One of the most famous and most commonly discussed ideas in Halachah is the case of עדים זוממים, false witnesses. In shishi of this week’s parshah, the pasuk says, “וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו” “You shall do to him as he conspired to do to his brother” (Devarim 19:19). The basic halachah of a false witness is that he receives the punishment which he testified that the other person should receive except where the defendant has already received the required punishment. As the pasuk says, “כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם” “as he conspired to do”, but not as he actually did, the Gemarah explains.
This curious idea is most often discussed by cases where the punishment is death. If the false witnesses are not brought to justice before the victim is killed, they are let off completely free. However, if they are caught before the punishment is carried out, they are put to death. This seems almost backwards! I would assume that we would kill the false witnesses regardless, but especially where they caused an innocent person to die?
The most common answer to this question is that when Beis Din sentences a person to death, we can only imagine what that person must do leading up to his final day. Seeing as this person is really a tzaddik being set up and not a rasha paying for his crimes, he must have spent his final days preparing in a holy and “Torahdic” manner. The teshuvah he does for his sins during that time must be a great kaparah (atonement) for himself. What a tremendous opportunity for this person in the face of such a tragedy! We don’t want those עדים זוממים to have that same opportunity. If we sentence them to die as well, they will also have those last few days to try and do teshuvah to get kaparah for their own sins. Therefore, we do not kill them as well. However, if we haven’t yet killed the man they testified against, we do kill them.
The Ramban brings two other answers. The first answer he brings is that when the second set of witnesses come and prove the first set of witnesses to be liars setting the victim, let’s call him Reuven, free, it was completely because of the zchus of Reuven that Hashem sent the second set to free him. Because Reuven was a tzaddik, Hashem did not allow him to be killed. Therefore, since these witnesses tried to kill a tzaddik, they are killed. However, if Reuven ends up being killed, it shows that he was really a rasha because otherwise Hashem would have saved him. We know this because we have a promise from Hashem that no one will be killed by Beis Din that was not already worthy of death (See Shemos 23:7). So we don’t kill the עדים because even though they did an aveirah and killed someone, Reuven was already sentenced to die from Hashem.
The second answer is similar to the first. Hashem has not only promised the defendants in Beis Din that they will not be punished for no reason, he has also promised Beis Din themselves that they will not condemn anyone who is not deserving! The judges who make up the Beis Din are all tremendous tzaddikim, so much so that they have been promised by Hashem that they will not make any mistakes in their judgment. It is because of this that pasuk 17 says “וְעָמְדוּ שְׁנֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם הָרִיב לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה” “Then the two men who have the dispute shall stand before Hashem”, not only will they stand in front of the judges, but in front of Hashem himself! Hashem is by every court case watching over the judges making sure the innocent stay innocent and the guilty are punished.
How lucky are the judges to have this guarantee from Hashem that all their decisions will be right! Can you imagine what level a person has to be on in order to have this guarantee? Think about how much it would help each and every one of us if we knew that no matter what we did, it would come out the right thing in the end. Let us daven for the coming of Mashiach when Beis Din will once again sit in the entrances of our cities and we can witness this amazing brachah of Hashem’s watchful eye.