Shimon ben Shatach says, “Examine the witnesses thoroughly, and be careful with your words, lest from them they learn to lie.Pirkei Avot 1:9
There is a sad and terrible story connected with that saying. Shimon was a well-connected man. His sister was Queen Salome Alexandra, the wife of King Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled as Queen after her husband’s death in 76 BCE. While Shimon had to go into exile for a while, because the King did not like rabbis, for most of his life he enjoyed great power and respect despite the fact that he was not a wealthy man.
As co-chair of the Sanhedrin, Shimon was called upon to make many judgments, and he was known to be extremely strict. A young man came to him telling a story about eighty Jewish women who were practicing witchcraft in the city of Ashkelon. According to Rashi (on TJ Sanhedrin 6) Shimon went to Ashkelon and arranged a trick to convict the women he believed to be witches. Rashi does not explain to us why Shimon, the righteous judge, believed the witchcraft charge on the word of one person, contrary to the rules of the Jewish court. The convicted women were hanged to death. The rabbis discussing the case in TJ Sanhedrin 6 note that this was extremely unusual, and cite it as an exception to the rule without explaining it. (Modern day feminists might well argue that the “exception” had to do with the fact that the accused were women, and their alleged crime was “witchcraft,” which before modern times might well mean “women not adhering to male expectations.”)
The relatives of the dead women were furious, and plotted revenge against Shimon. They plotted together to fabricate evidence against Shimon’s son, accusing him of a capital crime, and Shimon’s son was convicted and sentenced to death. On the way to his execution, the young man wept and insisted on his innocence so eloquently that the witnesses recanted, confessed their lies and said that he was indeed innocent. Shimon wanted the sentence reversed, but his son said to him, “Father, if you want salvation to come through you, let the law take its course.” (“Simeon ben Shetah,” Jewish Encyclopedia, v. 14, p. 1563)
Why might the son have said such a thing? Under the rules of the court, witnesses who were discovered to be lying were subject to whatever punishment the accused would suffer. In this case, all the relatives of the women that Shimon had caused to be executed would themselves be executed if the judgment was reversed. Perhaps the son was saying, better to execute one man than to compound the execution of eighty women with the execution of all their relatives!
Most sources say that Shimon’s saying at the top of this page has to do with his belief that had the judges on his son’s case been more careful in cross-examination, they would have seen through the lie and not convicted his son.
Having seen Rashi’s account of the story, I wonder if the saying came out of Shimon’s regret for his own behavior as a judge in the case of the alleged witches. For one thing, the tradition says that a person may be put to death for a crime only when there are two witnesses – and yet there is no account of more than one witness accusing the women. Mishnah Makkot 1:10 says that a court that executes more than one person in a seven year period is a destructive court – yet Shimon had overseen the execution of eighty women!
While our tradition has been lenient with Shimon ben Shatach, very little about his story suggests to me that he was a righteous judge. However, in this saying, his most famous, I hear the rueful voice of a man who recognized that his bad behavior had led others to sin, a sin that bore terrible consequences for the son he loved.
Also, Shimon ben Shatach lived in the very early years of rabbinic Judaism. Later rabbis would become very careful about capital punishment, putting so many hurdles in front of it that it would be very difficult to convict anyone of a capital crime. Perhaps the story of Shimon ben Shatach had something to do with that.