We learn about not taking a bribe twice in the Torah:
In Parshat Mishpatim, Shmot 23:8 we are told:
Do not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind those who see and corrupt words that are just.
In Parshat Shoftim, Dvarim 16:19, we are commanded using almost the same words with a slight variation:
Do not wrest judgment; do not display favoritism; neither take a bribe for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and make just words crooked.
Nechama Leibowitz points out the extremes that the rabbis in the Talmud went through in order to not transgress this mitzvah:
The very concept of bribery has been extended by our Sages to include not only the acceptance of a monetary gift but all kinds of benefits and services, even the student’s showing respect to his teacher. Though this is his duty, if it is liable to create a predisposition in his favor in the heart of the judge, it comes under the prohibition of: “neither take a bribe.”
Professor Leibowitz brings two examples from the Talmud, Ketubot 105b:
“Neither take a bribe”- not merely a monetary gift but even verbal bribery is forbidden. What is meant by verbal bribery? Shmuel (a Talmudic sage) was crossing a ferry and a man came up and gave him his hand for support. Shmuel said to him: “What are you doing here?” The man answered: “I have a lawsuit to submit to you.” Shmuel answered: “I am disqualified from judging your case.”
Amemar was judging a case. A bird perched on his head. A man came and removed it. Amemar asked him: “What are you doing here?” He answered: “I have a lawsuit here.” Amemar observed: “Then I am disqualified from judging your case.
The Rambam (Hilchot Sanhedrin v’HaOnshin HaMesurin Lahem 23:3) teaches:
Any judge who sits and seeks to amplify his reputation in order to cause the wages of his attendants and scribes to be enhanced is included among those who seek after profit (betza). This is what the sons of Shmuel the Prophet did. As we see in Shmuel Alef 8:3 “His sons did not follow his ways. They were swayed by profit (betza). They took bribes and they perverted justice.”
Shmuel’s sons moved down to Be’er Sheva and charged for their services as opposed to Shmuel who was located in Ramah which was much more accessible and never accepted payment.
When it was time to choose a new leader, the elders told Shmuel (Shmuel Alef 8:4) “You have grown old and your sons did not follow your ways. So now appoint for us a king to judge us, like all the nations.”
The elders understood that it is impossible to continue with corrupt leaders who take bribes.
There is a reason why the Torah mentions not taking bribes twice when it could have been mentioned once. We need an extra reminder that our leaders must be upstanding like Shmuel who did everything above board as opposed to his sons who were doing business under the table.
Some things never change. Many Israelis still don’t seem to understand what the big deal is if a Prime Minister takes gifts such as cigars. The Torah and the rabbis, therefore, emphasize that this is not acceptable and it should not be done. The rabbis in the Talmud were careful not to even take the case of a person that helped them out for a minute (without an exchange of material gifts).
When we go to the elections next month, may we focus on the original commandment, take the Rambam’s message seriously and not support candidates and leaders who chase after money or other forms of corruption. Can we find any candidates who meet these criteria? For the sake of our future, I certainly hope so.