mar 2, 2023 at 15:10
  • @TheEditor "More reliable" is a very subjective determination. What's absolutely obvious to one person can be highly questionable to another. And yesterday's scientific fact is today's pseudoscience. But as discussed in that paper (Section II), we trust eyewitness testimonry not because it's infallible, but because we're commanded to. Otherwise we wouldn't as a rule believe witnesses who testify against other witnesses.
    – shmosel
    Mar 2, 2023 at 20:18
  • But note that we usually require a minimum of two witnesses, and they're independently cross-examined, so it's much more reliable than the perception and recollection of one individual. Also, witnesses are necessary not only as evidence, but also to warn the person committing the offense, or else he's not eligible for punishment.
    – shmosel
    Mar 2, 2023 at 20:25
  • @shmosel Thank you for your reply. Can conviction ever occur without two witnesses, such as if a husband accused his wife of not being chaste when they married and she lacked the normal evidence to the contrary (Devarim 22:13-21)? Or am I misunderstanding the passage?
    – The Editor
    Mar 5, 2023 at 17:57

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