Shimon ben Shatach says: Cross-examine witnesses extensively; and be cautious with your words, lest the witnesses learn from them to lie (they understand from the question what the answer is supposed to be).
This pair of Tanaim has focused on ensuring that judicial decisions are not corrupted, something which is fundamental to “mishpat,” the legal system. After teaching that the judge must not favor one side over the other by helping one present a more effective case, we now learn how he is to relate to the witnesses.
The need for substantial cross-examination is due to the fact that a witness frequently embellishes his testimony, where changing even a word or two can modify its entire meaning and significance, reducing it to complete falsehood. Additionally, he can figure out from the questions of the judge what he needs to say in order to have his testimony accepted, further compounding already false testimony. Against these two potential corruptions of “mishpat,” accurate judgment, Shimon ben Shatach taught his mussar.
(A note on education: one of the problems of our school system is that students are focused on getting “right answers” as opposed to really understanding something. Therefore, they become attuned to reading from a teacher’s question what answer he or she wants to hear. So a “right” answer may result, but with no understanding of why the opposite answer couldn’t have been just as “right.” If a question is asked in order to “judge” (as well as facilitate) a student’s understanding, then the lesson of Shimon ben Shatach should be meticulously observed: Be cautious with your words, lest they learn from them to “lie.”)
“Mishpat” embodies love of G-d as well as awe and fear of Him. “With righteousness judge your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:15) is a positive command, which manifests love of G-d. “Do not perpetrate wrong through judgment” (ibid) is a negative warning, manifesting fear of G-d. One who loves G-d loves judgment, pursuing what is right. “Judgment belongs to G-d” (Devarim 1:17), and through pursuit of what is right, one attaches to G-d. G-d also detests corruption and falsehood (see Psalms 119:163), and it is an abomination in His eyes. Therefore, one who fears G-d, takes special care against any deviation from true judgment. The teachings of this pair of Tanaim is a branch of both love and fear of G-d.
There seems to be an inconsistency between this pair of Mishnayoth and the principle expounded earlier that the Nasi taught the positive mussar, emanating from love of G-d, followed by the Av Beth Din who taught the need to take care against the negative, emanating from fear of G-d. Yehuda ben Tabai seems to have first taught what NOT to do, while Shimon ben Shatach follows by teaching the positive, what one is supposed to do. In fact, there is a disagreement in the Gemara (Chagiga, 16b) whether Yehdua ben Tabai was the Av Beth Din and Shimon be Shatach was the Nasi (the opinion of Chachamim) or vice versa (Tana Kama). It would then appear that this Mishna is following the opinion of Chachamim. An alternative could be that despite the negative language of Yehuda ben Tabai, his teaching is directed towards ensuring the integrity and truth of judgment, something which is compromised by “lawyering.” And despite Shimon ben Shatach’s positive language, his message is that judges have to stay far from any possibility of corruption and falsehood in the judgment.
The development of the chapter until now is as follows. Antignos Ish Socho taught about self perfection, the proper way man is supposed to serve. This is followed by the perfection of ones home and his relationship to those in his home. Then comes the perfection of those close to him, but outside his home: A Rav, a friend, and others. These Mishnayoth taught how one is to behave with and relate to those who are greater than him (wise people, a Rav, etc.) or equal to him (spouse, friend, etc.) Then the mussar is directed to those who themselves are in positions of authority OVER others, beginning with a person who is responsible to render judgment of others. The next pair of Tanaim will discuss the proper behavior for people in leadership roles. There is less of a connection between people who are in positions of power and authority with those over who they exert judgement and control, compared to the connection between student/Rabbi, friends, members of a household, etc. The latter relationships are intimate connections, while the former ones are more tenuous. But there is still a connection, and the Tanaim are teaching how that connection is supposed to exist in the most perfect way. We have just learned how a judge should behave in relation to those who are judged by him, his purstuit of truth being motivated by both love and awe. Next will come mussar on how a person in a position of power and leadership is supposed to perfect himself and relate to his “constituents.”