The headline on this obituary for R' Eliyashiv ("A One Man Supreme Court") got me thinking - why do we invest so much power in precedents set by individual rabbis, as great as they may be, but not in court rulings? Courts usually look to individual rabbis' prior rulings when deciding a case, rather than individual rabbis looking at previous court cases to determine how they should rule. Why is that?

  • 1
    (Just to be clear, I'm not asking why the rulings of Gedolimg are followed and taken as precedent. I'm asking why the rulings of courts are not also followed the same way.) – Seth J Aug 6 '12 at 20:17
  • 1
    Which court are you talking about? The "new sanhedrin"? A famous court, like Badatz? Or just any beis din? – b a Aug 6 '12 at 20:31
  • 2
    @ba, pick one. As far as I know, The Beth Din of America looks at the same sources your rabbi does to come to its rulings. That would be Sefarim written by individual rabbis. On rare occasions, I've heard of articles being written after a major ruling to highlight how a particular Halachah was applied, but by and large, as far as I can tell, once a case is settled, it's closed, and the next court with a similar case looks at the same primary sources instead of the previous case. – Seth J Aug 6 '12 at 20:38
  • 1
    @SethJ, It seems to me that a court is no more than the rulings of individuals. The Torah was mechadesh that a mix of rulings is not a safek and that we go by the majority of those individual rulings. In a new case, there is no rov since we start from scratch. – YDK Aug 6 '12 at 22:32
  • 1
    hebrewbooks.org/9119. Search for "פסקי דין" on HebrewBooks to find more – b a Dec 17 '12 at 3:53

First Rabbnic courts do look to previous decisions by other courts for guidance in their decisions. You will note on the Rabbinute's page regarding testing to be Dayyan that one is tested specifically on Piskei Din. Piskei Din of which 18 volumes are available free online, are the previous rulings of the High Rabbinical court of Israel. Regarding the Teshuvot of Rav Eliashiv in particular, in his sefer Kovetz Teshuvot, according to the seforim blog, they are simply culled from Piskei Din from the years Rav Eliashiv sat on the court. Likewise many works of Teshuvot by great Rabbis are their recorded decisions from times that they sat on Batei Din. So part of the answer is that they do rely upon previous court decisions for precedent. However, and this is of equal importance, precedent plays a very minimal part in Beit Din process. Secifically the Shulchan Arukh in Choshen Mishpat 10:1 and 10:2(as well as other places), state that one should not rely too heavily on precedent, but rather should treat each case as it's own entity.

  • 2
    mekubal, welcome back to Mi Yodeya! It's good to have you around again. – Double AA Mar 17 '13 at 15:55

I believe there are two, closely related, reasons for why we look to written rabbinical decisions for halachic precedence, but we do not look to previous court decisions.

The first reason is that, generally speaking, a court does not issue a detailed explanation of how they came to their decision. Such an explanation is essential for using the decision as a precedent. Real-world cases are, almost without exception, extremely complex, and even apparently minor details can have a major impact on the final decision. Thus, even when two cases appear to be very similar, without knowing the exact details of the case and the reasoning used by the rabbis on the court, there is no way to make use of a court decision as a halachic precedent.

A second factor that makes it problematic to use court decisions as precedent is that a court may reach a final decision without the judges actually agreeing on the reason. For example, a court may find John Doe liable for damages to his neighbor, but the judges, while agreeing on the final judgement, need not necessarily agree on the reasoning. So, again, without a clearly presented explanation of how and why they came to their conclusion, there is no way to make use of the precedent.

  • 1
    How do you know courts don't release a write up of their reasoning? I know US courts do and it wouldn't surprise me to find modern Batei Din doing the same, perhaps publishing a collection of decisions as a book(let). – Double AA Dec 12 '12 at 4:28
  • 2
    @DoubleAA In fact, batei din under the Israeli rabbinate do issue such write-ups (and I believe these decisions are considered equivalent to responsa in some circles). However, the traditional practice is not to do so. Courts will issue a brief statement of their conclusion in the specific case, but, except in unusual cases (such as a major controversy over the decision) they generally do not issued detailed explanations of (1) the exact details of the case and (2) what the relevant halachic issues are and how they reached their final conclusion. – LazerA Dec 12 '12 at 5:11
  • Seconding DoubleAA. Regarding the second issue - other gedolim might disagree with this one as well. This enhances the question, not answers it. – JNF Mar 17 '13 at 7:49

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .