Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Testimony of a Shtar

By: Reb Yonatan Sapir

The Mefarshim are bothered how does a shtar (document) work? Chazal have a rule that testimony must be said orally and not written. If this is the case, how can we rely upon the testimony of a shtar?

There are a number of different answers to this question. Rabeinu Tam says the prohibition of writing testimony only refers to someone who is mute. Anyone who can say testimony may also write testimony. This follows a principle taught by karbonos. We are commanded in the Torah to mix the meal offering with oil. Chazal tell us that it if there is enough oil that it can be mixed, the mixing is not necessary. The same is true here; as long as a person can speak, speaking is not necessary.

The Rambam is of the opinion that testimony in a shtar is only Rabbinic. According to Biblical law, a shtar is invalid. Since, however, they are necessary for the functioning of society, the Rabbis decreed that this form of testimony should be considered valid.

Rashi and the Baal HaMaor have a different explanation. They explain that a shtar is written by the person obligating himself in some fashion (i.e. a borrower or a seller). The witnesses here are not regular witnesses in a court case, rather, they are agent of an obligated party who which to obligate themselves by means of a shtar. This form of testimony is not what the Torah was referring to when it disqualified written testimony.

The Gemora Chagigah (10b) cites Shmuel who states that one who resolves to make a vow must express the vow with his lips; otherwise, it is meaningless.

The Noda b’Yehudah (Y”D I: 66) inquires if an oath that was written down but not expressed would be valid as an oath. His underlying question is: Do we regard his written word as an expression of his lips?

This should be dependent on the dispute mentioned above regarding the validity of testimony from a written document. The Rambam maintains that testimony must be from the mouth of the witnesses and a document will not be Biblically acceptable for testimony. Rabbeinu Tam disagrees and holds that one who is physically capable of testifying may testify through the means of a document.

He concludes, however, that even the Rambam would agree that writing is considered testimony and yet, a written document cannot be accepted by Beis Din. The logic for this is as follows: An act of writing can constitute speech, but only during the time that it is being written. Beis Din will only accept an oral testimony when they hear it directly; hearsay is disqualified. Witnesses who signed a document are testifying, but Beis Din is not present at that time. If they would sign in front of Beis Din, that would be considered valid testimony.

With this principle, you can answer what would seemingly be a contradiction in the Rambam. He rules in Hilchos Eidus (3:7) that testimony must be from the mouth of the witnesses and a document will not be Biblically acceptable for testimony; yet later in Perek 9:11, he writes that one is required to testify with his mouth or at least that he is fitting to testify with his mouth. This would imply that if he is fitting to testify with his mouth, he would be permitted to testify through the means of a document. According to the Noda b’Yehudah’s explanation, it can be said that the Rambam allows witnesses to testify through the means of a document, but only if they sign the document when Beis Din is present. Accordingly, we can say that an oath taken through writing will be binding.