Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Read That Back

Did you know that even in the days of the Talmud there was such a position as court stenographer?

The establishment of a court system and a clear system of justice are fundamental mitzvot  for Jewish society. It is not surprising that the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin is dedicated to the discussion of the Torah's court system. In fact, the entire body of the Talmud contains a wealth of fascinating features, many of which have been adopted widely and are reflected in the Western court systems today. For instance, the aforementioned court stenographer.

The image of the court stenographer is familiar from popular courtroom dramas on television. The job of the court stenographer is to transcribe every word spoken in the courtroom so that a written record remains. While the art of stenography is a modern development, the importance of recording the activities of the court was noted in the Talmud: “Two judges’ clerks stand before them [the judges]...and record the arguments of those who would acquit, and those who would convict. Now, as for the arguments for conviction, it is well [that they be recorded], for on the following day another argument may be discovered, which necessitates postponement of judgment overnight (All final convictions were postponed overnight in case one judge decided to change his previous conclusion and acquit instead of convict.).” (Sanhedrin 34a).

While the rest of the passage is of a more complicated nature relating to the proper way to interpret scriptural law, it is clear that the purpose of these court recordings was to prevent what we today might call a miscarriage of justice leading to a mistrial.

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