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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Perl, Joseph
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The violation of an oath or solemn promise; solemn assertion of a falsity. While perjury was regarded as one of the greatest sins (Zechariah 5:4), and the perjurer was not considered worthy to enter the holy places (Psalms 15:1-4), no human penalty was prescribed for it in the Bible, the punishment of the perjured being left to God. Most of the Jewish commentators take the commandment in Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11 (comp. Onḳelos, , and LXX., ἐπὶ παταίῳ) to refer to a vain, useless oath (see OATH). There is another prohibition against swearing falsely (Leviticus 19:11,12), which prescribes no special punishment; from the context it may be taken to refer to perjury committed in a civil transaction or at a judicial proceeding. The witness who refuses to give testimony when adjured to do so, or he who makes foolish promises "to do evil or to do good," and does not fulfil them, is required to bring an offering to atone for his sin (Leviticus 5:1,4-13). These few scattered laws about perjury were discussed by the Rabbis in much detail, and the various kinds of perjury were formulated by them under four heads, according to the kind of punishment inflicted.

Individual Acts.

  1. The violation of oaths which have no civil bearing, and which affect only the individual who pronounces them (). One who swears that he did, or that he did not, or that he would, or would not, do a certain thing, the matter in itself being of no concern to any one else, and then violated his oath when he could have performed it, or if his assertion is found to be false, is guilty of perjury. If the perjury was committed wittinglyhe is liable to the punishment of flagellation; if unwittingly, he is required to bring a guilt-offering, varying in kind with his wealth (). If he is wealthy, the offering must consist of a female sheep or goat; if he can not afford that, he must bring an offering of two pigeons; and if he can not afford even those, he must bring a meal-offering (Shebu. 3:1-7, based on Leviticus 5:4-13; Maimonides, "Yad," Shebu'ot, 1:1-3, -5:11). If after taking the oath he discovers that he can not conveniently abide by it, he may have his oath dissolved by a learned man or by three ordinary men (c.; see Oath; Vows).

Vain Oaths.

  1. An oath taken in vain (). Four kinds of oaths are included by the Rabbis under this head; in each case, if taken wittingly, the punishment is flagellation, but there is no punishment at all where the oath was taken unwittingly. These oaths are: (1) A false affirmation, in the form of an oath, in regard to a well-known fact, or facts, as when one swears that a man is a woman or that gold is silver. (2) An affirmation, in the form of an oath, to patent facts, as when one swears that the sky is the sky or that a stone is a stone. (3) Swearing to transgress a religious commandment. (4) An undertaking, under oath, to do things impossible of execution, as when one swears not to sleep for three consecutive days, or not to eat for seven consecutive days (Shebu. 3:89,11, based on Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11; "Yad," c. 1:4-7, 5:12-22).

In Civil Actions.

  1. A false assertion, or denial, under oath, in regard to a claim made for the return of a deposit or a loan (). One who swears falsely in repudiation of a demand made upon him by another when his admission would have made him liable to payment is obliged to pay the whole claim plus one-fifth of its amount; besides this, he is required to bring a guilt-offering to atone for his sin. This punishment is administered only when the claim consists of money or movable property; but if the claim concerns real estate, or slaves, or documents, or if the claim is of such a nature that an admission on the part of the defendant would not make him liable to payment, as in the case of fines (see Admissions in Evidence), there is no punishment attached, although the perjured is regarded as guilty of the kind of perjury included in definition No. I. (Shebu. -, based on Leviticus 5:21-26; see Shebu. 36b, 37b; Ker. 9a; "Yad," c. 1:8-11, -). Perjury in an oath taken in the court-room () is included under this head and is treated accordingly ("Yad," c. 11:20).

Refusal to Testify.

  1. The refusal of witnesses to testify to a fact when adjured to do so (). If witnesses to a case involving a monetary transaction, whose testimony would be sufficient to decide the case against the defendant, swear that they had not witnessed the transaction, or if they reply in the affirmative to the adjuration of the plaintiff after they have denied all knowledge of the transaction, they are required to bring a guilt-offering, varying in kind with their wealth, as explained in definition No. I. (Shebu. , based on Leviticus 5:1; "Yad," c. 1:12,13; , ).

In all these cases, if the perjurer took his oath under duress, or if he was compelled to violate his oath, he is free from all punishment (Shebu. 26a; Ned. 27a; "Yad," c. 3:1). The perjurer, even though he submits to the punishment imposed upon him, is still regarded as answerable before God, for perjury involves, besides the civil wrong, the desecration of God's name ("ḥillul ha-Shem"), for which divine punishment will be meted out (Shebu. 39a; "Yad," c. 12:1,2; ib. Teshubah, 1:2).

No oath can be administered by a court to one who has once perjured himself in any of the cases mentioned above, even though the litigant against whom he had been called is willing to believe him on his oath; nor is his testimony admitted in evidence (Shebu. 7:4; "Yad," To'en, 2:12; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 34, 5; 92, 1, 2). If, however, he undergoes the punishment of scourging, or manifests such signs of contrition that the court is satisfied that he sincerely regrets his transgression, he is restored to his former position in the community ("Yad," 'Edut, 12:9; ib. To'en, 2:9,10; see "Kesef Mishneh" and "Leḥem Mishneh" ad loc.; Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 34, 33; 92, 14).

  • Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 236-239;
  • Mayer, Die Rechte der Israeliten, Athener und Römer, 3:50, Treves, 1876;
  • Michaelis, Mosaisches Recht, 5:256, Reutlingen, 1785;
  • Saalschütz, Das Mosaische Recht, ch. , Berlin, 1853.
E. C.
J. H. G.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Perjury'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​p/perjury.html. 1901.
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